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‘TV Commercials Dehumanize Us’ and More Bits of Wisdom from Albert Maysles

'TV Commercials Dehumanize Us' and More Bits of Wisdom from Albert Maysles

At 87 years old, Albert Maysles shows no sign of slowing down. On Monday night, the Maysles Center in Harlem screened Maysles’ signature 1969 film “Salesman.” Following the screening, in conversation with Kent Jones (director of the New York Film Festival), Maysles talked about his past and present films with equal vigor. He discussed the forthcoming documentary “Iris” and also shared anecdotes from “Grey Gardens.” Maysles has no shortage of opinions — from his own films, to modern life, to the state of film today. Here are a few of our favorite highlights.

Iris Apfel is the perfect subject for a documentary.
In addition to screening “Salesman,” the event screened a trailer for “Iris,” Maysles’ upcoming documentary about Iris Apfel, the bangled 93-year-old fashion icon. The trailer opened with its subject delivering a barrage of great quotes, much to the audience’s delight. “Everything today is so homogenized…” a long pause. “Whatever,” she grumbled apathetically, as the room roared with laughter. Maysles boiled down Iris’s appeal to a simple aphorism: “All you need [for a good documentary subject] is somebody with a great personality and a very, very nice pair of glasses.”

He enjoys watching low budget, amateur films.
“It excites me that so many amateurs are using video to film their families or whatever.” He acknowledged that he has come along way himself in terms of technology — the Sony EX1 he used for “Iris” is a far cry from the first 35¢ camera he bought when he was an “amateur.” He’s not sure all of the technology is for the best though: “There’s so much ridiculous technology now. People worry about, I don’t know, top lighting, when what you should be after is really capturing [the] experience.”

He believes documentary film can save the world.
“We’d never have gotten into all these wars if we’d had good documentaries on each of them.” He believes that personal stories specifically would have been best. “If we’d had a [documentary about a] family from each country [we were fighting], people would be asking themselves ‘Where is that family? That family we loved so much, who were so much like us?'” 

“Grey Gardens” was a fantastic film.
In a moment of refreshing honesty, Maysles pointed out that voters of PBS’s “POV” series picked “Grey Gardens” as the best documentary of all time, and he advised the audience that they “should really see it.” He remembered the controversy and negative reviews surrounding “Grey Gardens,but he has full faith in the documentary and its subjects. “When we made ‘Grey Gardens,’ we got the worst reviews, even in The New York Times. I remember the one, they said something like ‘The Maysles should be disgusted with themselves for having made this film.’ In response to that, I remember when [Big] Edie was dying…Little Edie turned to her and asked, ‘Is there anything you want to say?’ and she responded, ‘No, it’s all in the film.'” He summarized why people are so interested in the mother-daughter relationship in “Grey Gardens”: “That struggle, mixed up with so much love between the two of them, is incredibly engaging.”

All you need is love, and there’s not enough of it in today’s popular culture.
“To me, the most important word in the English language is ‘love’… and where is the love in TV commercials? Every TV commercial costs something like $200,000 each. That’s too much.” This wasn’t the first time in the evening he went after the advertising industry. In response to the evening’s screening of the film “Salesman,” Maysles laid out what he sees wrong with consumerism: “When Norman Mailer saw ‘Salesman’ he told me it told more about America than any film he’d seen previously. Commercialism isn’t always what we want or need…TV commercials dehumanize us.”

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