Albert Maysles, along with his brother David, changed the art and aspirations of generations of filmmakers. But they did much more than that. Through the filmmakers they influenced, directly and indirectly, they changed the way audiences see documentaries.
My personal connection to the Maysles Brothers’ work and vision began in the summer of 1969, right after I graduated from college, when I saw Salesman in a movie theater. There were few documentaries being shown in theaters in those days, and those that were came out of an earlier tradition — scripted, heavily narrated and not particularly probing, illuminating or carrying much emotional resonance.
Here was something completely different from anything I’d ever seen — a nonfiction film that followed four bible salesmen from sales meetings to door-knocking, to motel rooms, as they tried to sell expensive bibles to people who couldn’t afford them. Who would think following four bible salesmen would make a fascinating, compelling, even riveting film? They weren’t celebrities, there was no great drama, but through those four characters and the people they encountered, I got a privileged glimpse into a slice of mid-20th century working-class America.
Although I’d already decided to give documentary filmmaking a try, Salesman had a profound impact on me. It not only confirmed my sense that nonfiction film was a powerful medium, but it dramatically broadened what I thought was possible.
Twenty years later, I was honored to bring Salesman to a much wider audience by giving it its first broadcast during the third season of POV. The reviews in 1990 were as unanimous in their enthusiasm as they had been in 1969.
Al and David, along with their editor and co-director Charlotte Zwerin, — and later, Ellen Hovde, Muffie Meyer and Susan Froemke — changed documentaries forever. They took the newly developed portable camera and sound equipment of the early 60’s and a nascent form — what they called “direct cinema” and others have called “cinéma vérité” — and perfected it in film after film. They weren’t the only ones working that vein — filmmakers such as Leacock, Pennebaker and Wiseman were mining its potential at the same time — but Al and his collaborators quickly understood the potential for powerful real-life storytelling: finding great characters, earning their trust and never betraying it, tuning in to their humanity, allowing the story to unfold rather than trying to shape it, and staying with it as long as it took to get it right.
Into the mix Al brought enormous talent, passion and compassion. His exquisite cinematography was intuitive and lyrical. Whether working with bible salesmen, Mick Jagger, or the Beales of Grey Gardens, he always captured something essential and complex about the people he filmed. And they felt that way, too. As Edie Beale said, “To my mother and me, Grey Gardens is a breakthrough to something beautiful and precious called life.”
Looking back from the perspective of today, we can see how generations of powerful story-driven films — from “An American Family” to Harlan County, USA to Hoop Dreams to CitizenFour — are the progeny of Al and David’s vision.
Beyond the impact and the legacy of their films, the Maysles Brothers did something else quite significant for which they’re not often recognized — they welcomed women as creative partners at a time when that was practically unheard of in most creative endeavors, certainly in film. They shared their directors’ credit with editor Charlotte Zwerin on Salesman, Gimme Shelter and several other films, and with Ellen Hovde and Muffie Meyer on Grey Gardens.
And even into his 70s, Al was committed to mentoring a new generation of filmmakers. He and his wife Gillian Walker started the nonprofit Maysles Documentary Center in 2005 to bring filmmaking, film education, exhibition and discussions with filmmakers to the Harlem community. As Gillian wrote me recently, “The Center has really been Al’s passion for the past twelve years. Every day he went there primarily to work with Harlem/Bronx teens and adult filmmakers, watching their films, encouraging them. Most of them had not succeeded in school, and Al, because he was dyslexic, was keenly aware that having a camera in his hands, telling a story with images was profoundly liberating. He had an instinctive belief that teaching them to tell their stories, and helping them believe their voice had value would give them the confidence and discipline to tackle the hard task of finishing school.”
Sadly, Al died several weeks before the Tribeca Film Festival premiere of In Transit, a film he made in collaboration with students at the Center.
Al’s passing is a tremendous loss — we will all miss him. But we, and future generations, are so very fortunate to be able to savor, enjoy and learn from his rich body of work and the way he enriched the lives of everyone he encountered.