And 4 Other Things Learned From The Filmmaker Who Talks The Fine Line Of Documentaries, Michael Moore’s Ethics, And Whether Jackie Kennedy Onassis Actually Saw ‘Grey Gardens’
Documentary kings Albert and David Maysles started off small, making travelogue documentaries in foreign countries before landing their first notable output “What’s Happening! The Beatles in the U.S.A.” This strong, humanistic look at some of the most popular musicians of all time paved the way for their magically consistent output of the late ’60s and ’70s, from the cinema verité non-intrusional epic “Salesman” to the subject of politics and legal obstructions of art in the Christo-centered “Running Fence.” While they continued to work on quality projects after this period, few were as outstanding or popular as their output in the renegade ’70s.
In an unfortunate turn of events, the younger David suffered from a fatal stroke in 1987. Albert lives on to this day and is still active in the scene with his own cinema in New York and a non-profit program “The Maysles Institute,” which provides classes for underprivileged individuals interested in learning the trade and art of film. He hasn’t retired from the camera, either, and is credited with shooting the upcoming Budd Schulberg doc “Hollywood Renegade,” the stand-up comedian picture “One Night Stand,” and the tribute to street culture artist Keith Haring in “Keith Haring & the Moving Mural.” Hey, if Godard called you “the best American cameraman,” would you quit?
New York’s IFC Center recently showcased the Maysles’ famous “Grey Gardens” and Albert was nice enough to stop by for a chat following the screening alongside fellow collaborator Muffie Meyer. In the all-too-brief conversation, the topic focused heavily on the picture at hand but they also spoke of other things such as their feelings on Michael Moore and certain unreleased projects. Here are five things culled from the discussion:
1. There’s an entire unreleased film about the Grand Funk Railroad completed, shot in the 1970s.
Albert and Muffie didn’t divulge too much info on this documentary, so little is known about it other than the fact that it centers around the popular ’70s rock band and remains unreleased. At the screening, the host of the evening mentioned rectifying this. “We’ve made a personal pact at dinner to try to change that situation,” he stated. If we had a wager a wild guess, we’d assume that music clearances are probably expensive and the issue behind the hold up.
2. If Jackie Kennedy Onassis saw “Grey Gardens,” she probably theater-hopped.
While the Beales most certainly stand on their own (there’s a musical and HBO mini-series based on their lives), they originally found their fame due to their blood relations with JFK’s widow, Jackie Onassis, the niece of the older Edith Bouvier Beale. She doesn’t appear in the movie, and who knows if she really saw it, but Albert dropped an amusing anecdote that happened to David. “My brother had a chance meeting with her after the film at an airport, and asked if she would see it, and she said Oh, I might sneak in.” It’s an amusing pot-shot and definitely a juicy little dinner-table story. Muffy elaborated a bit on the women’s relationship with each other recounting, “They talked about how Onassis would sing with them on the phone, stuff like that.” If only there was a tape recorder turned on.
3. Albert despises Michael Moore’s style of documentary filmmaking.
Big surprise, someone hates the way Moore works. Even so, it’s always interesting to hear what someone in the same field has to say about the man. “(He’s) off on his own track. I think his political philosophies I agree with 100%, but his tactic of being out to get people makes his films that much less close to people. I can’t see him getting as close as he should with that kind of attitude.” It’s not a new sentiment (Albert said just about the same thing in the terrible “Michael Moore Hates America“) and it’s less vicious and more of a different work ethic, but its an observation that holds some sort of truth, especially considering all of the people that turned down interviews for Moore’s “Capitalism: A Love Story.”
4. Stink was the biggest difficulty in making “Grey Gardens.” Runners up: Food, Fleas.
Most filmmakers would argue that the most difficult part in doing a project is gathering the funds, keeping things together, sustaining various egos, etc. With the Beale project, the hardest part was breathing. “It was horrible!” exclaimed Muffie in a giggle. If the stench of sweating bodies, cats, and general filth wasn’t bad enough, she elaborated on other hardships. “Being offered food… it was really hard to eat,” with Albert adding “I’m not sure now, but we probably had a lot of cat food.” Kindness brought in many stray cats, but it also brought in a lot of tiny pests. “If you look closely, and if I were unkind enough to give a close up on her legs, every single inch of Edie’s legs were covered by flea bites,” explained Albert, whose secret to healthy skin was soon revealed by his collaborator: “Oh yeah, you and your brother wore cat flea collars on your ankles.” Looks like the cat’s out of the bag on that one.
5. There’s a fine line between exploiting your subject and celebrating them.
The trickiest part of any documentary is the danger of exploiting them for the better of the movie, a common predicament directors often find themselves in. Two recent entries come to mind, both with different results: “Exit Through the Gift Shop” made a humorous and intelligent statement in its milking, though “Catfish” was rather questionable in its morals. Now, whether those are actually documentaries or not is a very different (and tired) topic, but Maysles throws in his two cents on documenting others. “You damn well better back off when something is too personal. It requires a sensibility to know when to film and when not to. There are times when things are that delicate and you might miss it, there’s the two extremes where you might miss something that they would want as well, or the other direction where you’re exploiting them.” The way in which the brothers worked also rewarded them with not only some of the best films out there, but also with lifelong friends. “I can’t think of any film where it made people unfriendly towards us. ‘Salesman’ was made 40 years ago, and one of the salesmen just visited me. Part of it is because we treated them, as subjects, so well in the film.”
“Grey Gardens” had a special evening screening in NY, but is readily available on DVD and on Netflix Instant Watch.