Albert Maysles, one of the greatest and most important filmmakers in the history of the documentary format, has died at the age of 88. With his brother David (who passed in 1987), Maysles was a part of the Direct Cinema movement that sprung up in the ’50s and ’60s and changed ideas of what the form could be.
The Maysles Brothers had their breakthrough in 1968 with “Salesman,” which followed four door-to-door Bible salesmen, with special focus on the struggling Paul Brennan. The film is a remarkably nuanced look at the perils of a capitalistic system, which shows how the salesmen exploit poor families while being exploited themselves by their company. The film was a landmark case of fly-on-the-wall filmmaking, immersing viewers in the free-floating anxiety that defined the salesmen’s lives.
The brothers and co-director/editor Charlotte Zwerin repeated this approach with “Gimme Shelter,” which documents The Rolling Stones in the 1969 tour that ended with the concert at Altamont that saw a crowd-member murdered and stood as a metaphorical end of the 60s. The Brothers found their greatest acclaim with “Grey Gardens,” a portrait of a reclusive mother and daughter (both named Edith Beale) living in a decrepit mansion with dwindling funds. The film has since been adapted into a Tony Award-winning Broadway musical and and Emmy Award-winning TV movie starring Jessica Lange and Drew Barrymore. In the years sine David’s death, Albert had stayed active, working as a cinematographer on movies like the Muhammed Ali-George Foreman documentary “When We Were Kings” and directing films like “LaLee’s Kin: The Legacy of Cotton,” an Oscar-nominated documentary about the poor of the American South, and six films about environmental artists Christo and Jeanne-Claude spanning 30 years of their lives.
Maysles style is often imitated by filmmakers both inside and outside of the documentary form, but his skill as an observer of human behavior is close to unparalleled. Any director can step back and watch things happen, but it takes a master to know where to look when things happen. In “Gimme Shelter,” the climactic scene at Altamont shows a filmmaker who knows when to look at the disaster brewing and when to turn to the men at the center and see how they’re taking it in. Moreover, few filmmakers can sustain a constant mood of doom (“Gimme Shelter”), desperation (“Salesman”) or loss (“Grey Gardens”) like Maysles can without seeming like they’re manipulating events.
Fans wishing to mourn or catch up with Maysles have plenty of works to turn to: a restoration of “Grey Gardens” is playing at Film Forum in New York this week starting today, and will air on Turner Classic Movies Sunday morning. Those with Hulu Plus subscriptions can watch “Salesman,” “Gimme Shelter,” “Grey Gardens” and “The Gates,” while both “The Gates” and Maysles’ “30 for 30” episode “Muhammed and Larry” are available on Netflix. Fandor uses can watch the first five Christo movies along with early films like “Psychiatry in Russia” and “Meet Marlon Brando.” Finally, Maysles has another film coming to theaters in April, “Iris,” about fashion icon Iris Apfel, while his final film, “In Transit,” premieres at the Tribeca Film Festival the same month. Maysles has a vast filmography worth diving into and exploring; that it lasted so long is his gift to the medium, and that there won’t be just a few more already feels like a major less.
More thoughts from the web:
Anita Gates, The New York Times
Explaining why his films did not include interviews with their subjects, Mr. Maysles (pronounced MAY-zuls) told a writer for The New York Times in 1994: “Making a film isn’t finding the answer to a question; it’s trying to capture life as it is.” Read more.
Keith Phipps, The Dissolve
Some revolutions become invisible, and that’s somewhat the case with the Maysles’ contributions to film. We take handheld, fly-on-the-wall camerawork for granted whether it shows up in reality TV, found-footage horror films, or in the faux-documentary camerawork of “Battlestar Galactica” and “Parks And Recreation.” But the Maysles’ contributions went beyond technical innovation. Put simply, they made great films, as compelling in their own right as fictional narratives (which is another breakthrough that’s become more or less invisible). They knew where to point the camera and how to find a story in what they filmed. Read more.
An Evening with Albert Maysles — 50 minute Q&A with the filmmaker who screens selections of his filmed portraits. http://t.co/4cQmTx3zhm
— Larry Wright (@refocusedmedia) March 6, 2015
In 2008, I talked to Albert Maysles about the Christo films, and loving art that lived in and came from the world: http://t.co/bKphAGGZLu
— Sam Adams (@SamuelAAdams) March 6, 2015
RIP Albert Maysles. “Remember, as a documentarian you are an observer, an author but not a director, a discoverer, not a controller.”
— Donald G. Carder (@theangrymick) March 6, 2015
Albert Maysles tells a story. http://t.co/6Z38MbEe9Q
— Jim Gabriel (@flipyourface) March 6, 2015
“We always find that good thing in everybody because we love just about anybody.” Albert Maysles http://t.co/pSHpQQuuWc
— Diana Drumm (@DianaDDrumm) March 6, 2015
GIMME SHELTER is one of the best films about how paradise is only a stone’s throw away from becoming a living Hell. RIP Albert Maysles.
— Vikram Murthi (@fauxbeatpoet) March 6, 2015
Maysles both documented Christo’s temporary monumental art *and* displayed a clear sense of how cinema could transcribe sculptural space.
— Michael Sicinski (@msicism) March 6, 2015
Feel like #truefalse is the right place to be to honor the memory of Albert Maysles.
— Noel Murray (@NoelMu) March 6, 2015
Doc filmmaking has lost one of its clear-eyed, stalwart greats: Albert Maysles, of GIMME SHELTER / GREY GARDENS. RIP. pic.twitter.com/waoPrPIRBV
— Tasha Robinson (@TashaRobinson) March 6, 2015
RIP Albert Maysles. I can’t imagine what documentaries would be today without him and his brother. Start with SALESMAN, then go exploring.
— Mark Harris (@MarkHarrisNYC) March 6, 2015
RIP to Al Maysles, not just one of the greatest documentary filmmakers of all time, but one of the greatest, period.
— IFC Center (@IFCCenter) March 6, 2015
Last night we lost a true hero to everyone who has ever picked up a camera. Al Maysles was the kindest and very best. Rest in Peace.
— Robert Greene (@prewarcinema) March 6, 2015
2. Albert Maysles, the 87-year-old iconic filmmaker, wasn’t able to run around like a young hothead, so he would pick his spot carefully…
— Greg Cwik (@GregCwik1) March 6, 2015
4. the young kids’ run-and-gun shots weren’t so good, so take note, millennials, and learn from your elders.” RIP Albert.
— Greg Cwik (@GregCwik1) March 6, 2015