Despite making over thirty films together, three of the Maysles Brothers documentaries stand out as staples of the Direct Cinema style and the documentary genre itself.
Today we can press one button on one device and record footage of any event with synchronised sound and image. We don’t edit, we don’t cut and re-shoot, we just shoot. For many of us we couldn’t imagine it any other way, and would refuse to use our cameras, attached predominately to our telephones, if we had to put in any more effort than we already do. While this technology is relatively new, the desire for it can be traced back to the 1960’s, when from the European style of cinema-verite emerged its American counterpart, Direct Cinema.
Direct Cinema was as much a revolution of filmmaking equipment as it was of style. Filmmakers used lightweight film equipment and live, synced sound in order to be able to capture their subjects in the moment. Without having to worry about a large crew, extravagant lighting or sets, filmmakers were able to move around with their subjects, enabling a low-budget and intimate style of documentary.
Chronicle Of A Summer, directed by revolutionary cinema-verite artist Jean Rouch in 1960, was one of the first documentary films to connect a camera to a transitory tape recorder, allowing for automatically synced sound. The film breaks boundaries by showing the filmmakers discussing film itself and its inherently dishonest nature, as well as footage of the subjects watching back what has been recorded and pondering whether it truly captures reality. This was the essence of the cinema-verite movement and later Direct Cinema; truly capturing reality on film without the trappings of fiction or technological intervention.
At the inception of this methodology, as filmmakers, photographers and artists strove to reflect reality accurately, compassionately and consistently on camera, a group in the U.S formed, called Drew Associates. Headed by Robert Drew, a photographer for Life magazine, this group applied their photographic knowledge to film, experimenting with synchronising sound and film using parts of a watch. Two members of the group, brothers who had both studied psychology and made documentary style films in Russia and Poland, left in 1962 to found Maysles Films Inc. Albert and David Maysles, applying their previous knowledge, experience and innovation, went on to create what are considered the best examples of the Direct Cinema style.
The Maysles Brothers output first focused on shorter, interview style films, documenting subjects such as Marlon Brando, Yoko Ono and Truman Capote. Their first truly important film came in 1969 with the release of Salesman. Taking influence from Capote’s ‘non-fiction novel’ In Cold Blood, the Maysles Brothers wanted to create a non-fiction feature film. Salesman is stark and bleak in its realism. Following four travelling door-to-door bible salesman around America, the film sees the men staying in motels, discussing sport, getting rejected and generally living life. Deeper down, the film is a dissection of the degenerative and devastating effects of capitalism on small towns and individuals, but more than any political statement the film is about normal people in all their ugliness and truthfulness.
The brothers struggled to release Salesman as it was considered too depressing for public viewing. They resorted to distributing it themselves, and over thirty years later it was voted into the Library Of Congress by the National Film Registry. Salesman was followed in 1970 with Gimme Shelter, which traces the Rolling Stones on the last leg of their U.S tour in 1969 and the infamous Altamont Free Concert. The film ended up capturing footage of the murder of Meredith Hunt, who was caught up in the chaos of the concert where the biker gang the ‘Hells Angels’ were providing security. Reactive instead of proactive filmmaking is exemplified in the film, where the camera is trained on events as they happen, without causing events to happen. With Gimme Shelter, the Maysles Brothers reacted perfectly and importantly to the exemplification of the end of a counterculture movement.
Perhaps Albert and David’s most memorable and acclaimed film is 1975’s Grey Gardens. The documentary focuses on ‘Big Edie’ Beale and ‘Little Edie’ Beale, a mother and daughter related to the Onassis family. The pair live in a dilapidated, cluttered and crumbling mansion called ‘Grey Gardens’, which was brought to public attention when it was raided by health authorities and the family were forced to clean up. Initially planned as a movie about Jackie Onassis’ younger sisters upbringing at the manor, the Maysles Brothers quickly realised the Beale’s were far more interesting characters and funded the film themselves in order to focus on the pair.
The film is listed by Sight and Sound as the 9th greatest documentary of all time, and spawned a sequel using unused footage, a play, a musical theatre production, a television movie and a legacy of interest and intrigue from the public. Grey Gardens is particularly interesting in that it explores the relationship between the Maylses Brothers and the Beale family as much it explores the house and its inhabitants. Both women refer to the filmmakers and even become angry and threaten them, whilst also entertaining and putting on a show. The documentary is one of the best records of ageing, humanity and family in existence, and is told completely honestly and sympathetically.
The brothers continued to make documentaries up until David’s death in 1987. They covered topics such as the work of Christo and Jeanne-Claude, the infamous ‘Rumble In The Jungle’ boxing match and the world of high level orchestras. Following Alberts death in 2015 the brothers reputation has only grown, and both Salesman and Grey Gardens were selected for preservation at the Library of Congress. Films like these should be preserved, as they are not works of fiction but climatic snapshots of history, actual history recorded and shown to our eyes. If major historical events were captured by a camera, perhaps they too would have more weight on our modern ways of thinking.
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