Clad in a suit, spectacles and a smile wide as can be, legendary documentary filmmaker Albert Maysles ("Grey Gardens," "Salesman") celebrated a landmark 86th birthday at the Maysles Cinema in Harlem Friday, Dec. 7. After a short reception, during which his daughter tended bar to a number of Maysles' friends and family, the party was led into the small and intimate theater for a screening of Maysles' 1970 documentary "Gimme Shelter" — a timely choice considering the Rolling Stones' celebration of their own landmark 50th anniversary this year.
Before the screening, Maysles was awarded a Proclamation plaque by State Senator Bill Perkins, who revealed his own infatuation with Maysles since he was a once-aspiring documentary filmmaker himself. "I'm revealing too much about myself," Perkins jokingly said to Maysles in an aside as he handed him the plaque, which documents the filmmaker's great contribution to the field of nonfiction film.
Even those who have seen "Gimme Shelter" countless times, including Maysles himself, were visably struck as the timeless tunes of the Stones (opening with a powerful rendition of "Jumpin' Jack Flash") pounded on the big screen at the infamously tragic 1969 Altamont Concert. A mixture of drugs, free admission and a choice to have the Hell's Angels act as security culminates in a killing that many feel signaled the end of the carefree "Summer of Love" that peaked with Woodstock, which had taken place only a few months prior. In the film, Mick Jagger's replay of the stabbing and the dead look in his eyes is chilling to behold, and a quick look at Maysles in the screening room Friday night during the sequence showed that he paralleled Jagger's look of devastation. It was a dour moment in an otherwise festive evening made simultaneously joyous by the reminder of how the film is really a testament to Maysles' powerful impact on filmmaking. Forty years may have passed, but this tragic moment is still no doubt as effective as it was in 1970.
Maysles stood up for a short Q&A following the screening and countered the assumptions set by his age by offering a spry and loquacious demeanor. Eager to tell stories about his past films and even more eager to talk about the countless projects he has in the pipeline, Maysles delivered a few pearls of wisdom about why the documentary form appeals to him.
"You become connected with a fellow human being by witnessing their experience," he said, "and you get to know them and you get to love your neighbor in a way you may never have been able to before because you've gotten to see them in that way, and by living the experience that person is experiencing."
Maysles told a few anecdotes about the shooting of "Gimme Shelter," including one about how close he would have been to the killing had it not been for his overhearing someone say, "If you keep doing that, I'm going to kill you." He told another about how he grew bitter at critic Pauline Kael for accusing the Maysles brothers of being traitors to their pledge of cinema verite by staging countless events in the film.
But Maysles also wanted to talk about projects he is continuing to work on, including one where he interviews people on subway trains and another where he has one-on-one conversations with pairs of children. "It's often that children say more profound things than many poets," said Maysles as he recounted a story about a six-year-old girl who told her father, who was growing angry because the newspaper hadn't arrived yet, that the paper hadn't been printed because not enough people had been killed. It's clear that the killing scene still affects Maysles. At the event Friday, he ruminated on how much violence there is in America while pleading that documentary filmmaking can prevent bullying and future violence.
For all of Maysles' contributions, he remains level-headed in terms of ego. Despite one audience member's comment that people open up to Maysles in his films because of his kind and open persona, Maysles said he remains cemented in the idea that, "In a fiction film, the director is God. But in documentary, God is the director." And how anyone can find the images in "Gimme Shelter" staged is baffling, but perhaps it is only a defense mechanism of people who just cannot fathom how such violence can escalate so quickly.
The night concluded with more socializing and music, and while Maysles did not prove that he has moves like Jagger he did prove how gracious he is to his friends, family and fans by engaging with nearly everybody.
The Maysles Institute remains dedicated to fomenting discussion and production of documentary films in Upper Manhattan. It most recently hosted a packed-house screening of Ken and Sarah Burns' "The Central Park Five," a tragic event that remains very sensitive for the people of the neighborhood. A full program of the Institute's events can be found on its website.