Albert Maysles: A Maysles Scrapbook
reviewed by Megan Ratner

Art on Paper
June 2008

Widely influential but personally near-anonymous, Albert and his late brother David Maysles rank among the most important American filmmakers.  Their best-known films -- Salesman (1969), Gimme Shelter (1970) and Grey Gardens (1975) – remain fresh and revelatory, important artifacts of an era increasingly subject to retrofitted interpretations and market-driven clichés.  They pioneered Direct Cinema, a 1950s and ‘60s movement in Canada and the United States, whose aim, in simplest terms, was the truthful representation of reality.  David did sound, Albert the camerawork.  While Hollywood made escape entertainment, in Albert’s words the Maysles’ documentaries showed “what you can’t escape from ...”  

Albert Maysles and editors Michael Chaiken, Steven Kasher and Sara Maysles, intersperse a few documents among a dense accumulation photographs and cinemagraphs.   These freeze-framed filmstrips annotate the documentaries like static DVD extras, amplified by the sparse written materials.  Among these, David Maysles’ blow-by-blow of editing the killing at Altamont in Gimme Shelter is a pithy manifesto on the brothers’ insistence to leave joyless reality intact.  Each project serves as a chapter, with streamlined captions understatedly tucked in the back pages, the text indicative of topic but minimally explicative.  In the 1950s, the Maysles shot in Eastern Europe, Russia and Cuba; in the 1960s they took on more work-for-hire, celebrity-driven projects such as the Wisconsin Democratic primary between John F. Kennedy and Hubert Humphrey, and the Beatles in America. Musicians and artists also figure in their work, their longest association with Christo.  

Albert Maysles has a knack for “by chance” images (in one of his favorite phrases) that appear but cannot be forced.  Whether chronicling fervid youth in post-war Poland, Brando in charismatic action, or a strangely tiny Mick Jagger onstage at Altamont, each frame reveals a distinct sense of the symbiosis between environment and individual.  The Maysles focused on the person within their environment.  The circumstance may be temporary, such as Sophia Loren doing press for Two Women or eternal, as in the case of Grey Garden’s Edith Bouvier Beale and her daughter Edie, but in each instance the Maysles' emphasis on the specifics of place, moment and person make for images as true to their era as they are frequently timeless.  The shots are replete with details only slowly absorbed. Typical of this paradoxical feat Albert’s two-page still of Edie conversing with David in the Grey Gardens chapter.  Standing in what appears to be Edie’s baby-blue girlhood bed frame, her mother reflected in a narrow mirror on the right, Albert himself reflected in a glass-framed print, the kerchiefed Edie sports a fur so moth-eaten even PETA might give her a break.  Mother and child-woman, brother and brother: the complex, respectful portrait reveals the filmmakers’ risky meshing with the lives of their subjects.

Roberto Rossellini declared that the creative artist gets “the most out of everything that he sees.”  Fortunately, the Maysles got plenty from all they saw.  This unmissable trove is an elegant companion to, and enrichment of, their cinematic bounty.

 

(Magazine version was somewhat shortened.)