A word about documentary filmmaker Albert Maysles, who died last week. He was, as New Yorker film journalist and essayist Richard Brody aptly wrote, “one of the crucial artists of modern documentary filmmaking — or, simply, one of the most important filmmakers of the past half-century.”
I didn’t know him well, but well enough to call him Al. We had not seen one another very often in the past few years, yet decades ago, he played a crucial role in my transition to independence and adulthood.
As a high school senior in my hometown, Canandaigua, NY, in the Finger Lakes, I was itching to finish, get out of town and start college. The school had gotten some sort of small grant – perhaps from the New York State Council on the Arts – to have an artist-in-residence for a day or two. The artist we got was Al and I was assigned to be his guide, getting him from place to place and screening to screening.
I actually knew who he was. He and his brother David had just premiered Salesman, a new cinema verite documentary that was getting a lot of attention, the story of four sad, desperate Willy Lomans selling Bibles door-to-door to the poor and guileless in Massachusetts and Opa-Locka, Florida.
During his visit, Al showed Salesman, and several other films he and his brother had made: What’s Happening! The Beatles in the USA, a chronicle of that first insane American trip when the band appeared on The Ed Sullivan Show; Showman, a portrait of movie distribution mogul Joseph Levine; and Meet Marlon Brando, a revealing look at the actor told solely through a series of media interviews promoting one of his lesser efforts, the movie Morituri.
Understand, this was 1969; decades before home video, video on demand and Netflix would make such films more readily available beyond a few urban, independent movie houses and college film societies. To have a chance to see such treasures in my small town was a rare opportunity and to be able to spend time with the actual filmmaker even more extraordinary. I was at his elbow the entire time, asking questions and listening to his stories. He was beyond gracious.
One story I especially remember: Maysles had been in Moscow filming. He was on the subway, bringing roses to the hostess at a dinner he was attending. Riding up on one of the system’s death-defyingly tall escalators, he saw a beautiful young woman on the down escalator. As they passed, he silently handed her the roses. End of story. Hokey, maybe, but as Cyrano de Bergerac would say, “What a gesture!” At least this callow youth thought it was the height of romance and sophistication.
Al’s visit was revelatory. Not that it instantly made me want to run away and become a filmmaker – at the time, I was too obsessed with politics to be steered away from that crooked path – but it made me realize that there was a world of possibilities far beyond my so far limited experience. The fact that someone could make a living – albeit often a precarious one – telling stories with a camera, meeting interesting people and going behind-the-scenes of fascinating places was mindbending. And I truly believe it changed my life, making me open to experience and the not-so-novel notion that chance favors the prepared mind.
We stayed in contact while I was in college; I’d drop into his office on Broadway on the rare times I was in New York, and when Gimme Shelter, their controversial Rolling Stones documentary came out, David Maysles invited me to a screening in Washington and lunch afterwards.
But then we lost touch. Al and David made the remarkable Grey Gardens, about the eccentric Edith Bouvier and her even balmier daughter Edie Bouvier Beale; and beautiful films about the work of installation artist Christo and his wife, Jeanne-Claude. David died in 1987 but Al carried on. His documentary Iris was shown last year at the New York Film Festival.
In the 1990s, a mutual friend with whom I was working got me back in contact with Al and for a while we were able, in part at least, to pick up where we had left off. His stories remained a fascination, his advice invaluable.
At his website, Al left this mini-manifesto:
As a documentarian I happily place my fate and faith in reality. It is my caretaker, the provider of subjects, themes, experiences – all endowed with the power of truth and the romance of discovery. And the closer I adhere to reality the more honest and authentic my tales. After all, the knowledge of the real world is exactly what we need to better understand and therefore possibly to love one another. It’s my way of making the world a better place.
He showed me at an impressionable age that there were myriad opportunities in the world, and one of them was to be a storyteller, a purveyor of truth.
So thanks, Al Maysles. For everything.