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Interview with Albert Maysles




"We can see two kinds of truth here. One is the raw material, which is the footage, the kind of truth that you get in literature in the diary form it's immediate, no one has tampered with it. Then there's another kind of truth that comes in extracting and juxtaposing the raw material into a more meaningful and coherent storytelling form, which finally can be said to be more than just raw data"

Albert Maysles from Levin's Documentary Explorations

Peter Tammer When (Salesman) was on at the Melbourne Film Festival, probably about 1970, it was a film I was absolutely knocked out with. It was a film that in many respects changed my life as a filmmaker.

Albert Maysles Wow!

Peter Then I was further knocked out when I saw Grey Gardens some years later, I think about 8 years later. I didn't see it at a festival, I saw it at a screening in Melbourne on Sunday afternoon. And that laid me completely because I don't think I had seen a film of such density and complexity, and of such thematic richness and nuances.

Albert Laughs. Today I was videotaping a group of 50 of the most distinguished music composers and I said to one of them, I quoted from the great daughter Edie, in Grey Gardens, "If a man doesn't love music how can you trust him". And he said "Shakespeare".

Peter Yes. There you go. Starting off with the Salesman, I'm going to read something from one of the magazines I was reading, and it quotes you and a statement I think you put up very early in your career: "The contemplation of things as they are, without error or confusion, without substitution or imposture, is in itself a nobler thing than the whole harvest of invention." from Sir Francis Bacon.

Albert That's right

Peter Very early in your career you put that out as a standard for your work.

Albert Yeah, quoting reality. Getting it down as no different, no better, no worse than what it is. That's a more simple English expression of it, but I certainly agree with Francis Bacon

Peter And I think it leads directly to the discussion of the difference between Cinema Verite and Direct Cinema. Would you like to give us your version of direct cinema because I think a lot of people these days confuse the two.

Albert Oh um, well, in Direct Cinema we try to answer Virginia Woolf's question that she asked in an essay of hers in 1926, and she asked "What, if left to its own devices, would cinema be?". Well, I think left to its own devices cinema would be Direct Cinema. That is, documentary can requote reality I think more honestly and authentically, when done properly, than any other medium. If it is practiced properly, then it is more like photography than cinematography.

Peter Yes

Albert In a really great photograph you look at it and you never forget it because it has captured a moment that is, um, unfettered by a subtitle, or narration, or music, or even the sound that might come from something ambient or when the photograph was taken. There is also a purity to the motion picture that you get in making a documentary film, you have the advantage of the camera running and picking up information so fast and so consistently that in a way it's somewhat out of the reach of the photographer to doctor it up in any way. That's one way to look at it.

Peter Well I certainly think that is a hallmark in all the films of yours that I have seen. I think that even though things changed for exponents of Direct Cinema from say, the early sixties to the late seventies, the changes are revealed in the complexity and density of the editing of a film like Grey Gardens. In Grey Gardens I think the tension in the film is between the direct observation of reality or events unfolding, and the structuring of those events into a coherent storytelling form. I think Direct Cinema advocates said no tampering, no dissolves, no altering the shots like zooming-in optical, freezes, or things like that. No use of wild sound over shots from which they did not originate, whereas in Grey Gardens there are many examples where your editors have done wonderful things: putting in little bits of sound which are coming form outside of the shot, whether they are off camera or whether they are bits of sound that may have come from another tape. There is one example that I can give. towards the end of the film little Edie talks about the possible death of her mother and I think she says "I hope she doesn't die soon". I think that she says that. I haven't got that written down so I am going by my memory,

Albert Over the shot of the sea. They are looking at the sea

Peter Yeah, and I think you were panning around the gardens and you got to the sea at that stage, and it seemed to me to be a bit of overlaid sound rather than sync sound. But on the other hand, I don't mind that, I like that in my films, but I think early on in Direct Cinema they would have said, 'No you don't do that. We don't manipulate it like that.'

Albert We have never been self regulated by dogma or ideology. We always felt that there might be a time where we would use music. But in general there is very little use of music in a film unless it is something occurring as the natural sequence of our part of what is in the picture.

When you talk about rules, perhaps you are familiar with so called dogma of the Danish school of filmmaking. I think they have gone over-board. Their rules seem to make sense to me, as far as rules go, like hand held camera, and they want to do every thing with video. All that's fine but unless the camera person is a really good camera person with all the empathy and the ability to look somebody straight in the eye, and establish immediately a trust, you know, and unless it is really first class, all these rules are, you know, subject to abuse.

Peter I agree with you. I am sure your work shows that you developed from the point of your early statements into a much more fluent use of all the possibilities, the language of cinema. And I think you invented a particular language of cinema in your films.

Can I go back to the Salesman? I found the Salesman a totally devastating film when I first saw it, and as I have seen it more, it has grown in my appreciation over the last 20 something years.

Albert Can you imagine what it is for a young woman to see that?

Peter No I can't.

Albert If you were devastated by it identifying with the frustration's of the man, imagine what a woman goes through in seeing the frustration's of the housewife who is something of a victim, who can't seem to slip out of victim-hood.

Peter I can see that and to some extent, Paul was also a victim. And a victim who, somehow in the process of making the film, has come to see his lot acutely, or more acutely than before, and maybe is starting to lose his nerve, lose his faith, lose his judgement in his belief of being able to work this way in the future. People say he was not aware of the camera, yet I read in the articles of interviews with you and David that he liked and enjoyed your company and probably he found an empathy in dealing with people that thought differently, had a different consciousness than the people he worked with every day. So that he started to see his life in a way that was different from before.

Albert I think that can happen, you know when you spend six weeks filming a group of people and concentrating on one, that person can get some insights into his or her own situations and behaviour. Paul was able to go through with this somewhat painful process and in a way suffered the pain of self-realisation. When he saw the film with the other guys they were the first ones to see it, and we were with them. He cried at the right time, he laughed at the right time. And it's interesting, he more than any of the others, showed an overt reaction to it, so that to this day I don't know how any of the other guys felt. But of course, as you know from the film, he was the one that was the more conscious.

Peter Oh yeah, yeah. The best example of that is the scene in which the Bull is trying to help Paul with his sales technique, where in fact he humiliates and, to a certain extent, devastates and destroys him, and he is not even aware that he is doing this.

Albert The whole system of salesmanship is to go for the sale, and if you are helping somebody out you have to teach them to be one track. And the problem with Paul was that he was too much of a poet, too much of a human being to be able to separate those two channels from one another and be a successful salesman. All of which really tells us a lot about what American culture is all about. I don't know how many salesmen there are about but there are millions, and, for millions of men especially, the only road to economic independence is through selling, if they don't happen to have another kind of professional skill. It is a terribly dehumanising process for them and anybody they encounter as customers.

Peter Let's move on to Grey Gardens which is a masterpiece of the documentary cinema, and of all cinema. Just as I have always delighted in showing my students Nanook of the North, and every time I showed it whether it was 20 years, 60 years, 80 years after it was made it still had the freshness that it must have had in 1921. Similarly whenever I showed people Grey Gardens it moved them very deeply, knocked them about. They were astonished at the richness and the density of the film, and um, so let me just ask you what led you to make that film? How did you find out about it and how did you get into it?

Albert We got into it by chance as often happens in these things. We got a call one day from Lee Radziwel, Jackie Onassis's sister who had a boyfriend Peter Bierder who was a friend of ours, a very well known stills photographer. It was at a time when she wanted to do something autobiographical in writing or movies or what ever. So she was exploring the idea of making a film. So Peter said if you want to make a film of your childhood, which she wanted to do, then why don't you speak to the Maysles brothers. So she called us up anon saying that we should go to her childhood summer resorts in East Hampton in the film. At first I was thinking how can we create the past of her childhood. She said, "Oh no, I have a list of some 40 items that you could film for this film and they are all going on now which are related to my childhood". We thought OK, let's take a look at the list and we did.

So we began our filming, and we noticed that item No.34 was her eccentric auntie cousin and she said, "You know I am calling them up on the phone. You've got to listen to some of this. In any case I am going over tomorrow as they are having problems with the board of health and would you like to come along?". So we went along with her and we started filming right away.

Peter The very first moment

Albert Right. So all that stuff was really good. It was so good that when a few days later when she asked to see a rough cut of what we had been filming, it turned out that the [item No. 34] material was the most interesting and I think she kind of felt that she was up-staged by it, and lost interest in the project. A number of months later, we thought, oh we just can't give this stuff up, it's too interesting so we went back and made our own film.

Peter How long did you spend shooting the film

Albert We spent about six weeks

Peter Only six weeks. It feels like you must have been around for much longer than that to get degree of intimacy, but you must have struck it straight away.

Albert I think one of the things we had in our favour was that the desire and instinct for disclosure is much stronger than to keep a secret. And that's true with them. The special thing abut them is that they were recluses, hermits if you will, and the odd thing is, that as much as they were reclusive they had this terrific desire to represent themselves exactly as they were. Now if we had come in at any point and said, "Why don't you say this instead of that?" Of, "Repeat this!" we would have been thrown out in an instant. It's just that they knew somehow, they got it right from the start, we were interested in them exactly as they were.

Peter Without being represented or interfered with.

Albert No cosmetics, just exactly who they were. And we must have got it exactly correct because when the mother died a year after the film was finished, the daughter reported back to us that she had asked what else there was to say and she said (the mother) there was nothing more to say - it was all in the film.

Peter I think that you did do that. Not only between them, but I think also it is an intricate film the way they work through you and David and involve you in their life. I think it is not just a one-way process of the observer, observing the person in front of the camera. It is obviously a film where there is a tremendous amount of interaction between the people on-screen and off-screen

Albert This provokes people to think, 'Oh well, it is not really them'. But people exist in social situations. We didn't insist on playing the role of fly on the wall. And people misunderstand what is the best way to do a documentary. A fly on the wall is a fly on the ointment. When you claim that you are not really there, but you really are, there is something dishonest about that.

On the other hand if you recognise, as they do, the truth of the matter but you take on special role of trusting that your presence is not going to reduce the truth or the authenticity of what you were after, in this case, it is the relationship between these two women. Perhaps the most important thing is that you must really like the people that you are filming.

Peter Oh I think that is very clear in the film.

Albert If you give them that kind of attention, then they can go back to being just themselves. And the process can take place in an instant. At one point, well after we had started filming, Edie told us there are a couple of other guys that had come several years before wanting to make a film of them. They were kind of interested until they said, "Well of course Julie Christie will play the part of young Edie". Edie said, "Nothing doing. If anyone is going to do a film about me it is going to be me". From that point of view we were all made for one another

Peter Did you ever feel a difficulty in holding back when you were being enlisted by big Edie or little Edie to be seeing the world from their side, against the other?

Albert I think they understood all the time that, no, we were going to be fair. We weren't going to take sides.

Peter Another part of the trust.

Albert Yeah I think they trusted us all the more for it. You could so easily do a job on the mother. Easily.

Peter Easily. And that in fact is what one of the editors said, I think it was Ellen, that in one early version of the film before it was released, before it was finished, the role of big Edie was much crueler, more dominating over little Edie. And that they had to work through the film very hard to make it come out more balanced and come out the way it does at the end which goes past that thing of one against the other. They are both locked into this universe that is theirs.

Albert As any family therapist will tell you, there are two things that would come to their minds right away and that is that it takes two to do the tango, and also they would like the film as you do because finally somebody is doing in a real and very powerful way a very real representation of the most powerful human relationship: the mother/daughter human relationship. Even Freud never got quiet around to that. He dealt with the Oedipal complex, which he was attracted to I suppose because he was a man. So just by the chance of having met these woman and not even thinking so much about that fact, but probably being drawn more to the haunted house and the mysteries, undiscovered initially, we hit upon some very very basic elements of human nature.

Peter You certainly did. It's a very powerful film And one of the things that I like about it, is the way, for example, all the songs that are sung by either of the women and the ways in which the songs are performed. The difference between the way big Edie and little Edie perform, and they actually fight. Their war, their battle is fought over the singing of the song or the ugliness of it, or the correct way to sing.

Albert You know, I spoke with people who have seen the film who know something about music, and they said Edie can't sing. And of course I have spoken to others who are experts on opera that have told me she has a wonderful voice. That she could have been a professional. It is so interesting, I guess.

I guess the media present life in such a cynical fashion, and have said "Of course, Edie is so foolish in those clothes". The truth of the matter is, I happen to know from friends who are very much involved in the fashion world that some of the biggest fashion makers have seen the film, and her clothes have influenced their design of new fashion. So she is a fashion maker! The mother's got a fine voice that could have established herself as a professional. See, there is such a tendency when reviewing things that are in public to be pressured into thinking so little of people, and they are so sceptical as to be cynical of the modus of the filmmaker, that might be exploitation when it is not. A disrespect for anybody who is unconventional, certainly these women are so unconventional. It's funny that perhaps the largest group watching the film are homosexuals. There is a terrific, positive response on their part, they see the film over and over again. In fact there are parties. I don't know if you have them in Australia. For one thing I don't know how well distributed the film is there. But in America, there is hardly a month or even a week goes by where there is not a Grey Gardens party, dressed up in the clothing of Edie.

Peter That is amazing, that is extraordinary.

Albert Yes it is very common. Not only do they dress up but they know all the lines. And so that is all they do all evening.

Peter It's a cult film.

Albert Yeah, very much.

Peter There is one beautiful line, referring to this, where big Edie says you are wasting your time with that thing, meaning the camera, pointing to little Edie. And then little Edie says to you behind the camera "You are very good at what you do, see. You see me as a woman. I see myself as a little girl". And through all that neither you nor David respond. But it is a very powerful moment. I got the impression while I was watching that scene so many times over that this girl has been denied the chance, or has willingly denied herself the chance, to grow up. That's just one reading perhaps.

Albert But you know, to look at it another way, so many people who in other ways have had more successful lives, got married or what ever. Who amongst those neighbours would be as successful a character in a documentary as these two women?

Peter No, None.

Albert Who has, what one person has told me so beautifully, who has the trust to trust the vulnerability of just being themselves?

Peter It is a rare event, a rare commodity these days.

Albert And they had it. Stupidly people have turned that around and taken the trust as vulnerability, and have us exploiting them, and them being foolish enough to reveal their hearts and minds. A good deal of that comes from the fact that these people would not allow themselves to exercise that kind of trust. They do not have the courage and they don't have as much to reveal that is that interesting. It is rather difficult to explain when you cross the line into exploitation, and I have had a good many years to think about what I am doing in that way. But I know it when I have seen it. I can recognise it in other people's films. And people are doing that all the time, certainly on television, and some of these live shows and movies that are done. Especially in Documentaries.

Peter Do you feel like making any statement about how you see the body of work you have produced so far. I presume you are still making films

Albert Oh yes, I was out filming today. How do I feel about it? I think the very best films that I made were films that my brother and I made out of our own initiative, totally out of our own expense like Gimme Shelter, Grey Gardens and Salesman. But you can't do that all the time. The thing that thrills me so much about those three films is when they shed light on all those basic aspects on human behaviour, sociology and psychology and so forth. They are not about any specific issue, like Shakespeare or Tolstoy if you will. They are about universal aspects of human behaviour. If that is true, as I believe that it is, then it is a very satisfying factor in making films. Can you imagine the satisfaction we had when we showed to the film to the Edies?

Peter That must have been quiet a moment.

Albert We could not be absolutely sure if they would like it, or maybe some parts of it they would like to be changed. We took a chance, and we showed them. There was a long pause as the daughter paced back and forth. She looked me straight in the eye and she says, in a very loud voice "The Maysles have created a classic".

Peter Wow! What a girl. What a character. What a wonderful woman

Albert To me, just that one film alone has bought me closer to so many people. I was filming today, I was filming 50 American composers of music and one after the other I didn't have to explain what I was doing because they'd seen that film and several others by my brother and myself. One woman said, "I've seen Grey Gardens and it has changed my whole life. I have seen it thirty times!".

Peter Well I'm coming close, I've seen it 15.

Albert Laughter. Really?? Oh my god. That's wonderful. But you know one of the things that is so fascinating and that I love about making a documentary is that it is so chock full of stuff that is even beyond my own control as I am filming. Each time that I see the film there is something little or large that I hadn't seen before.

Peter Hmmm.

Albert And in a fiction film so much effort is taken to make it appear to be real and things are reduced to a simplicity that belies a complexity of things, you know. None of that is true in a film like Grey Gardens. It is so complex, so complex, which is simply another reflection of the fact that it is uncontrolled and real, and true.

Peter Uncontrolled in the act of shooting but certainly not in the editing. It's been very well formed by your very fine three editors who you gave wonderful credits to.

Albert That's right, That's right.

Peter Thanks very much for this opportunity Albert, I'm getting messages from the sound booth that we are about to run out of the time which was booked for the call. It has been a great pleasure for me to be able to talk with you. I hope you enjoy your coming visit to Australia.