Albert Maysles Essay - Critical Essays

Maysles, Albert


Albert Maysles 1926– David Maysles 1932–

American documentary filmmakers.

The films of the Maysles brothers mark the first clear attempt to use cinéma vérité (though they prefer the term "direct cinema") in a nondramatic fashion. Their work reflects the influence of the Drew Associates, where they learned the art of cinéma vérité before starting their own company. Typical of cinéma vérité, their films are characterized by a spontaneous and unstructured quality. This is facilitated by their use of hand-held cameras and their observation, rather than direction, of their subjects.

Albert Maysles was initiated into filmmaking in 1955 when he shot footage of mental hospitals in the Soviet Union. His film Psychiatry in Russia is a diary-like recording of his trip. While in Moscow in 1959, Albert met Richard Leacock and D. A. Pennebaker of Drew Associates and then worked for that company on several films. In 1962, Albert left Drew Associates and he and David formed their own company.

Salesman is considered their most important work to date for its attempt to capture an American experience without benefit of a famous personality or event of marked significance. David Maysles feels it is noteworthy because: "We proved you could take someone from everyday life and make a film about him." Many of their films developed from routine commercial assignments, and grew into their own projects. The most notable of these, Gimme Shelter, is the recording of the Rolling Stones's disastrous concert at Altamont. Because the film contains footage of an actual murder, critics generally feel that its fame is due to controversy and sensationalism rather than cinematic artistry.

More than their other films, Grey Gardens raises the issue of the exploitative nature of cinéma vérité. While some critics find the Maysleses' examination of the Beales poignant and insightful, others feel Grey Gardens is a cruel invasion of privacy.

It is often felt that the Maysleses' quest for "truthfulness" is an act of indiscretion that dishonestly manipulates reality. Albert Maysles has said: "It's truth, the way we see it—in the shooting and the finishing. And in almost every case, that truth is shared by the people, by the subjects who see the film afterward." But, despite this avowal, the Maysles brothers are faced with opponents who feel their honesty often masks sensationalism. (For Albert Maysles, see also Contemporary Authors, Vols. 29-32, rev. ed.)


[The salesmen of Salesman] are driven by an antic demonology: the ethic of individual entrepreneurialism rages like a hectic in the blood. The commanding heights of the economy already scaled by the faceless inter-locking directorates of the billion-dollar corps., only the marshlands are left to direct selling—encyclopedias, books of Knowledge, door-to-door Bibles—all the bric-a-brac of social improvement. But the salesmen have pride in their craft, their self-image that of cottage artisans deluged by an earlier shift in production relationships. (p. 12)

Selling is freedom; but it is also survival. One false cadence, an over-eager handshake, a too-familiar confidence and all is lost. Back out to the chilling street, briefcase obstinately full….

The Maysles Brothers finally home in on Paul Brennan, the Thomas beginning to doubt. And doubters are not allowed. Kennie the sales supervisor knows that "one bad apple can destroy the whole barrel." (p. 13)

Paul is beginning to slip. The harvesting is thin, the glibness shows signs of wear-and-tear. He is losing "credibility," suffers from "negative thinking"—a thought process that Marcuse has fingered as the element most frightening to the social engineers of the manipulated society….

Why is Paul coming to the end of the road? The Maysles record his spontaneous Joycean dialogue with himself, his uneasy humming, the silent...

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S. F.

Salesman, a film as exploitative as the practices it tries to expose, continues to sell audiences on that which looks like penetrating social commentary, but which is nothing more than anti-social non-commentary on a subject too far from our hearts to bring tears to our eyes….

[The] only truly engrossing moment in Salesman is the one time that a conscious "dramatization" does take place, when the salesmen and their supervisor are "acting out" a hypothetical sales situation for self-instructive purposes. Here the supervisor plays the salesman, the salesmen play resistive clients, and men are engaged in the practices of their profession. Brennan and his associates are most interesting, most animated, when they are not themselves, and unintentionally this segment of the film makes as strong a case against Cinema Verité and its untarnished reality as I have seen….

If the grainy images and noisy soundtrack of Salesman are too real to be true, it is perhaps a loophole in subject and attitude which clinches the film's objective emptiness. Salesman is a film about failure…. What are the insights in the point of view presented here? Obviously the revelations of the camera are applicable to any professional in any income bracket, and would be, in fact, more pointed and more poignant if seen in the framework of the really "big" businessmen in America, who revel in what looks like success. What value judgment is being made? Are we to believe that a salesman whose two necessities are 1) making a living and 2) justifying the means of that living is any "worse" than any other human being who is similarly compromising? Admittedly a film which instead dealt with the emptiness of success would be an encyclopedia of clichés, but a film about the failure of failure of failure is even less amusing and far less important. There is nothing funny, or sad, or even interesting in a chronicle of the lives of people in dull, competitive, empty professions who do indeed turn out to be dull, competitive and empty people. There are such, and they are, in Salesman, as particularly unexciting on film as they are in life.

S. F., "'Salesman'" (©, 1969, by Spectator International, Inc.; copyright reassigned to the Author; ©, 1980, by the Kilimanjaro Corporation), in Cinema, Vol. 5, No. 2, 1969, p. 46.

Stanley Kauffmann

Much of [Salesman] is fascinating. How could it be otherwise? There isn't a person who passes in the street whose life we wouldn't spy on, at least for a time, if we had the chance. Intrusion into privacy is as human an urge as sex; and it's by no means prurience or itch for scandal that drives us. Somehow some Great Answer may be hidden behind those window shades. If we only knew more about others, we could at least be sure that our own insufficiencies aren't unique. A film that allows us to peek is bound to get our attention; and when, like Salesman, it also fixes irrefutably some facts about our whole society, it holds that attention longer than it might do otherwise. (pp. 151-52)

The picture continues interesting for a good deal of its hour and a half. When it begins to seem repetitious, we forgive it at first because these lives are more incessantly repetitious than most. But this is not life, this is a film; we are not co-workers, we are an audience. Kenneth Burke says: "There is in reality no such general thing as a crescendo." The Maysles brothers are aware of this; so, out of their material, they have quarried the particular story of one of the salesmen, Paul Brennan, and, using the models of fictional narrative, they have tried to give it dramatic structure. But life has not cooperated sufficiently. As drama, the figurative death of this salesman lacks the dimension that it needs to be completely engrossing. There is material missing—of character and conflict and variation—that a good scriptwriter could have supplied; and what we are left with is the consolation that there was no scriptwriter, that what we see is spontaneous and unacted.

Almost completely. In a few scenes it seems that voices from other shots—of these men—have been laid on the sound track. And there are indications of the camera's presence in other scenes. For instance, when Brennan comes back after his first bad day, he uses some profanity (the only time in the film). It has an air of bravado, unnatural for him, as if he knew he were being watched and would not be cowed. Some of the other men glance...

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On a Saturday in early December of 1969 The Rolling Stones completed their American tour with an open-air concert at a speedway track in Altamont….

[The] Hell's Angels were retained to preserve law and order at Altamont, amiably brutal condottieri from the badlands around San Jose, come to protect the princes of the new Renaissance…. The casualty list became a snakedance…. Finally, one 18-year-old black, Meredith Hunter, bearing a gun and pursuing some lonely odyssey inside his own head, fell under the knives of the Angels and was hacked to death.

Of all this, Altamont and the preceding concert tour, Albert and David Maysles, co-directing with Charlotte Zwerin, have made Gimme Shelter, the title borrowed from a Stones song, a film which, in its own becoming, moves consistently towards that rare condition in which the subject-object hiatus merges and blurs and is gone. (p. 39)

Moods are caught and deftly played, one against another: the desperate gaiety of a vulnerable girl in the audience, who knows something's gone wrong, but continues to blow soap bubbles from an antic pipe. The bubble floats out over the hordes, the music investing it with all that might have been had the promises been kept. And then the bubble disappears…. And always, inevitably, [Mick] Jagger, by turns Byronic-demonic, poete maudit floating high in the red haze of a purgatorial filter, later petulant...

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Paul Schrader

The disaster at Altamont threw the youth prophets and merchandisers into a painful dilemma; a new gruesome reality had suddenly emerged and had to be somehow confronted and, hopefully, packaged and sold. Caught in this crunch were several veteran cinema-verite documentarians, David and Albert Maysles and Charlotte Zwerin, whose cameras had captured all the action, including the murder. Like the dazed, bleeding hippies the Maysles were caught in the center of violent change. Altamont became for the Maysles, as it had for the hippies, a symbolic, watershed event. Altamont was the cauldron in which the Maysles' method of film-making, both vices and virtues, were tested and magnified and it is a test which they...

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Stephen Mamber

It has been widely pointed out that Gimme Shelter is a highly structured film, intercutting events widely separated both spatially and temporally. This is a throwback to early Drew Associates techniques (especially in Primary, Eddie, Football, The Chair, and Crisis) of sending out as many camera teams as you can to get a larger view of an event than is possible for any single witness and then wait until editing to fit all the jigsaw pieces together. By adding the dimension of filmed participants viewing themselves some time later (a la Rouch-and-Morin's Chronique d'un Été), the Maysles further complicate the levels of action. At any rate, Gimme Shelter's structure seems not so much...

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Stephen Mamber

Showman is a landmark film, the first American cinemaverite work entirely free from the constraints of crisis situations and plot progression to a clear resolution. The Maysles' first film, it is literally a slice of life, a record of some time spent following Joe Levine, a film entrepreneur then rising to the top on the financial strength of his Hercules.

While there are threads of narrative continuity, there is no real story or dramatic character change. Levine is no different at the end of the film than at the beginning, and he has not passed through a particularly climactic period. The film has the engaging quality of looking caught on the run, with events happening too quickly to...

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Charles Michener

Grey Gardens [is] an extraordinarily crafty invasion into the lives of Edith Beale and her daughter Edie, better known as Jacqueline Onassis's impoverished aunt and first cousin, whose own fallen estate in East Hampton, Long Island, made gossipy headlines a few years ago. After a Wellesian nod to those headlines and the local scandal that generated them, and after a graceful, passing admission of their own presence as filmmakers, the Maysles brothers prowl the dilapidated Beale manse with an unblinking cool—underscored by an ironic, growing compassion—that achieves what cinéma vérité aims for but seldom conveys: a sense that the material is telling itself.

In the course of the...

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Marjorie Rosen

["Grey Gardens"] is a film allowing us an extraordinary glimpse into [Edith and Edie Beale's] relationship, a glimpse which cuts as sharply as a machete to the core of a crippling human dependency.

Few films have spoken so poignantly about dependency, obligation, and guilt. About how a mother clips her daughter's wings in order to insure companionship and servitude in her own old age. About how a daughter masks fear of the adult world with familial duty….

With relentless gusto the camera records lunatic attitudes and awesome psychological paralysis, and with equal gusto mother and daughter perform before the camera as though they've been waiting in the wings for 25 years. This is...

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John Simon

[In Grey Gardens the Maysles concentrate their attention] on a mother who is, at the very least, eccentric, and a daughter who is, to put it mildly, spaced out, and who have made a modus vivendi out of confusing the past with the present, fantasy with reality, and communication with nonstop bickering. Direct cinema may always be an act of indiscretion; here, I think, it becomes also an act of indiscrimination and indecency. (p. 68)

[What] was the Maysleses' aim in recording the daily life of Edith and Edie, their interior and exterior messiness as it oozes out of and into them, even as day seeps into desolate day? Well, not entirely desolate, because old Edith, though mostly recumbent or...

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Joel E. Siegel

[Grey Gardens, the] portrait of a complex love-hate relationship, is compelling, but exposing these two peculiar, rather pathetic women to public scrutiny is somehow unseemly. The filmmakers invite us to look down on the Beales (who are, by birth and experience, superior to most of us) and encourage us to interpret our amusement at their eccentricities as sympathy. By any standards of charity and decency, Grey Gardens is opportunistic, voyeuristic, and exploitative of its vulnerable subjects. However absorbing the film may be, I suspect we are all a bit poorer in spirit for having seen it.

Joel E. Siegel, "'Grey Gardens'," in Film Heritage (copyright 1976 by...

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