February 13, 2005|With their 1969 breakthrough film Salesman, a looks at the lives of four door-to-door bible salesmen, the Maysles brothers, David and Albert, became the forerunners of the "direct cinema" style of unblinking documentary filmmaking. Legends as influential to the modern documentary as John Cassavetes is to the modern anti-narrative, they're perhaps most famous for their quasi-concert film Gimme Shelter (1970), which captured the murder of an audience member by Hell's Angels hired as security guards for The Rolling Stones appearance at Altamont--in addition to, somehow more shockingly, the band's reaction to this homicide upon viewing the footage later. Pauline Kael declared Gimme Shelter a fraud, though she refused to ever reveal her reasoning for such a charge to either her editor or the outraged Albert. The wound is still fresh.
Following David's death in 1987, Albert continues to produce documentaries (Lalee's Kin: The Legacy of Cotton, Abortion: Desperate Choices) that, for all of their apparent starkness, reveal a heart of compassion expansive and genuine. From Grey Gardens to his solo efforts, including portraits of artist Christo and Japanese conductor Seiji Ozawa, Maysles's works have been ever-conscious of the filmmaker's responsibility as a storyteller instead of just any fictional ideal of documentation.
It was my honour to chat with Mr. Maysles, a special guest of the 27th Starz Denver International Film Festival on account of an award they were naming after him. In thick glasses with a quick smile, Mr. Maysles sat in a large chair of the Denver Film Society's temporary press suite, eating a bagel and drinking a cup of coffee.
FILM FREAK CENTRAL: Lalee's Kin made quite an impression on me--are you still in touch with those girls?
ALBERT MAYSLES: Well, Granny, the sixth-grader who was so upset that they didn't have the money to buy her school supplies so she could go to class: she's pregnant.
It's stunning. She's the one who had all the dreams of college and of her life away from there. But the film is about a cycle, isn't it? "The Legacy of Cotton." And that pull is a strong one. So many people are so ignorant that there's a third world right here in the United States that perpetuates because of our ignorance and our prejudice. There isn't an easy answer to any of these questions, of course, and activism without direction can be as harmful as inaction--but it's hard to hear these stories knowing that all you can do is to tell their tales.
Let's talk about your quintessential films, starting with Salesman.
Norman Mailer said that Salesman told more about America than any other film, when you think of it--the Bible being sold as a product rather than perpetuated as spiritual literature. The salesman as a quintessentially rugged individualist, that idea of Americana with the Rockwell lone hero, trying to win or lose on his own power. Then there's the housewife who is the object of his campaign. He's prepared and she's the victim who doesn't know what's going to hit her. But the Bible, rugged individualism, the American housewife--one film combined in as natural a way as we could present it, filmed as it happened.
It sounds like you're describing the tent-posts for this year's conservative platform.
(laughs) Something I never realized until recently is that there are seventeen-million evangelicals in this country making a very literal interpretation of the Bible. Including one in the White House.
We know that Glory had so much to say about the Oedipal Complex that I don't know that he ever looked at a more profound relationship: not the mother/son, but the mother/daughter. I met a woman a couple of years ago looking to buy a couple of tapes that she couldn't find anymore because they'd been sold out, and she'd seen the film two-hundred times. There's something affecting, I think, in the look at these relationships that's hard to articulate--particularly in one viewing, is what I'm trying to say, and that's the mark of a good documentary. They aren't products of the imagination--at least not products of our imagination--and so they defy the imagination.
You tell a story of coming across a fence in Gimme Shelter and Keith Richards saying, as they're cutting through the fence, that this is the first act of violence. What was the temptation for you to recreate that scene for the film although you didn't capture it organically?
This seems evasive, but I never had to wrestle with that because I didn't connect up the relevance of that story until after, until it had been written about. Stanley Booth wrote about it and so I picked up on it as a bookend for the violence that would occur later after that moment, but not before, so even if I would ever think of recreating something for a documentary--[and] I would never--I didn't have the wit to worry about it at the time. I couldn't film it because there wasn't light--it was dark. I do wish in retrospect that I had gotten it somehow.
Why did Pauline Kael accuse you of fabricating the whole of Gimme Shelter?
Well, I can't read her mind, but people have told me--people who know their work thoroughly--how more than anything she wanted to appear to be clever, so that she would invent things to make a better story. What a wonderful thing to come up with, these guys are supposed to be these documentary filmmakers and here they are staging everything. It made for wonderful, scandalous reading: what an angle to work. But the angle is totally false. She said, too, in Salesman that the main guy Paul Brennan was not really a Bible salesman but that we'd paid him to play the part. Then there's the implication that we were guilty of murder, or at least complicit, because we'd staged Gimme Shelter. And that really, you know, that really struck a blow more so than any other negative comment about what we do. That really... That was particularly hurtful. Especially because THE NEW YORKER wouldn't repudiate any of it. I went to the editor whom I happened to know and we went through every line of Kael's piece and told him where it was just bald fabrication. And he said, "Well, if what you say is true than Kael should answer to it, let's call her in"--but she wouldn't come. With all that evidence, he should have fired her on the spot.
Did it feel malicious to you? Personal?
Malicious, sure, but damning to the very core of what I believe and of what I express and how I choose to express it. No comment against my work could be more hurtful or untrue than that.
That was 1964 and my brother and I had made only one film, Showman, before that. But in making that first film I had designed a camera that allowed me to work independently of my brother in that there wasn't a cable connecting us: He could go where the best sound was and I could shoot where the best angles were. We could get a near-perfectly steady picture now, we could zoom-in and zoom-out and maintain focus, establish sightlines and still get deep behind the scenes. That was their first visit, The Beatles, to America. We had done something technologically before a lot more primitive--Primary broke a lot of that territory. Looking back on The Beatles film, I'm proud of it because it seems in hindsight to be a nice snapshot of the optimism and excitement of the early- and mid-Sixties. And then there's Gimme Shelter, which was the end of it all.
What made you a good match with Godard? You worked with him on the "Montparnasse-Levallois" segment of 1965's nouvelle vague anthology film Paris vu par....
Oh! I'm surprised that you know about that. Well the way that we worked together was one step above Cassavetes. The film that we made together, we didn't know what I was about to see. I didn't know anything about the scenario and when I walked on the scene everything was ready for me and I had no direction from anybody. I was directed by the events, just like in a documentary. I don't know that anybody's ever done that again. But if you know any young filmmakers looking to make a film, I'd say to give that a shot--it sure made for interesting stuff. That same year, 1965, my brother and I were approached by Orson Welles and spent a whole week with him in Madrid, going to bullfights and such. And during that time he said in sort of an offhand way that we should make a film together. So my brother and I filmed him talking about the projects that we should make. It would have been very similar to Godard, those two guys were very similar that way--he said he wanted to write a script and then to throw it away.
You're close friends with Haskell Wexler--can you comment on the blurring of documentary and reality in Medium Cool?
I'll tell you honestly that I've never seen the film, but just before he made it he came to my studio and asked if I'd be the lead cinematographer in the film. And I said that frankly I didn't think I'd be very good at it--and he said, "Fine, can I use your jacket?" So my jacket's in the film. (laughs)
You've mentioned that at Altamont you were standing where the man would later be killed. I was wondering if you'd tell that story again.
Early on in the day I was walking through the people below the stage in that area and a man stood up and said, "Look, if you don't get out of here, I'll kill you," and later I thought that it was probably because he had a little kid with him and thought I was some kind of weirdo, shooting children or something. I don't know. But I got up on the stage and shot everything from there from that point, everything that I could see, just behind and alongside the performers. And I couldn't see that spot because it was just a little to the left of the stage, but fortunately my brother was on a truck and got the shot. But had I stayed where I was, I would have been in that circle of people.
Why the popularity of documentaries in the last couple of years?
My thought is that just as literature has moved from fiction to non-fiction, film has moved in the same direction. It's inevitable. A lot depends on whether the distributors catch on and, you know, even if they don't, the new technologies: DVD, the Internet, they begin to drive the taste into the next century. There are 25,000 students of film in America, apparently, and documentary is a large part of that curriculum whether it be the study of existing documentary or the creation of new ones. Salesman for example is a good teaching documentary--and the medium itself is a natural transition from photography. It's easy to do in terms of financing now with DV. For five dollars you can buy a tape and a good camera, two or three grand, perfectly good for any kind of exposition--and at the end of this year Sony's coming out with a super-small HiDef camera. Somebody claimed that they made a film for $250.00.
Is it good?
It ain't bad.
There you go. People sometimes criticize some documentary filmmakers for making a personal film, but the strongest works of art are personal. Something in the filmmaker--in your heart and soul--finds its expression through your subjects. If you want to do something great, that's where you start.
In what way was Salesman personal for you?
My father was a postal clerk who should have been a musician. Paul Brennan should have been more than a door-to-door salesman. It's a lot about my sadness for my father.
Have you seen The True Meaning of Pictures?
No. Should I?
You should: It deals with problems of representation, of exploitation. Can you talk about that in your own work?
On how to draw the line short of exploitation? That's tricky. For me, just for me in my own case, I have a genuine fondness for people. Genuine. So that it would be very hard for me to think that I might hurt anybody. But to be so intimate with people there have been instances where it's better not to film. There have been things that I filmed that my subjects never blinked an eye, they trusted me--and in the editing I look at that stuff and I just can't put it in. I'm making a film now about people who you meet on trains. I was in Indiana and this was my research trip so I wasn't shooting, and I'm looking out the window and see three people--the third person [is] sitting alone and crying and I go to her and she says, "I still can't make up my mind." It's about her husband and the couple who are their best friends and the husband in that couple is the one she really loves. Powerful, very powerful stories, out there--stories like that are few and far between. But if I film it, should I show it? I would advise her, at the least, of what the consequences might be--but even with her approval, I think I'd need proof somehow that it would cause no great harm to her. I just couldn't do it.
Do you worry that that compromises your work somehow?
That's another tough one. You've seen Grey Gardens and, you know, it's hard to imagine how you could get any deeper, any more intimate with any person. How much deeper could you get?
I was amazed that they would consent to it being shown.
Let me turn it around. Them being the way that they are, it would be more amazing if they didn't consent.
You've taken out a lawsuit against the makers of an anti-Michael Moore film over how you were represented therein. Can you comment?
You know, the fundamental flaw of our quite good judicial system is that there's something amiss when you have a prosecuting attorney and a defense attorney forthcoming only with facts that augment their own cases. I'm speaking now to the use of documentaries in general, especially this election year 2004, as weapons that are wielded with obfuscation and exaggeration. There's something missing in their cases and that missing thing is the gap that I'm trying to fill in. There was mention, by the way, of me and that [Michael] Wilson thing in the Sunday NEW YORK TIMES--and there are a few elements that were left out. A legal letter that my lawyer sent saying that I didn't approve of the way they used my interview and asking them to desist--but he went ahead, of course, and used it. And I called American Renaissance, who showed it in Dallas asking them to send me a tape of the version that they saw and they never did. Said that they couldn't get it. As they were filming me, I didn't know who they were, but at the end of the filming, I overheard one of them mention the title to the other--Michael Moore Hates America--and I said, "What's that all about?" And they told me not to worry, that it was a non-partisan film--but I said that I wanted to see it. I saw it a few days later and said "nothing doing," but they went ahead. I don't have the money to bring suit against them. It's just an underscore of what's going wrong with us as a people.
I'm making several films now. One of the Dalai Lama, one of the next Christo project that's taking place in Central Park in New York, that film about getting on long-distant trains...and an autobiography. I was hoping to do a film on two three-year-olds having a conversation, too.