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R.I.P. Documentary Giant Albert Maysles

R.I.P. Documentary Giant Albert Maysles

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.

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