July 26, 2006
Behind the Lens with Albert Maysles
Throughout his life filmmaker Albert Maysles has strived to capture an honest portrait of humans in their native habitats. Taking an organic approach to the craft, Maysles' faith in the truth disarms his subjects, as they let him document their otherwise hidden peccadilloes. Simply put, with his work, Maysles offers a valentine to the human condition.
"A lot of it comes down to being discreet and knowing that your discretion is such that [you're] fully being responsible for taking the life of these people in your own hands and representing them truly, knowing you can do that and feeling confident that it's right to do so," said Maysles. "Then that confidence generates itself so that when people look at you, even for the very first time, they feel, 'ok, well these guys can be trusted.' It's the look and it's the heartfelt empathy for the people that you're filming."
His work was recently honored at a private party in East Hampton with a special celebration of the 30th anniversary of Grey Gardens, a documentary Maysles made with his late brother David. The film, which has become a cult classic, takes a look at the tender relationship between the eccentric women of Camelot, Edith Bouvier Beale and her daughter Edith Bouvier Beale, Jr., or "little Edie," aunt and cousin, respectively, to Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis.
Together the women lived in a crumbling East Hampton mansion teeming with fleas, cats and raccoons and strangled with vegetation that nearly consumed the property.
The expectations and responsibilities that come with aristocracy were not to burden this mother-daughter duo, each of whom marched to the beat of her own drum. Peculiar and reclusive, these women unapologetically led lives estranged from the outside world, paradoxically, never fulfilling their dreams of becoming stage stars.
But the Maysles film offered the women a moment in the spotlight and made them instant cult favorites, inspiring fashion, interpretive performances, paintings, and even parties. One must come prepared for a Grey Gardens party, as revelers, mostly men, dress up as the Beales and speak only lines from the film.
"Well it's all such an irony with two recluses," said Maysles. "They're more out in the world than almost anyone else, certainly non celebrities don't ever get a chance to get that kind of recognition."
Grey Gardens happened upon the Maysles brothers unexpectedly. They met the Beales while working on a documentary on Lee Radziwill, Jacqueline Kennedy's sister, who wanted to make a film about her childhood in the Hamptons. They started filming Edith and Edie and "We went full speed, six weeks of being with them and that was the film."
Though Grey Gardens has inspired offshoots of creativity, the Maysles brothers also made several other successful films, including Salesman (1969), which followed a door-to-door Bible salesman, and Gimme Shelter (1970), a documentary about the December 6, 1969 Rolling Stones concert at Altamont Speedway that many marked as the day the free lovin' Sixties died, after a spectator was stabbed to death.
On his own, Albert Maysles has built an impressive body of work, always staying true to his subjects and himself.
"You're really onto something when at some point you discover that the film you're making is a very personal one," he said. "There's something about what's going on that strikes a cord in your childhood or your family relations or something very important to you and that fits every documentary, which is really of other people, [but] is [also] about yourself."
As a quiet bystander, Maysles lets his subjects define the film, not the other way around. The veteran filmmaker deems the more recent documentaries focusing on political and social messages as taking a "sledgehammer approach" to filmmaking, "and to me that's a weakness . . . they start out with a preconception and they do everything to narrow it down, to limit it to a point they're trying to make and inevitably that does injustice to a true understanding of what's going on."
His admirers may see him as a cut above the rest, with a substantial number of noteworthy films under his belt and his own production company to boot, still even this successful documentarian has struggled to get a beloved project off the ground.
"There's a film I have been trying to get financing for for 40 years now, and it would be the best film I ever made," said Maysles. "I guess it's too poetic or it isn't issue-oriented enough."
Titled In Transit, the film would document passengers on long distance trains traveling through several different countries. Maysles would take, in essence, a snapshot of their lives in that moment, before they get off the train.
"For example, I met a woman on the train as I crossed America. As the train pulled out of Pittsburgh, I saw this woman sitting alone at a table in the cafeteria and right away as I began filming, she told me how it was that she was on the train," he said.
When the she was three years old, the woman's parents divorced and her father, who got custody, kept her mother away. The night before she boarded the train, she received a call from her mother in Philadelphia, who told her to get on the next train and that she would meet her at the station.
"So when she got off the train, I continued filming and she looked around and then she walked up the stairs and there was a woman at the top of the stairs who flung open her arms and ran down the stairs and they embraced and they talked and finally the mother puts her head over her daughter's shoulder and turns to me and says, 'Isn't she gorgeous?'"
Of his life's work, Maysles is most proud of Grey Gardens and Salesman, the latter for a more personal reason. When the film was completed, the brothers could not get a movie theater to show it, so they held screenings to raise money to rent one. After one of the screenings, "I noticed through the door there was one person left in the theater and she got up to leave she happened to turn in our direction and I saw that she'd been crying, and as she got closer, I saw how attractive she was and I held off my brother and said, 'She's for me.' And that's how I met my wife."
At 80 years of age, Maysles has no intention of slowing down. The Maysles Institute launched an initiative called Through Our Own Eyes, a pilot summer filmmaking program for children of incarcerated parents. And his work continues to arouse the imagination. In the fall, Grey Gardens, the musical, will come to Broadway, and soon Michael Sucsy will direct a movie version starring Jessica Lange and Drew Barrymore.
Maysles refers critics who indicted the film as a cruel mockery of two weird and sad women to the last words of the senior Beale. They serve as a reminder for him that maintaining the authenticity of his subjects is far better than engineering the truth.
"When [Edith] was dying, [little Edie] told us that she was with her mother and she asked her to the effect, 'what more do you want to say?' And Mrs. Beale said, 'There is nothing more to say, everything's in the film,'" Maysles recalled. "I wish that they were still around so that they could pick up on all this wonderful stuff that's still going on."