Remembering Albert Maysles

March 7, 2015 § Leave a comment

David and Albert Maysles filming "Salesman" in 1968/Courtesy

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

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

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.

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“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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