The New Documentary, Part III: The Death of Cinema Verite

May 5, 2015 § Leave a comment

Ben Stiller and Charles Grodin in "While We're Young"

Ben Stiller and Charles Grodin in “While We’re Young”

Iris Apfel/Courtesy Accessories Magazine

Iris Apfel/Courtesy Accessories Magazine

It’s an ironic coincidence that the release of “Going Clear” and “The Jinx” came shortly after the death of Albert Maysles, a pioneer of Direct Cinema and one of its most famous practitioners. Over his long and prolific career, Maysles did what few documentary filmmakers today care to do, spending years with his subjects, shooting hundreds of hours of film and, in the editing room, distilling all that footage into revealing two-three hour films. Maysles’ technique was observational, and so far removed from Alex Gibney’s and Andrew Jarecki’s films that it seems to come from another world. Like minimalist painting and design, his method is pure, with no re-enactments or graphics to tell its stories. Archival photos and footage appear infrequently in Maysles’ films, and aside from whatever music happens to be playing in the background, there is no score.

Perhaps my assertion that Cinema Verite is dead is premature, but its major American practitioners, though notably hardy and prolific, range in age from 62 (Chris Hegedus) to 90 (D.A. Pennbaker). Frederick Wiseman (85) has an output that would be impressive for a filmmaker of any age: forty-one documentaries, including four in the past five years. His latest film “National Gallery” explores the art and inner workings of one of Great Britain’s–and the world’s–greatest art museums. Wiseman, who was allowed full access to the museum’s staff and behind-the-scenes events, spent three months filming at the National Gallery, amassing 170 hours of footage. Like Maysles, Wiseman avoids projecting his own point of view on his films, and uses no visual tricks or musical score. What emerges is as objective as any film can be. (I haven’t seen “National Gallery” but plan to–as soon as I can carve out the necessary three hours. Needless to say, leisurely pacing is one of the features–and for many, drawbacks–of the genre.)

Differences between the new documentaries and the old were very much on my mind when I saw the new Noah Baumbach movie, “While We’re Young” a few weeks ago. It concerns Josh, a struggling documentary filmmaker (Ben Stiller, playing a slightly less dysfunctional version of the character he played in “Greenberg”) who, with his wife Cornelia (Naomi Watts) strikes up a friendship with young, free-spirited couple (Adam Driver and Amanda Seyfried). But there’s also an old-school documentarian in the film: a Maysles-like character named Leslie Breitbart (Charles Grodin), who happens to be Josh’s father-in-law. Though he was once Breitbart’s protege, Josh has been mired for ten years in a documentary so sprawling and incoherent that not even he can explain what it’s about. When Breitbart finally watches the six-hour rough cut, his perfectly reasonable suggestions about shaping the film only enrage the already hostile Josh. Meanwhile, Josh gets a much-needed shot in the arm by helping the ambitious young Jamie to make a small, compelling documentary about a young war veteran. Jamie, raised on the films of Morgan Spurlock and Michael Moore, has none of Josh’s problems with theme or length–or with manipulating the truth. It all comes to a head when Josh discovers that Jamie has faked the premise of his documentary, having appropriated his wife’s connection to the war veteran as his own. In a further Greenberg-like move, Josh publicly confronts Jamie at a Lincoln Center tribute to Breitbart, making a huge, embarrassing scene. Ironically Breitbart, the pure Direct Cinema practitioner, sides with Jamie, whose film is at least entertaining. It also gets into Sundance.

Last week I saw “Iris,” Albert Maysles’ last documentary, whose release he didn’t live to see. It’s a wonderful coda to a long an illustrious career that–despite its octogenarian director and its nonagenarian subject–feels like the work of a young director. It certainly helps that Iris Apfel, a fashion icon who began her career in the 1940s, has a youthful spirit, not only in her amazing wardrobe but her instant rapport with everyone she meets, regardless of age or background. Still, I doubt the film would have been as lighthearted and fun in another filmmaker’s hands. Albert Maysles, who can be glimpsed, camera in hand, and heard asking questions, shot off and on for four years, but at no point does the effort show. An inveterate charmer, he not only captures Iris’s bon mots (“This was when dinosaurs roamed the earth,” Iris says, showing him her wedding album) but her delightful effect on others, from Lohmann’s shoppers to her husband Carl, who celebrates his 100th birthday in the film. For me, the greatest moment in “Iris” comes at the very end, as Iris talks while moving about her objet-filled apartment. Instead of moving in on her face (as Jarecki would), or cutting to an archival photo (as Gibney would), Maysles’s camera alights on Carl Apfel’s smiling face as he gazes at his wife. Although they’ve been married 67 years, Carl still regards her adoringly, as if he can’t believe his good luck. It’s a small moment that says everything about the Apfels–and a lot about the director, too. A flashier and less observant filmmaker than Albert Maysles would have dismissed it, or missed it altogether.

Related articles:

https://underthehollywoodsign.wordpress.com/2015/04/25/the-new-documentary-part-ii-the-jinx/

https://underthehollywoodsign.wordpress.com/2015/04/25/the-new-documentary-part-i-going-clear/

https://underthehollywoodsign.wordpress.com/2010/04/06/noah-baumbachs-greenberg-the-most-realistic-la-movie-yet/

Remembering Albert Maysles

March 7, 2015 § Leave a comment

David and Albert Maysles filming "Salesman" in 1968/Courtesy imdb.com

David and Albert Maysles filming “Salesman” in 1968/Courtesy imdb.com

As news of Albert Maysles’ death circulated yesterday, I remembered not only his and his brother David Maysles’ important body of work (including “Gimme Shelter,” “Grey Gardens” and “Primary”) but two personal stories. The first was my only meeting with him, which took place at the International Documentary Association’s conference in 1998. At the time I was teaching myself to make documentaries by reading books, taking classes and, of course, watching lots and lots of films. The conference was part of my self-devised education, so when I came upon Albert standing with Werner Herzog in the hallway of the MPAA, I introduced myself and told him about my idea for “Jim Thompson, Silk King,” my future first film. As I wrote in 2009:

I asked him what he thought, and he said something like “I think that sounds like a good idea.” (Coincidentally, Werner Herzog was there, too; he merely said, “I haf heard of zis man.”) Delirious from Maysles’s encouragement, I nevertheless remembered to compliment “Grey Gardens.” Beaming, he said in his thick Boston accent, “Isn’t it beautiful?”

As endorsements go, Albert Maysles’ was hardly effusive, but it sufficed. I started preproduction soon afterwards and went to Thailand to film in June of 1999. I returned with enough footage for two films, the second of which was an art and architecture piece called “The Jim Thompson House and Art Collection.” (“Jim Thompson, Silk King” will be re-released shortly with new narration and two new DVD extras; it will be available on my website and on Vimeo. “The Jim Thompson House and Art Collection is available at http://www.hopeandersonproductions.com)

My second Albert Maysles story concerns “Salesman,” his and David’s 1969 film about white, working-class Bible salesmen and the desperate hard-sell tactics they employed on their mostly poor, often black clients. A classic of cinema verite, “Salesman” was filmed in the late 1960s but depicts an earlier era: no one looks or talks that way anymore, and when was the last time you saw anyone selling Bibles door-to-door? The most confounding feature of the documentary was the dialog which, I recall, was subtitled because the salesmen’s Boston accents were so heavy. But even subtitles couldn’t decipher the patois they spoke, which at times seemed a different language. Making things even worse was that I watched “Salesman” with a petulant Spanish guy who evidently thought I, a native speaker of English, would guide him through it. He kept asking, “What does that mean?” Darned if I knew, and I used to live in Boston.

The Maysles brothers called their technique direct cinema because of its naturalism: the camera kept rolling until the subjects forgot it was there, and what interviewing there was sparse and informal. The result was at times profound but not without its problems, chiefly length. “Grey Gardens,” for all its acclaim, has some incredibly tedious stretches–raccoons again?–that illustrate the pitfalls of editing your own work, as the Maysleses did (albeit with others). Still, there’s no doubt that they changed documentary filmmaking forever. Because David died in 1987, Albert got the laurels, but the best Maysles films were the ones they made together.

Related articles:

https://underthehollywoodsign.wordpress.com/2009/04/27/grey-gardens-albert-maysles-and-me/

http://www.nytimes.com/2015/03/07/movies/albert-maysles-pioneering-documentarian-dies-at-88.html?hpw&rref=arts&action=click&pgtype=Homepage&module=well-region&region=bottom-well&WT.nav=bottom-well

“Grey Gardens,” Albert Maysles and Me

April 27, 2009 § 2 Comments

Although I’d known about “Grey Gardens” since its theatrical release in 1976, I didn’t have a chance to see it until its appearance on video in the  late 90’s. I remember watching it alone in my bedroom, at once spellbound by Big Edie and Little Edie and horrified by the squalor in which they lived. The film was fascinating, baffling and gorgeous. It swept me up into the Bealeses’ world as it unspooled.

Because “Grey Gardens” was unlike any documentary I’d seen, it was hard to assess. I both loved and was troubled by it, and I had questions. Were the Bealeses exploited by the Maysleses? Was this a mother-daughter love story, or one of maternal oppression? Were they both crazy? If not, which one was? And finally, was Little Edie an object of pity or an artist whose genius lay beyond the limits of my understanding?

Within a year of seeing “Grey Gardens,” I happened to meet Albert Maysles at a documentary conference in Los Angeles.  Cornering him outside a lecture hall, I blurted out my plan to make a documentary on the life of Jim Thompson, the American OSS Officer turned Thai silk magnate who vanished in Malaysia in 1967. I asked him what he thought, and he said something like “I think that sounds like a good idea.” (Coincidentally, Werner Herzog was there, too; he merely said, “I haf heard of zis man.”) Delirious from Maysles’s encouragement, I nevertheless remembered to compliment “Grey Gardens.” Beaming, he said in his thick Boston accent, “Isn’t it beautiful?”

All of this came back to me last week as I watched the new theatrical version of “Grey Gardens” on HBO. What could have been a train wreck turned out to be a beautifully acted and well-written treatment of the Bealeses’ story. While the documentary asked more questions than it answered, the movie did the opposite by tracing the Bealses’ descent from society into squalor in precise, logical flashbacks. Watching the documentary, I could never figure out how these two women–Edith Wharton heroines tranported to the latter 20th century– could appear sanguine about their impoverished lives in a filthy, broken-down house ; watching the HBO adaptation, I understood. Like enchanted princesses, the Bealeses carried their aristocracy within them. Their outward circumstances were simply that: outward and circumstantial. They were beyond the cares of ordinary life. Amid the squalor of  Grey Gardens, Big Edie and Little Edie, like storybook royalty, remained original, noble and nothing like the rest of us.

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