Friday, March 6, 2015

Al Maysles.

 "The film is sort of the the beginning of a love affair between the filmmakers and the subjects. Some filmmakers make targets of the subjects they film; that's not our way." - Albert Maysles (1926-2015)

 A personal note/humblebrag, first of all, might as well get it here (I don't usually do it, but...) I met Al Maysles several years ago - actually, ten years ago this Winter - when he was making a documentary on "The Gates", a massive art project where a man hung lots and lots of orange flags all along Central Park (You remember it, doncha?) It was thanks to David Shapiro, the poet and a professor I had a WPU who invited his class to check out the park and meet Maysles. I actually got on camera, if I remember, and said some things about the Gates but don't remember what. Of course, it being Shapiro, he got a lot of talk/camera time. Just because that's who he is - and who'd want to change that? But I digress.

 Maysles was nothing but the most gracious, sweet old master of a documentarian. He was a contrast to Shapiro, who could talk and talk and was quite good at doing so. Maysles mode, far as I could tell, was nothing but the calm observer, waiting to see something happening, even in his late 70's as sharp as a tack (he passed on at 88 this week). But he was quiet about it, and all the better for it. In just half an hour I got a valuable lesson in filmmaking, without seeing him do a lot. Come to think of it, it was doing so much with so little (I should say I didn't see what he was filming until a year or so later, when HBO aired the doc on it).

 He and his brother David crafted a little area of film history with a series of films - Salesman, Gimme Shelter (which goes toe-to-toe with Woodstock as the Great Rock & Roll Movie, certainly the most tragic), Grey Gardens, and a series of docs on a wide variety of subjects. Hell, I seem to recall he did a doc one year on a classic music quartet, and then the next year on a publisher for... Sports Illustrated swimsuits. I may have to check on that (Correction, yes, he did one, in 1992). And that was not so much for the hot girls or whatever, but for the wacky publisher himself.

Watching his work is illuminating and staggering not simply if you want to make documentaries, but fiction films as well.  His eyes were unique without (or because they weren't) trying to do much - actually, him standing back and just letting stuff 'happen' made it... cool, simple, without any problem.  The number of people he inspired is hard to estimate, even if it was just from Gimme Shelter (a moment where he shows Charlie Watts sitting and listening to 'Wild Horses' is just one of those great moments in the movies, period).

As a storyteller, the man had the same level of monumental importance as other filmmakers doing unique stuff that people hadn't quite seen with the camera - maybe Altman had a similar aesthetic, just... waiting for things to happen. Maybe Ozu was like that too. Only in his case he was the perennial "Fly-on-the-Wall', along with DA Pennebaker.

But enough of all this gushing, he'd want to work to speak for itself....

“Making films exactly the way I believe they should be made. One of the things that makes it easy is that I have a true love for people, and so I have no difficulty getting and keeping access.”

Look at these has-beens