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On Sunday afternoon, I met up in Hollywood with the legendary documentarian Albert Maysles, who was in town to introduce his classic film Salesman (1968) at the fourth annual TCM Film Festival later that day, for a wide-ranging interview about his life and career. (Check out the video at the top of this post for highlights of our conversation.)
Maysles, now 86 and living in Harlem with his wife, is anything but retired; in fact, he is still hard at work on numerous prospective films as well as his nonprofit Maysles Institute and Cinema, which teaches and screens examples of documentary films old and new.
Salesman, which Maysles directed with his younger brother and frequent collaborator David Maysles (who died in 1987), was the first documentary feature of the cinema verite variety, which Maysle and other filmmakers who worked at Time-Life in the early 1960s — including Robert Drew, D.A. Pennebaker and the late Richard Leacock — helped to develop. Cinema verite, which is also known as “direct cinema,” calls for allowing a film’s story to unveil itself rather than trying to influence or structure it, and it was this technique that the Maysles brothers employed in subsequent years on many films including Gimme Shelter (1970) and Grey Gardens (1975), both of which appear near the top of virtually every list of the greatest documentaries of all time.
Albert Maysles was born in Boston in November 1926. As a child, he suffered from a learning disability that caused him to look and listen more intently than others, which led to mockery at the time, but which ultimately served as the foundation for a wonderful career.
In the mid-1950s, Maysles was teaching psychology at Boston University. He took a trip to Russia to observe a mental hospital and, using a camera that he had convinced CBS News to lend him, shot footage that eventually became his first documentary film, Psychiatry in Russia.
Not long thereafter, he hooked up with Drew, a former Life magazine reporter who wanted to apply Life‘s approach to photography — namely, seeking candid and behind-the-scenes shots of socially-significant people — to the world of film. After inventing lightweight cameras with which synchronous sound could be recorded — groundbreaking achievements that forever changed filmmaking — Drew, Maysles and the rest of the team at Drew Associates began doing just that.
The earliest and most famous example of their work is Primary (1960), which chronicles the battle for the 1960 Democratic presidential nomination between the veteran Minnesota senator Hubert Humphrey and a young Massachusetts senator named John F. Kennedy, whom Maysles famously trailed with his camera through throngs of adoring supporters.
In 1963, the Maysles brothers went into business on their own. Their first film, Showman (1963), a profile of movie producer Joseph E. Levine, led to an invitation the following year to film the arrival and first two weeks in America of an up-and-coming band called The Beatles, which resulted in It’s What’s Happening, Baby (1965). Another of their works at the time, Meet Marlon Brando (1966), was the product of combining footage from a bunch of interviews at the first movie junket, which they had been commissioned to shoot, into a feature film showing the singular personality of one of America’s greatest movie stars.
Then, in 1968, came Salesman, which chronicles four traveling salesman in the dying days of their profession, and generated considerable attention, even though it had only a very limited theatrical release. (Few documentaries at the time got even that.) That year, Albert also served as one of the cinematographers on Pennebaker’s classic music doc Monterey Pop. (No less an authority than Jean-Luc Godard once referred to Albert as “the best American cameraman.”)
Henceforth, the Maysles were “names” within the industry and managed to gain access to just about anyone they pleased.
In Gimme Shelter, they accompanied The Rolling Stones on the tail end of their 1969 U.S. tour, and captured on film the killing of a fan at the Stones’ free concert at Altamont, which many have subsequently cited as the spiritual if not literal end of the 1960s. In Grey Gardens, meanwhile, they took viewers into the decaying Hamptons mansion of an aunt and cousin of Jacqueline Bouvier Kennedy, “Big Edie” Bouvier Beale and “Little Edie” Bouvier Beale, who were mentally and living in a world of their own.
The Maysles brothers earned their one and only Oscar nomination, for best documentary short, for Christo’s Valley Curtain (1974), which was about a work of the married artists Christo and Jeanne-Claude. After David’s death in 1987, Albert continued to make films on his own, including the acclaimed doc The Gates (2005) and ESPN 30 for 30 season one episode “Muhammad and Larry” (2009).
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