Love Your Subjects
March 6, 2015 6:03 PM   Subscribe

Albert Maysles, acclaimed documentary filmmaker and pioneer of “direct cinema,” has died at 88. Best known for the films Grey Gardens (previously) and Gimme Shelter (in which he captured the murder of 18 year-old Meredith Hunter by a Hell’s Angel at the Stones’ legendary 1969 Altamont Free Concert), Maysles (along with his brother David) created an astounding array of diverse documentary films including the Beatles first trip to the US and films about Christo, Orson Welles, Jessye Norman, and on and on. His most recent film, about NYC style maven Iris Apfel will be released on April 29th. A film community reflects.

His philosophy:

As a documentarian I happily place my fate and faith in reality. It is my caretaker, the provider of subjects, themes, experiences—all endowed with the power of truth and the romance of discovery. And the closer I adhere to reality the more honest and authentic my tales. After all, knowledge of the real world is exactly what we need to better understand and therefore possibly to love one another. It’s my way of making the world a better place.

1. Distance oneself from a point of view.
2. Love your subjects.
3. Film events, scenes, sequences; avoid interviews, narration, a host.
4. Work with the best talent.
5. Make it experiential, film experience directly, unstaged, uncontrolled.
6. There is a connection between reality and truth. Remain faithful to both.

Some Do’s and Dont’s
• Hold it steady.
• Use manual zoom, not the electronic.
• Read as much of the PD 170 manual as you can.
• Read book or chapter in a photography book on how to compose shots.
• Use the steady device that’s in the camera.
• Never use a tripod (exception: filming photographs, for example).
• You’ll get a steadier picture the more wide-angle the shot. In a walking shot go very wide angle.
• Hold the beginning and end of each shot. The editor will need that.
• Use no lights. The available light is more authentic.
• Learn the technique but equally important keep your eye open to watch the significant moment. Orson Welles: “The cameraman’s camera should have behind its lens the eye of a poet.”
• Remember, as a documentarian you are an observer, an author but not a director, a discoverer, not a controller.
posted by chococat (29 comments total) 27 users marked this as a favorite
Grey Gardens was also recently restored for its 40th Anniversary. It's worth watching. One of the most fascinating documentaries I've ever watched.

posted by Fizz at 6:10 PM on March 6, 2015 [2 favorites]

posted by MythMaker at 6:24 PM on March 6, 2015


I was re-watching "Salesman" again just last night. Incredible stuff.
posted by AlonzoMosleyFBI at 6:46 PM on March 6, 2015 [2 favorites]

posted by sockermom at 6:48 PM on March 6, 2015

I had the pleasure of seeing Mr. Maysles speak at UT in 1997. Even though I was young (and probably stoned), I knew I was witnessing an engaging talk by a master of his craft. In the ensuing years I sought out every work I could by the brothers Maysles and my life was undoubtedly enriched by what I ended up viewing.
posted by item at 7:07 PM on March 6, 2015 [2 favorites]

posted by Thorzdad at 7:33 PM on March 6, 2015

When I lived in the neighborhood, I used to go to the Maysles Cinema, which is one of the unsung treasures of New York. It is a storefront operation in Harlem with a teeny-weeny screening room and a larger space downstairs that is used for a wide variety of youth classes on documentary filmmaking. Their film selection is heavily weighted toward issues of race, class, and national/global forces. I used to take my older kid to their children's film series, which screened a wide variety of international and domestic films. They were of widely varying quality and sometimes were clearly being streamed online and projected from someone's Macbook, but they were always fascinating and nothing you would see anywhere else. Highlights that I recall included a Nigerian cartoon series in which a little boy and girl learned lessons from a magical butterfly (including one on the deliciousness of snails), and a movie that featured a little girl from ancient Timbuktu traveling in time to the modern day with her gremlin-like sidekick to defeat an evil wizard. We were almost always the only people there, so they knew us. They would give us little bags of popcorn and let my son park his scooter in the back of the theater. It was so ad-hoc and so totally free of any film-world pretension, I loved going there. The cinema people were also kind enough to donate space and time to screen a documentary benefiting the Ali Forney Center, in response to a local church that was posting particularly outrageously homophobic messages on their signs. I never actually met the founders, but the place is so clearly a product of a particular vision, both artistic and philosophic, that I was pretty sure I would like them if I ever did.

. Mr. Maysles.
posted by The Elusive Architeuthis at 7:42 PM on March 6, 2015 [11 favorites]

posted by drezdn at 8:19 PM on March 6, 2015

posted by mosk at 8:24 PM on March 6, 2015

posted by Alterscape at 10:25 PM on March 6, 2015

posted by OolooKitty at 10:35 PM on March 6, 2015

I was re-watching "Salesman" again just last night. Incredible stuff.
posted by AlonzoMosleyFBI

This might also be a good time to re-watch Glengarry Glen Ross, beacause to me that one seems to owe a lot to Salesmen. Both great films.
posted by StickyCarpet at 10:40 PM on March 6, 2015 [3 favorites]

What's Happening! The Beatles in the USA is a small gem.
posted by brujita at 10:51 PM on March 6, 2015

posted by trip and a half at 11:12 PM on March 6, 2015

posted by sallybrown at 11:27 PM on March 6, 2015

watched grey gardens tonight for the first time. wow.

posted by ghostbikes at 11:36 PM on March 6, 2015 [1 favorite]

posted by colie at 12:49 AM on March 7, 2015

One thing that struck me as I watched both Grey Gardens and Salesman was how much respect the Maysles had for their subjects. I felt they could have ripe for exploitation or gawking but the Maysles treated them as humans worthy of dignity.

posted by hurdy gurdy girl at 12:50 AM on March 7, 2015 [2 favorites]

Watched Gimme Shelter again, and what impressed/suprised me, was that it was mostly about admin details--the subtle unveiling of how much of a clusterfuck this was going to be, with the tension racheting up further and further, finally ending with Jagger watching crime footage--Hitchcock levels of suspense there
posted by PinkMoose at 3:15 AM on March 7, 2015 [2 favorites]

posted by Kinbote at 4:06 AM on March 7, 2015

posted by Mister Bijou at 4:13 AM on March 7, 2015

Oh man Iris is going to be so good.
posted by Potomac Avenue at 4:19 AM on March 7, 2015 [1 favorite]

This is the best costume punctuation for today:

posted by emelenjr at 5:14 AM on March 7, 2015

posted by anothermug at 7:23 AM on March 7, 2015

One thing that struck me as I watched both Grey Gardens and Salesman was how much respect the Maysles had for their subjects.

Albert Maysles came to give a seminar to the Film Dept at RISD. He talked about how to almost not be there. I was the one who picked him up at the train station and took him around, and he did it all the time.

He wore a muted worn sweat shirt, he stands still, kind of just off to the side, his shoulder posture is relaxed into a sort of slouching sag, head slightly down, old gray sneakers, feet planted symmetrically a little bit apart.

You know that optical illusion, where things in a fixed image can kind of dissolve and fade out? That's what he did.
posted by StickyCarpet at 7:51 AM on March 7, 2015 [6 favorites]

It's just a shot away.

posted by jonp72 at 8:23 AM on March 7, 2015

An anecdote that speaks to his artistic integrity, if I am remembering correctly, went something like this:

In Grey Gardens, Edie kind of pensively misquotes a bit of the Robert Frost poem about choosing one of two paths. Somehow this turned into a copyright dispute with the publisher, and rather than remove that one short scene, Albert paid something like $50,000, which equaled the whole budget to that point.
posted by StickyCarpet at 10:47 AM on March 7, 2015 [3 favorites]

His brother died too young.

posted by Melismata at 11:00 AM on March 17, 2015

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