AMERICA'S FINEST DOCUMENTARY FILMMAKERS, BROTHERS ALBERT AND DAVID MAYSLES, HAVE EARNED THE TRUST OF EVERYONE FROM BIBLE SALESMEN IN BOSTON TO THE BEATLES TO MUHAMMAD ALI. THEIR UNTOUCHABLE OEUVRE LIVES ON
“The humanity is just what’s missing from film today,” says Albert Maysles, one half of the power duo that has brought us some of the most compelling social documentaries of our time. He is sitting at a wonderfully cluttered desk in his Harlem office, an unassuming three-story building that sits quietly in the heart of the neighborhood. Just past the glorious Apollo and around the corner from a bevy of fast-fashion and food chains, the structure is a mulitcultural center known as the Maysles Institute, which incorporates Maysles Films, the company cofounded by Albert and his (now deceased) brother, David, in 1962.
Throughout their work, the Maysles have showcased humanity in a wide variety of styles and forms, from Bible salesmen going door-to-door (Salesman, 1968) to Hell’s Angels attacking and ultimately killing a man at a Rolling Stones concert (Gimme Shelter, 1970) to Jackie Kennedy Onassis’s cousins living in a state of decay (Grey Gardens, 1975). Fashion aficionados and professionals alike have bordered on obsession with the latter of these efforts. “Designers still come up to me to tell me it inspires them,” says Albert, who credits the film’s authenticity to a lack of agenda. “Big Edie and Little Edie were on their own. All that we were after was who they really are. And that’s all they really wanted. It was enlightening.”
This year Albert will be 87, and he still revels in his tale as if it happened last week. During a break from teaching psychology at Boston University, he yearned for an adventure, so he convinced Life magazine to lend him a camera and went to film mental hospitals in Russia. The resulting work, Psychiatry in Russia, hooked the elder Maysles on the art of filmmaking. Meanwhile the younger brother was finishing a tour of duty in the Korean War. Following David’s service, each of them worked on individual projects (one of which included David’s turn as an on-set assistant which led to Albert’s having a chance encounter with Marilyn Monroe: “She was dressed in a towel. I could tell from the conversation that she was quite intelligent,” he says). The fascination had set in.
“My brother did sound and I did the camera,” recalls Albert of their process. “He also supervised the editing. We had sufficiently responsible roles and depended on each other. One of the best things that ever happened to me was having a brother that I could work with.”
Together they were among the first to pioneer non-narrative documentaries. The type of exposure their approach generated might have made some subjects blanch, but the pure-of-heart Maysles were never about ticket sales or hidden agendas. “I’m taken to think that making a documentary involves an act of friendship,” Albert says. “You become friends through a mutual like for each other, and trust. And that happens almost right away. It carries you all the way through. People become friends in the most intimate way because you really get to know them behind the scenes.” The lack of pretense in someone who is so accomplished is striking.
Maysles Films continues to be a family business, with Albert’s four adult kids each contributing to the company. Albert’s eyes twinkle at the prospect of new ideas. He’s got a handful of films in the works, one that assembles years of footage from his traveling on trains whereby he would home in on someone, learn their story, and film them getting off at their destination. Another features six-year-olds engaged in adorable tête-à-têtes. And yet another is inspired by an album featuring ladies’ bums in brightly colored cutoff shorts that hangs on the wall next to his desk. “Oh, that,” he says with a laugh. “I’m doing this crazy film in Central Park where, in the warmer seasons, I sit on a bench and film women’s behinds as they go by. It’s amazing, the variety.”
Always inspired, indeed.