With the recent broadcast of the HBO feature film adaptation of the cult documentary classic Grey Gardens, the spotlight has again been turned on David and Albert Maysles. Thus, for this edition of Americana: The Journal of American Popular Culture, we turned to a scholar of the esteemed documentary filmmakers to learn more about their work.
Jonathan B. Vogels is the author of The Direct Cinema of David and Albert Maysles, which was published by Southern Illinois University Press in 2005. In this interview, he discusses the fascinating work of these two mavericks in documentary film history.
First, what drew you to a Ph.D. in American Studies at Boston University?
I have always been interested in interdisciplinary studies. As an undergrad at the University of Colorado Boulder, I double majored in English and humanities. When it came time to look for graduate schools, I investigated several interdisciplinary studies programs, including Boston University’s. My wife had just completed a master’s in American Studies from Trinity College, and I was very intrigued by her course of study. In fact, I ended up following her reading lists and doing some of the work with her. I really appreciated the connections that were made between and among several different departments.
Can you remember any of the work she did or any of the readings in particular?
There were several courses that opened my eyes and thought processes in new ways: one was a history of the civil rights movement, which I had not studied before. Another was a twentieth century literature course that featured some exciting authors from a wide range of backgrounds: Pynchon, Kingston, Morrison, Rolando Hinojosa. In general, it was just the way the professors made connections across disciplines that really energized my thinking.
When did you realize you had an interest in documentary film?
I first developed an interest in documentary when I was an undergraduate. I took three different film courses from a professor named James Palmer, and in one of the courses we watched Christo’s Valley Curtain among other documentaries. I was hooked. That interest took deeper root after watching several seasons of the PBS series P.O.V., which featured some of the greatest non-fiction films ever made. When I got to BU, I knew I wanted film studies to be one of my areas of focus. After completing a course on the history of documentary film taught by Jeremy Murray-Brown, a BBC filmmaker who teaches in the communication school at BU, I veered more in the direction of documentary.
Did you do any work on the Maysles in graduate school?
Yes, the Maysles brothers became my dissertation focus and topic.
Why did you decide to write your book The Direct Cinema of David and Albert Maysles?
The first time I saw Salesman I was totally mesmerized. I don’t think I even moved during the course of watching it. Then I made the connection that the same filmmakers responsible for Salesman had made Valley Curtain. I began researching their work and quickly realized that there really wasn’t a comprehensive study of the Maysles Brothers, even though they were acknowledged as two of the pioneers of the documentary form. So I started chipping away at the research and tried to view every film they had made. This was no easy feat as most of the films were not widely available, and Boston is really not a film capital. Eventually, I went to the Maysles Films office in New York and really began the project in earnest. As a few years went by and still no one had written the full-length work, I decided I wanted to do it.
So Maysles Films was helpful to you and cooperated with the writing of the book?
Yes, very much so. However, I always wished they had some sort of official archivist or historian on staff because much of their stuff was sort of haphazardly kept. I remember Al opening a file drawer full of really great still photographs of the brothers in action. He also loaned out to me copies of the harder-to-find material, such as the Truman Capote and Marlon Brando films.
The Maysles have been criticized for their work. Do you think any of this criticism is justified?
As I note in my book, the criticism leveled against the Maysles brothers has some foundation, but was, I believe, exacerbated by the fact that the brothers themselves overly defended the “objectivity” of their work, so convinced were they that they were presenting a new and more authentic mode of documentary storytelling. They were right that it was new, but as we know now there is no such thing as pure objectivity. The mere presence of a camera alters behavior, but even to this day Al Maysles insists people are completely themselves when he films them.
How about in Grey Gardens? What do you say to critics who argue the Maysles brothers exploited the Beales?
Grey Gardens, of course, provides the best case in point. The Beale women’s eccentricity lent itself beautifully to the kind of direct cinema project of which the Maysles brothers were the leading practitioners. But there were many who couldn’t fathom that these women had not been taken advantage of and saw the film as a “cruel intrusion” into their lives. I do believe that the women probably were in real life much as they are on film. They were by nature performers and were lonely at the time the film was made - so, of course, they took to the idea of having someone pay attention to them via a film. They loved the finished product and never felt “exposed” or exploited.
Why do you think Grey Gardens continues to fascinate audiences and inspire fashion designers, stage and film adaptations?
The amazing honesty and wonderful eccentricity of the Beale women is so compelling to see. There are so many scenes in the documentary that stay with a viewer long after watching. Plus, the narrative is so brilliantly put together - like a Tennessee Williams play - that it just builds and builds to the climactic scene in the pink room. This is a credit to the four women who were the primary editors of the film. They typically don’t receive enough credit for this film (neither does Charlotte Zwerin for being the principal editor of Salesman and Gimme Shelter), but it is they who fashioned a coherent narrative out of the hundreds of hours of film footage. The fascination with the women has led into a sort of cult following, led in great part by the New York gay community. The sort of campy fashion, in-your-face honesty, and flair for the dramatic spoke to a growing number of gay men starting in the early ‘80s, and it seems to have just gained momentum over time. It’s one of the loveliest unintended consequences of any film ever made – but cult followings are rarely predictable. (Who would have believed what eventually happened to the Rocky Horror Picture Show?)
Let's go back to your point about the supposed “objectivity.” Do you believe the Maysles never preached, were never polemical, as advertised? You said there is no such thing as “pure objectivity.” So are you asserting that opinions did make their way into the documentaries?
Well, even an “objective” stance continues a certain kind of bias. The brothers are humanists and believe in the strength and power of every individual’s story; even that contains a bias. It happens to be one many of us would support. I do believe they came as close as anyone before or since to actually becoming a “fly on the wall” when they were filming. They did get a sort if truthfulness from their subjects that is quite amazing to see. The Christo you see in their films on him is pretty much the way he is in real life; so too with most of their subjects, including someone like Mick Jagger in Gimme Shelter. The complicated factor is that some of the filmed subjects are by nature performers, so when do they ever stop? This is the postmodern dilemma taken up by subsequent filmmakers in documentaries like Truth or Dare, the Madonna film.
Recount a specific example of that. The film subject as natural performer. A scene from one of their films.
We can look at the film Salesman, which features a brilliant and poignant “performance” by Paul Brennan. Yes, he is playing himself, but clearly there are moments when he is elevating that sense of self for the camera - in the scenes in which he speaks in the Irish brogue or describes the other salesmen. I am quite sure he behaved quite similarly when the cameras were off as well, but still we have a performance on film. Meanwhile, we have to remember that the pure objectivity is lost in the editing room, when a film is cut and spliced and re-ordered to make some sort of story. Al never edited films, so he was able to take more of a purist’s stance when he was filming. David understood better that the editing process does impose a certain kind of artificial quality onto the subjects, and therefore pure objectivity is lost.
Do you see a connection between the Maysles' direct cinema and reality television? Do you believe the brothers' work inspired reality television creators and producers?
Reality TV could never have happened without the direct cinema and cinema verite trends of the late ‘60s/early ‘70s. There has been a certain evolution to filmmaking that now seems logical and perhaps inevitable. One should keep in mind that among the Maysles brothers' greatest achievements are the technical advances they helped bring about in the portability of both camera and sound equipment. By today’s standards, their equipment was enormous and bulky, but it was still much more portable than the previous cameras and microphones. Thus, they helped pave the way for the fact that virtually anyone can carry and/or own a camera now. That said, Al Maysles has always distanced himself from most commercial product, seeing his work as a purer form than the distilled version now in evidence all over the place. Al has very little use for what's on television these days. He'd still much rather go out and interview people on film. (Ironically, however, Maysles films made money not from their famous documentaries but through commercials, promotional films, and other “hired” business.)
In your book, you remind us that Jeac-Luc Godard called Al the greatest cameraman in America. I’m sure some of that credit goes to the technical advances. Al even changed the position of the viewfinder, right? So he could see what he was filming better?
He did. It was also important for him to connect personally to whomever he was filming. He is a relationship guy.
You mentioned being mesmerized by such films as Salesman. Can you pinpoint what fascinated you so?
It’s the combination of factors at play in the film: we’ve all been in situations where a salesman is trying to persuade us into buying when we don’t really want to - that’s an uncomfortable moment to be in and certainly to watch. But in the film we also have the distance to see the situation for what it really is. And the people who are the potential customers also seem at their wit’s end in a way that is compelling to view. The scenes play out long enough that we see the human drama unfold, and it is both fascinating and repellent at times. There is also great humor, some intended and some not, throughout the film.
Is that the trick of the Maysles? How they were able to expose human truth and frailty? In your book, you refer to it as the “humanity of their subjects.”
I think that is a major part of it. They show us people in their weaker moments but never in a way that ridicules (at least I don’t think so). They make us recognize ourselves in the vulnerability of others; we connect to the “realness” of the people we are seeing.
Indeed, many seem to feel that way after watching a Maysles' documentary.
And lastly, what do you hope readers take from your book?
Mainly, I hope for a wider audience to see these films and develop a greater appreciation for the work. I also want to provide a rich historical context for direct cinema in general and the Maysles brothers’ work in particular.
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