Al Maysles has a 50-year career of making documentary films. Among his more prominent credits are Gimme Shelter, Salesman, and five films about the artist Christo.
With his brother and filmmaking partner David, Al Maysles was among the first to use the style that came to be known as cinema verité. This style of documentary filmmaking shuns narrators and re-enactments, and simply lets the subjects speak for themselves.
Unlike most of the Denver International Film Festival’s guests, Al Maysles was in town to honor, and not be honored. Beginning this year, the DIFF will give to outstanding documentary filmmakers a new award called the Maysles Brothers Award for Best Documentary Film.
I was fortunate to interview Mr. Maysles, a spry, white-haired man, softspoken, with a joyful sparkle somewhere behind his black-rimmed glasses.
Jonas Mekas made a film. He's very well known, especially in New York because he shows films of other people. Probably more than anybody else. Independent films. He made a film of his own. I don't have the title, but it's 4 hours long, stuff is out of focus. The camera is never quite steady, but it's poetic. (The IMDB lists 23 films that Mekas has directed.)
I like Fahrenheit 9/11. I can't see myself making a film like that, but I think his facts were correct. And it's, okay, it's a piece of propaganda. But he's on my side.
Going way back, you ever see a film called Pull My Daisy? That's a great one.
Marty Mapes: You’ve turned the tables. You are honoring a film festival and not the other way around.
Al Maysles: It’s an honor to be an honorer. Without being ornery.
MM: And the DIFF will give it out in your name?
AM: Yeah, that’s right.
MM: And this year’s winner?
AM: Danny Shechter. Do you know his work? He’s almost one step beyond Michael Moore in the forcefulness of his presentation.
MM: I learned about Frederick Wiseman and came to love his style before I found out that he had learned from you.
AM: And from 2 or 3 other guys.
MM: Did you learn from somebody else or did you all arise at the same time?
AM: We learned at the same time. Ricky Leacock I would say was in the forefront. And then [D.A.] Pennebaker and Bob Drew and myself. And Primary is the one that got it all started. It’s funny, the title Primary, it’s primary to the documentary movement.
Relations with Cuba, and Others
MM: It’s really hard to tell a story without a narrator to fill in the gaps — did you find any tricks along the way to help?
AM: Just keeping a sharp eye, a poetic eye if you will. There’s a knack for being at the right place at the right time. And also there’s a knack that goes along with getting access to people. So many people say “well, it must take a long time before people accept the camera. (Shakes his head, points at himself.) Right away. It’s the way you look at them.
I formed that relationship with Fidel [Castro] for example. I came to Cuba in 1960 without any credentials or any contacts. Got off the plane, jumped into a cab, asked the cab driver “where’s Fidel?” He said “oh, he’s addressing a group of women.” “—Take me there.” So I get as close as I can, which in that public space was difficult, I could only get maybe within 20 feet, but I put a 200mm lens on the camera. And as he was talking I was picking [my camera] up (gestures slowly), got it onto my shoulder just as he turned to my direction, by chance, and we connected with our eyes. He was responding to my eyes, and I knew it was okay. So I put [the camera] all the way up on my shoulder and got this fantastic shot of him.
It wasn’t long before I was spending two, full, 24-hour days with him. There was a point where I was with him at a Chinese embassy reception, standing shoulder-to-shoulder with him. A messenger came rushing in, handed him a telegram. He tears it open, reads it, turns to me and says “shall I translate it for you?” The state department had just broken off relations with Cuba.
So recently I sent him a letter recalling that moment with the implication that maybe, with the election, things will change and there’ll be another telegram. I want to be there, this time, with my little video camera.
MM: Do you think the trick is to be invisible?
AM: No, no. That’s wrong. People have complimented me — or attempted to do so — by saying “oh, it’s the fly on the wall, isn’t that wonderful.” The fly on the wall doesn’t have any intelligence. And if you’re totally invisible, you’re not using your presence to be more present when something is happening. Maybe that’s the best way to put it. You gotta be in the thick of it, but without imposing upon it by being accepted.
MM: That is so hard to do.
AM: I find it easy. And I think what makes it easy is if you’re confident that you can do it. That’s the first thing. Part of that confidence is that you feel that this is gonna be good for the person I’m filming, even if it’s something a little bit embarrassing. It’s telling the truth about that person.
Debra Dixon, who is here [at the DIFF], she edited a film that we worked together on, a film called LaLee’s Kin, a film of a very poor family in the south. I remember we finished the film — which really told their life very, very clearly, without any punches being pulled, but very sympathetically. When we finished it we showed it to the main character, grandma. She looked at it (makes a reluctant face) and she said (nods) “that’s the truth.” Then she followed up by saying “but couldn’t you have made it longer?” Then you really knew, that was the ultimate compliment.
MM: Can you think of a counterexample in your career? Where somebody says “no, you can’t film me,” or “or no, I don’t like that, that’s a very unflattering portrait”?
AM: There’s one instance of that. It’s a long story, but you’ll appreciate it. The first film that my brother and I made was a film called “Showman,” of a man by the name of Joseph E. Levine, who was a distributor, but in the process of our filming him he became a producer of Sophia Loren films. So we showed him the film. And he liked it. And his wife came over to us and she said: “I’m so glad he doesn’t have a Jewish voice.”
Now even in the film you see that he came from a very poor family in an anti-Semitic neighborhood. What frequently happens is that, when you’re subject of anti-Semitism, you tend to believe some of it. If you’re only a film distributor, the middle guy, without being creative, “oh, it’s a Jewish moneylender,” all these stereotypes. So there was some of that, especially when friends of Levine said “oh my God that film is so anti-Semitic.” So he was a little bit confused about whether to like the film. Sometimes he liked the film sometimes he didn’t, but that’s an odd case.
On another occasion, as we were filming him, he had a guy working for him doing the public relations. And the two of them were so different from one another it wasn’t going to work out. So they had a meeting one day. And we wanted to get into the meeting because we thought maybe the guy was being fired. But he didn’t want us in there so we couldn’t film. So instead we went to the guy’s office to wait for him when he came back. So he comes back to the office and as he’s walking in, one of his assistants says “gee I heard they dropped a bombshell on you.” So we got that on film. We got a better story under the right circumstances. He sat down. We put the camera down. I looked at him, I said, “if it’s okay with you we’d like to keep filming.” (Nods). He picks up the phone, he tells the whole story to his best friend. That was the right way to do it. The other way would have been too embarrassing to both of them.
MM: I was in the room when somebody asked Frederick Wiseman whether the Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle applied to human behavior.
AM: What did he say?
MM: He said no it doesn’t.
AM: How did he explain it?
MM: He said it is okay to be an observer. Just by observing you don’t necessarily change the events.
AM: That’s right.
MM: You would say the same thing.
AM: Yeah, yeah. Depends on how you handle it. For some people it’s a real problem. But especially his early films I disagreed with his way of doing things. It was always good guy bad guy. And that’s not fair. Do you know [Frederick Wiseman’s film] Titticut Follies?
AM: I didn’t like that one at all, and I’ll tell you why. I’ve worked in mental hospitals so I know something about that. And I felt that, with the best of intentions on his part, he tried to show how bad the system was there, right? How bad the people running it [were], right?
MM: So he already had a point of view.
AM: So he had that, right. And then he showed very little of the patients. But the little that he showed of the patients were in one state of psychosis or another. So making a film in defense of the patients, he actually hurt them by dehumanizing them. And in fact I’ve learned recently that that hospital already had underway serious plans for reform. And he didn’t pay any attention to that.
MM: Do you catch yourself saying “I need to be more objective”?
AM: I don’t have a problem with that. Part of it is that before making films, by the time I was 28, I was a psychologist, teaching psychology at Boston university. And in psychology, whatever you learn, you learn to be very carful about containing your prejudices.
Two to Tango
MM: It seems like you had a great collaboration with your Brother David. Did you work well together?
AM: One thing I think that helped was that we chose non-competing roles. He did the sound; I did the camera. But it was more than sound, and more than camera. He supervised [the editing]. So that was more than sound. So we had really equally important roles.
Many a brother, they’re in terrible competition with one another and they never get along. In our case, I think the relationship I think was facilitated by the fact that we had parents, who were very much in love with each other, very good parents. My mother for example was a very, very active civil rights person, before that even became popular. And so we had more than just a tolerance of people of other ethnic or color... whatever background, rich or poor, whatever. We totally accepted whatever differences there might be. That helped.
MM: Was it hard to adjust, after you lost him?
AM: Well, I worked with Susan Fromke. And we, again, we had a very complementary relationship.
MM: You have had a very long career so far.
AM: Fiftieth year coming up next year.
MM: You’ve seen a lot of changes. I’d like to ask you about some specific ones. First of all, film to video.
AM: (Smiles) Oh yeah, great! Good.
MM: Really? I don’t like the look of it. I’m kind of a film snob.
AM: I’m holding judgment on that until I see it side-by-side. Maybe I don’t want to. But I like to put it this way. The Hollywood film, the fiction film — okay, you’re looking for high production value. Documentary? Let’s sacrifice a little bit of that if it means that we’re gonna get closer to what’s going on, less imposition, make it all possible because it’s $5 for an hour instead of a couple of thousand. And still, the beauty is another kind.
MM: The subject...
AM: Yeah. And you don’t want to sacrifice that beauty. You’ve seen Salesman?
AM: When Paul is sitting alone in the cafeteria and just looking off into the room. He’s had a hard time already, he’s taking a break. I was lucky. I had 10 minutes of film. I must have had a new roll or something. But I tell you, it would have broke my heart if in the middle of that I ran out of film. But it would be all the less likely if I were shooting with a video camera, with an hour. That’s very important.
Now, people say, “yeah, but with video you’re shooting all the time, so you end up with a thousand hours of tape.” Well that’s your fault, that’s not the camera. I’ll put it this way. Henri Cartier Bresson, the great still photographer. Probably the greatest still photographer. He always used the Leica. Thirty-six exposures. Would he be better off with a 2 1/4” image and only 12 exposures?
MM: But then is he better off with a cheap digital camera with 5,000 exposures?
AM: He wouldn’t abuse it. He never did abuse the privilege of having 36 pictures instead of 12. Every time he took that shot, you just didn’t fire away. They just photographed [me] just now (pointing to photographers). They must have taken 50 shots. See now, for example, they should have been photographing me here now (talking to you). Every two minutes I’ve got 20 beautiful different expressions. Not that one of just looking at the camera, under the blaze of the lights. The light is fine, right the way it is right now. It’s okay. It’s not professional lighting... (smiles)
MM: But there it is... it’s a better smile right now... right... now.
AM: Orson Welles put it beautifully. Someone gave me his quote recently. “The camera person should have an eye behind the camera that is the eye of a poet.” He’s not talking about lighting, he’s not talking about the size of the negative.