When I heard the news that the documentary filmmaker Albert Maysles had died on March 5 at the age of 88, I realized how much his work meant to me as a documentary filmmaker.
I should confess right here that I do not like most documentaries. All too often I find myself asking, Where’s the structure? Where’s the beginning, the middle, and the end? Why switch styles in mid-stream? That part was boring, or sanctimonious, or convoluted. The film relied on questionable crutches. And so on.
But the sheer scope of Albert Maysles’ work over half a century—including the work he did after David, his brother who was his soundman and collaborator, died in 1987 at the age of 55—commands my respect. Albert’s work was, literally, all over the map. His camera roamed from Russian mental institutions to the Rolling Stones and the Beatles, from the art of Christo to the Sports Illustrated swimsuit issue and the fashion icon Iris Apfel. He filmed celebrities and nobodies, including a rancher, a baker, and Bible salesmen.
I always tried to do what the Maysles (pronounced MAY-zulls) were doing, which is to completely immerse myself in a world, then observe and record it on film. “Our” films are about people. The Maysles mined the psychology of the human condition not by seeking answers to questions, but by observing. And what they found was often unpretty.
To say I admired their work is a much higher compliment than to say I liked it. Sometimes their films have tedious passages, sometimes they are painful to watch, and almost always they cause significant discomfort. These are not adjectives that inspire a viewer to “like” a documentary.
The strongest of the Maysles’ films are, in my opinion, Salesman (1968), Gimme Shelter (1970), and Grey Gardens (1975). These films are not easy to watch. In Grey Gardens, a film about a mother and her daughter living in squalor in an East Hampton mansion, the viewer might start scratching himself in the presence of so much vermin, just like the ladies on the screen do. You might want to scream at them: “Why don’t you just clean up?” “No, please don’t! You cannot feed the raccoons in the attic with that Wonder bread and the cat chow on top!” “Ladies! Why don’t you just talk one person at a time?” How the Maysles restrained themselves is a mystery. At the very least I would have asked the daughter Edie, one woman to another, “Why do you wear those silly turbans? Are you bald?”
Roger Ebert, who always saw the good in movies, called the pair “wonderful eccentric ladies.” They were no such thing. They were batshit crazy. But in all their craziness we find again and again the morsels of astonishing insights and deeper truth.
Edith, the mother, remarks, “You are not free when you are (financially) supported.”
Edie, the daughter, replies, “It’s the other way around. You are not free when you are not supported.” Later in the film she adds, “Of course I’m mad about animals, but raccoons and cats can become a little boring.”
This mother-daughter relationship is an endless cat-fight for supremacy. They never let the other person talk without interrupting to contradict. If we’re honest with ourselves, maybe the only difference between us and this crazy pair is that they aren’t holding back. They say to each other what the regular odd couple living in some kind of codependency barely dares to think. In a weird way, it’s refreshing.
Gimme Shelter, a film about the ill-fated Altamont concert in 1969, evokes a visceral sense of dread even though we know it will end in tragedy and murder. The Rolling Stones had the right to approve the final version, but this film doesn’t do Mick Jagger any favors. It’s not just his dirty fingernails when he watches the film in the editing room (even though that is plenty gross). The endless footage of Jagger prancing onstage is downright boring. The Maysles use none of the glamorous techniques filmed music already employed at that time, like rhythmic cross-cutting, contrasting long shots and close-ups, the split screens of the “Woodstock” film. No unusual shots or camera angles, or enthusiastic fans having a great time. The Altamont fans make us feel uneasy, then afraid, and finally they fill us with dread. They are all tripping their heads off, and the Hell’s Angels are doing security work. (Whoa—beer-guzzling Hell’s Angels doing security work with hundreds of thousands of people blasted on drugs?) Violence erupts again and again, and there are frequent calls for a doctor. We keep wondering, Is this it? Is this the scene where the murder happens? Not yet. So we wait. The viewer can react only with prickly visceral apprehension.
Maybe the Maysles’ darkest and most uncomfortable film is Salesman. Here we have to endure—yes, endure and not enjoy—the torturous reality of salesmen going door to door manipulating people who cannot afford even one dollar a week to buy useless Bibles. All this is done with the help of local churches, which provide the salesmen with addresses for potential clients. This is a true American tragedy, reflecting the pressure put on these salesmen to fulfill their quota. It also captures their loneliness and the loneliness of the people who let them enter their homes. The ties between business and organized religion, the exploitation of religious belief, the salesmen themselves as victims of ruthless capitalism—it all tells us that, for those who fail, the American Dream is indeed a nightmare.
It’s a brave thing to challenge your viewer to endure a miserable time while watching your work. And it’s small wonder that reviews of the Maysles’ work spoke of “tedium” and were often unfavorable. Only in retrospect have their movies gained some respect. But one accusation sticks to this day—that of “exploitation and shameless voyeurism.” As a documentary filmmaker, I find this charge almost grotesque. The people on screen all agreed to be filmed and let their pants down. If a person consents to be a subject in a documentary film, he will have by definition an exhibitionistic tendency, or at the very least won’t object to baring his soul.
All documentary filmmakers are voyeurs, and so are the people who watch their films. Think, for instance, of the documentary maxim that your subjects are never, ever supposed look into or acknowledge the camera. This turns the viewer by definition into a voyeur. As soon as a subject breaks that contract and addresses the camera directly, even with a glance, the invisibility of the voyeur is eradicated. We feel discovered, as if we’re peeping into a window and all of a sudden the people inside discover us trespassing.
Voyeurism should not be confused with exploitation. In Grey Gardens, when the mother threatens to get naked, her daughter whispers, “The movie, the movie,” and her mother answers, “I ain’t got no warts on me. Haven’t worn a girdle since I was 12 years old.” It would have been easy for the filmmaker to encourage Edith to take off her clothes without including such encouragement in the final film. Further, Edith is often scantily dressed because she spends most of her time in bed. Eventually it happens, we have seen it coming (with considerable uneasiness)—her shriveled breasts fall out of her “garment.” We get only a very brief glimpse of the accident and an unconcerned Edith before the camera tactfully pans away as fast as possible. A lesser filmmaker—or, let’s say, a cameraman for a reality TV show—would have zoomed in on those aging breasts and given us the full view.
The Maysles’ style was often called “fly on the wall” and “cinema verité.” These terms are misnomers. No matter how much the filmmaker tries to simply observe events without manipulating them, he still makes decisions that influence every second of the film.
The Maysles never questioned, interviewed, or prompted their subjects. They just let them be and filmed whatever happened. As a documentarian, I often wonder how they did that. Most of my subjects want and need a little prompting and prodding, at least on the first day, when the filming starts. Most likely they have never been in front of a camera, and they’ll ask me, “So? What should I do? What do you want me to say?” But after a short while, often only after half a day of filming, they forget the camera completely. And as for me being the “director,” this is when I have to protect my protagonists from themselves. I often have to remind them, as Edie did: “The movie, the movie.”
I suspect the Maysles took themselves out of the directing position because they, too, experienced that no matter how well prepared the filmmaker is, no matter how well he already knows the subjects before the camera starts rolling, the most amazing things seem to happen when least expected. Good subjects will always surprise you. With that in mind, I can see how the Maysles just gave up any foresight, any planning and prompting, and just hoped and waited for the best.
I don’t have that kind of courage or self-confidence. I doubt that my films could succeed without my prompting the subjects. I need certain sound bites to clarify the images on screen. I admire the Maysles for refusing to help the viewers understand what they’re seeing. They did something I don’t have the guts to do. They just let it roll.
And yet I have doubts about the Maysles’ refusal to ask questions. This caveat is best illustrated by Gimme Shelter. With calm faces, Mick Jagger and Charlie Watts are watching the Altamont footage in the editing room while Keith Richards is visibly bored or just tired (or nodding). This image is supposed to tell us that Keith doesn’t care about the horrors on screen. I would have liked to hear him to say the horrendous thing he said to reporters from Esquire and Rolling Stone: “The concert was basically well-handled, but lots of people were tired and a few tempers got frayed.” And: “On the whole, a good concert."
The film also shows us The Grateful Dead being present at the venue, but never on stage. The viewer has no idea if they ever played and were just left out of the film. I would have liked to hear them voice their refusal to play due to the increasing violence. I also would have liked to hear from the Hell’s Angels that they got paid in free beer, would have liked to hear a drunken Angel slurring words by the time the Stones came on stage.
Yes, I would have done it differently, but I respect the Maysles’ decisions. They challenge the viewer, make us look at the body language and draw our own conclusions. It’s a daring thing to do.
There are several less momentous directorial decisions where I feel the Maysles were in agreement with me, even though we are obviously in the minority with our opinion. All too often the filmmaker’s voice appears out of nowhere in a documentary with a question or a comment, like some God or ghost is intruding. This breaks the contract, tears us out of our voyeuristic illusion, makes us aware that there is a camera team present, which we have conveniently forgotten. It’s like Brecht’s Verfremdungseffekt (loosely translated “alienation effect”), where the viewer is reminded of the work’s artifice and is shown that he fell victim to some kind of fiction. If a filmmaker wants to go down that road, then I want to see the person who is talking. It seems the Maysles agree. If you can hear them, you will usually see them, in a mirror or a reflection or a photograph of themselves. If they talk, they will let you know they are there in the flesh and not just as a disembodied voice.
Albert Maysles’ last film was Iris, about the fashion icon and interior designer Iris Apfel. It will be released in New York on April 29. Iris Apfel, fabulous as she may be, has already been filmed and photographed half to death. I doubt that even Albert Maysles could come up with any new revelations on that subject. But maybe he’ll surprise me. Again.
Marianne Schaefer Trench is a documentary filmmaker who was born in Berlin and has lived in New York City since 1987.