For the past 50 years, Albert Maysles has been one of the pre-eminent documentary filmmakers in the world. Together with his late brother David , Maysles Films was a big part of the revolution in documentary filmmaking that occurred in the 1950s and '60s, creating and developing the form of "Direct Cinema" – observation without narration and minimal interaction – that has been so influential to everything which has come since. Films such as Salesman and Grey Gardens still pack the same whollop they did 30-40 years ago, and the 1970 Rolling Stones documentary Gimme Shelter is still riveting as it follows the bands difficult 1969 tour which culminated in tragedy at the free concert at Altamont Speedway in the Bay Area which was meant to be Woodstock West. Maysles Films has also had a 30-plus year relationship with Christo and Jeanne-Claude, documenting most of their public art projects including "The Gates" installation which hit Central Park earlier this year. Although David passed away in 1987, Albert has continued making films through the company he and his brother formed.
In recognition and celebration of this half-century in filmmaking, MoMA hosts "Maysles Films: Five Decades, with screenings running from Dec. 24-31, including all their major works (and some lesser known ones) spanning from their first 1955 short film Psychiatry in Russia to the more recent Oscar-nominated LaLee's Kin: The Legacy of Cotton. Gothamist chatted with Maysles last week about his career, his relationship with the Christos, and his philosophy and thoughts about the modern state of documentary filmmaking.
How did this MoMA retrospective come about? Have you been attending the screenings? Have you noticed what kinds of audiences are attending?
They came to us, and yeah [I've attended several screenings]. I think it probably varies. There's an evening when they're showing Gimme Shelter and the Beatles film [What's Happening! The Beatles in the U.S.A.], and I expect that there will be a lot of younger people there. But maybe older too, because that's of another age isn't it. Well, certainly the Stones have kept up to date and they're on another tour now. So they'll be, I guess, well represented all the way around.
You've obviously rewatched your films in order to do the DVD commentaries for many of your films. Do you otherwise rewatch them often? What happens when you're looking at a film nearly 40 years old like Salesman or 30 years old like Grey Gardens?
Well as I'm watching it, I feel like I'm shooting it again. As I'm beginning to zoom, I know exactly how far to zoom in, and I think that if I didn't do it right the first time, I would very much notice it the second time.
And do you notice things now? Things where you say to yourself, "Oh I wish I had done that."
No. I think I'm very happy with what I've done.
Do you think you'd ever have the idea for a film like Salesman today? Would it even be possible? Do door-to-door salesman – especially Bible salesman! -- exist anymore, or is that a bygone era? The film certainly still feels relevant.
That company [the Mid-American Bible Company] folded afterwards, and there's not as much door-to-door selling anymore. I'll tell you where they're doing door-to-door. In Japan. They're selling automobiles door-to-door. Can you imagine? And yeah, the Bible becomes a consumer product [in the film]. I mean, that's still so relevant. And housewives are still abused. And there's still this myth of the rugged individualist: Oh you're out on your own boy. Go to it. It's all waiting for you; just plug away.
How have you generally chosen your subjects, and has that decision-making process changed at all since David passed away nearly 20 years ago?
Well it has to be somebody that you can connect with and also at the right time in their life. In the case of Salesman, we chose a subject that we knew was fruitful, owing to the fact that both my brother and I had done some door-to-door selling while we were in college. So we knew the drama of knocking on the door and not knowing what was going to happen after that. And also coming from Boston where the guys in Salesman came from, there was a great deal of connection with them solely from the fact that it was really the first time in our lives when we were on a friendly basis with the Irish. When we were kids, there was so much anti-Semitism in Boston, and the Irish were the perpetrators, if you will. There was hardly a day when some Irish kid wouldn't come up to me and go, "Let's go outside and get into a fight." I got into a lot of fights. So the film was kind of a way of getting to know the Irish in a very meaningful way. Giving them recognition.
You've had a long association with Christo and Jeanne-Claude, and documented several of their works in Christo's Valley Curtain, Running Fence, Islands, Christo in Paris and Umbrellas, and now you're in post-production on The Gates. When will we see it?
Well we have 600 hours of footage to put into an hour-and-a-half film. And we've got it down to 10 hours. We should have it finished as early as May of next year.
How did you and your brother first get connected with them and could you have ever imagined that it would be this long a partnership?
No, I never could have known that. In 1963 we were attending a world conference on documentary in Lyon, France, sponsored by the French government. We met-up with a guy who was thinking of inventing a new kind of camera, and when we went to Paris from Lyon, he went along with us. It turned out that he was an engineer for the Christos, and we were showing our first film, a film called Showman, so he invited them to the screening. Then after that we met and talked, we found that we had so much in common. His projects are very much connected with human events. It's not just an artist with a canvas. He has to get permission and all that, and so, it's very much connected to random events in reality. That's a good subject for our kind of filmmaking.
You've talked before about why you don't consider what you do "fly-on-the-wall" filmmaking and the difference between that and "Direct Cinema." Still in all your films, you mostly just follow the events, right? Are you able to really plan anything?
Well as you're shooting, you have a very good idea of what's the good stuff we're shooting. But there's no planning. When you get into it, you have some hunches. You have to have some hunches as to what kinds of things may develop. But then somehow, as you film, you drop those things because something much more interesting takes place.
You describe the difference as having to do with creating a rapport with the subjects, but you certainly seem to avoid interacting directly with them as much as possible. In Christo in Paris and Grey Gardens there seems to be some direct interviewing, but not really in Salesman or most of your other films. How do you determine how much you'll interact with your subjects?
Well see those things that you might call interviews, if you recall, it's people talking about themselves. Sometimes they might just want to talk to us, but not in answers to questions. We don't ask questions. They would just decide to talk to the camera more directly.
In fact, we just looked through a lot of footage from Gray Gardens that wasn't in the film, and we pulled an hour-and-a-half of gems. Just fabulous stuff. There's a moment when Edie turns to us and says, "I had several boyfriends in the war. And they were all of course very physically fit and handsome, but some of them didn't come back. That's no way to fight a war. Wars should be fought by men who are physically disabled and then they won't hurt each other." All of that just popped up out of her head. It wasn't an answer to any question.
See I don't believe in that question and answer stuff. It gets that much further away from the real person when you're asking questions because the questions are bound to be more in your mind and more or less rhetorical. Often the question determines the answer.
You've been involved solely as a cinematographer and/or cameraman with a lot of films that weren't Maysles Films, especially in the early days when you worked closely with the likes of Robert Drew (Primary) and D.A. Pennebaker (Monterey Pop). What do you think it was about that era of the late-'50s/early-'60s that influenced all of you to come together and approach documentary filmmaking in such a radically different way from everything that had come before?
Sooner or later somebody would have had to break through the stupidity of documentaries depending solely on a narrator to explain what was going on and piped up music and just interviews. There's a world out there where things have to be observed, should be observed. And the rewards are that you really get to know the world, not the philosophy or point-of-view of the narrator or a corporation.
If you look at that film Primary, you may want to vote for Humphrey or you may want to vote Kennedy. It's a matter of your own judgment, but the film doesn't prejudice you one way or another, except in a funny way. They are depicted exactly as who they are, but because Americans are so impressed with the Kennedy mystique, that kind of charisma, that's probably why he got it. Humphrey probably by his voting record and so forth better deserved to become president.
So when you've done shooting for other people's films, how has that been different for you? Obviously someone else is giving you a little more direction, but is that harder? Easier?
They don't tell me what to do. They've chosen me because they know that on my own I know what to do.
You worked once with Jean-Luc Godard on his segment of the film Paris vu par …. Did he just leave you alone too? And how did such a collaboration come about?
Barbet Schroeder was the producer of that film, and he was a good friend of mine,. As he was putting the talent together, he said, "You know, I think that you and Godard would work just beautifully together." So he called-up Godard in Paris. We were in New York at the time, and he introduced me to him, and Godard said, "Send him over." Within a day or two he had set-up everything. I had no idea what the film was about except that it was going to be a story shot in Paris. He had the lighting, the actors knew what they were going to do, and then I was brought into the scene, not know what was coming up next, and I just shot continuously. There's hardly an editorial cut in it at all, and it worked just beautifully.
Have you ever had the urge to focus more on non-documentary filmmaking?
No. My interest has always been very basically on documentary film.
Based on the credits for your films, you've always seemed to work as part of a collective. For example, you and David were always listed as producers and directors, but your editors and sometimes additional cameramen would also be given the shared director credit.
Yeah. ,Well people like [Frederick] Wiseman: he doesn't do the photography, for example, but he doesn't give full credit for the photography. It's his name above all -- just Fred Wiseman. That's not fair.
But on all the Maysles Brothers films, you have three-to-four directors listed. Do you really work that much like a collective or does anyone have an overall vision?
We start off with a kind of vision, but a lot of that is in the hands of the editor, but they're editors who see things eye-to-eye with us. So the editors wind up with something that is true to the character of the material, and actually in a way the material is kind of a guide for the editor.
Do you stay involved through the editing?
No. Well from time-to-time I'll see a cut, but the editors are given a great deal of freedom. When I was working with my brother, my brother would supervise the editing so he was a strong link between the camera and the editing.
You appeared in the documentary Michael Moore Hates America, but there's been some controversy both about what you said and your very presence in the film.
What you don't know about that is that when they finished filming me I heard one of them say, "Michael Moore hates America," and I said, "Wait a minute. What's that all about?" I told them, "No, I'm not signing a release," and I didn't. But I consulted my lawyer, and there wasn't anything I could do about it. In a sense they had stolen some of that footage. They had misrepresented themselves, and I never would have participated in that kind of a film.
So you didn't know it was an anti-Michael Moore film?
I didn't know that at all.
But at the same time, you are very critical of his style of filmmaking, even finding it distasteful, no?
Yeah, I made a lot of anti-Michael Moore statements. [His films are] propaganda.
And yet his are the most popular documentaries.
Well Hitler was popular too.
Well now, we certainly don't want to take that out of context.
[Hitler] made himself popular by channeling everybody's opinion against scapegoats.
But do you think Michael Moore is actually dangerous then? As well as that kind of filmmaking which certainly isn't just him; he's just the biggest and most popular name.
I think there's a danger to getting information that is so slanted. I think that we need to have a clear understanding of what's going on rather than a single and very narrow point-of-view. I mean, I'm all for anti-Bush stuff, and I'd like to make a film myself. I'm just quite sure I wouldn't go about it the same way.
Michael Moore, for example, when he talks about it, he says the subjects that he films, they'll do themselves in. "I don’t have to do that for them." Well, I think that attitude is despicable and totally disrespectful to the people who are being filmed.
So then in your own work how do you feel that you've managed to distance yourself from a point of view in order to not somehow put your own bias on the film?
Well let's take Salesman for example. The salesmen and the sales company, if they were filmed by Michael Moore, boy they would be such easy targets. You'd walk away thinking, "Jesus, what bastards." And yet, in Salesman, I think it's quite clear that these guys are not doing the nicest kind of job. There's a scene where Paul [Brennan, the primary focus of the film] has to go back to the customer, and he really forces the woman to buy the thing, using misleading information. That's important to know too. But when I filmed that it wasn't to get him, it was just to get that further dimension on things, because by and large, you're still quite sympathetic with this guy and what the system requires him to do.
I sold encyclopedias myself for several weeks before I discovered how misleading my sales pitch was.
Do you keep in touch with or have you over the years kept in touch with the subjects of your films?
Yes, very much so. Paul was for many years like a part of my family. And I get emails from people all the time asking how [the family in Lelee's Kin] is doing, and "Is there any way I can help out?'
Is Edie [from Grey Gardens] still alive?
No, she died about a year ago.
Had you kept in touch with her?
Oh yeah. She wrote lots of letters. She moved to Florida, so she kept up through correspondence and telephone calls. In fact, one of the phone calls is recorded, and it's on the DVD of Grey Gardens. Right now we're putting together a scrap book of Grey Gardens which will include a lot of letters and photographs. Also we've put together an hour and a half of outs from the film. Criterion is going to distribute it.
So how would you characterize the current state of documentary film. There certainly seems to be a surge in popularity over the past few years. How does today match up to 20 years ago?
I was talking to someone the other day at a film festival that's going to be showing documentaries. They had 700 documentaries to look at. Whenever were there that many? And I think also, inevitably, just as literature has moved from fiction to non-fiction, there's going to be a big movement toward documentary. It's only going to get more popular. Some of the problems like, OK you make a documentary but you can't get it shown? Well you can overcome that now by getting it shown on DVD, the internet.
"Maysles Films: Five Decades resumes Dec. 24 with screenings running through Dec. 31 at MoMA. Albert Maysles will be on hand to introduce Umbrellas (Dec. 26 at 8:30 PM), Gimme Shelter (Dec. 28 at 6:30 PM) and Salesman (Dec. 29 at 5:15 PM). For more information including how to buy tickets, please visit the MoMA.org.
-- Interview by Aaron Dobbs