The passing of Albert Maysles this Thursday, at the age of 88, is such a seismic moment that it’s hard to fully take in. The legendary documentary filmmaker was responsible, with his brother David, for Salesman (POV 1990), Gimme Shelter and Grey Gardens, among many other films. But he did much more than simply create beautiful films. Along with his colleagues from Drew Associates, he pioneered the cinéma vérité style of filmmaking in the 1960s. And as he aged, and continued to work, he remained a living symbol of that fly-on-the-wall form within the rapidly changing realm of documentary.
I will not plum the depths of whether or not that reputation — that of the objective documentarian — was accurate or even owned by Maysles. What matters is that it served a vital purpose in the development of documentary.
The current golden age of nonfiction filmmaking, which can be pegged to the past ten years, has always included Maysles as a living, thriving presence. He was everywhere. His films seemed to make every best-of list and we’d all spot him at documentary events throughout New York City.
Most recently, he appeared at the Cinema Eye Honors in January, where everyone in the room watched him tightly grasp Citizenfour director Laura Poitras’ arm as she won her best film award in a sign of… what? Was it happiness? Love? Pride? Tutelage? Merely the infirmity of old age?
It didn’t matter. It was a wonderful moment, one of many that he shared with doc filmmakers, as was evidenced by the rush of empathy and sadness exhibited on social media after the news of his death was announced. Of course, Maysles provided much more than moments. There are his films. And the people he mentored. He was a guiding light for a wide swath of great filmmakers.
There is some solace in knowing that Maysles lived a long, fulfilling life. How incredible that he died the night before one of his greatest films, Grey Gardens, was to be re-released in theaters. Gardens never saw the reception it deserved when it first came to theaters, but the film has had a second life.
So did Maysles. After leading the way, without the recognition he deserved then, he became the doc champion, the honored doc chieftain, whom everyone adored and embraced.
And he leaves us with one more special film. If I am not mistaken, Maysles once watched a woman on a train many decades ago, and was inspired to make a film about life’s junctures, as they transpire on trains. He told me about it years ago, saying it was his dream project. And in April, In Transit is finally going to be seen at the Tribeca Film Festival.
His dream, screened wide for anyone to see.