Albert Maysles Critical Essays


(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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.)