Uncontrolled Cinema: Albert Maysles
Along with his late brother David, Albert Maysles is one of the most important figures in American documentary credited with being one of the founders of what is variously called “Direct Cinema” or “Cinema Verite” and whose body of work includes Salesman (1969), Gimme Shelter (1970) and Grey Gardens (1975) among many others. In the documentary community he’s known for his warmth and openness and his support of the craft. The Rail’s Williams Cole sat down with him in corner of his famous open office on West 54th Street.
Williams Cole (Rail): What is your central philosophy of filmmaking?
Al Maysles: Well, I think one of the most important things is to have reliable information and knowledge about other people and places—all kinds of knowledge that we, otherwise, would have incorrect or none at all. We could even say that the country is only a piece of geography until its citizens know one another to as much extent as possible. The documentary gives us a very basic familiarity with people that we, otherwise, would never know. At its best, a documentary directly shows other people’s experience. That experience becomes the experience of the viewer. It can be so direct that the viewer feels actually present in those moments that are recorded. For example, the other day I was thinking of an experience I had as a child. In those days in the early 30s, every family had a strap and the father would use the strap on the child when the child got out of order. My father would never hit me but one day he did. I must have really seriously provoked him. But it didn’t hurt or anything. As I walked through the apartment, just after that, I passed through his bedroom and there he was, head against the wall crying. I just stared on and on and on. That kind of scene, that kind of experience, for me, if there were a camera on it, I could share that. My father could share it, and I could. Or in a larger and more contemporary sense, we know very little of what Iraqis are going through. How do we know what’s really going on there unless we intimately see what an Iraqi family is going through?
Rail: How would you describe what people bring into the experience of viewing, say, a scene with your father, or an Iraqi family? Some media theorists would say that it’s the context and the baggage that people bring into viewing that changes or doesn’t change people.
Maysles: You’d have to be, I think, deprived of humanity not to connect with the scene with my father. Of course, each person will connect somewhat differently, but it’s all there for everyone. If it’s a father, a son, an older person, a younger person, someone from an entirely different culture can have that scene and connect. It’s interesting too, it takes the best part of—and I would call it entertainment—and applies it. If you look up the word “entertainment” in the dictionary, it’s first defined as “diversion.” But the second definition is “engagement.” And the second one, I think, is the best one.
Rail: Yes, and that’s a good segue to reality TV. Diversion vs. engagement. Now, over the past few years, people talk about reality in terms of entertainment a lot more. How do you think this came about and what is your opinion on it?
Maysles: It started out with the press being somewhat skeptical of “realism.” So it put quotation marks around “reality.” Then they became sloppy, they dropped the quotation marks so that people think that it’s more real than it is. I don’t know if anybody can duplicate the beauty and the force of that scene with my father. It couldn’t be quite as explosive. One problem with the “reality” thing is that, even if they want to film it in a truly documentary fashion, so that you get the real thing, the question is how many shows can you really put on with one family and still stick to something interesting? I could see 2 or 3 shows maybe.
Rail: Yes, as opposed to, say, your film Grey Gardens, these days reality TV producers almost have to manipulate the conflicts in these families to get a whole series out of it.
Maysles: But the sadder part of it is that a family without the kind of dysfunctional conflicts ain’t gonna make it. The very common journalistic notion is that unhappy families are different and happy families are the same so why bother if it’s a happy one? (Chuckles.) In fact, I don’t think they’ve tried the other. It might work. The Dalai Lama is probably the most popular person in the world today. Where’s his negativity? He gives lectures on happiness. It’s a word that’s just about disappeared from our language as we use it. And yet, that’s our golden egg. But, nothing related to that, in the news mass media.
Rail: In terms of sit down interviews and narration, could you talk about how your style of Direct Cinema challenged the norm when you started?
Maysles: Well, up until we started there wasn’t any kind of equipment where a two person crew can go out with a camera, not on a tripod, but on the shoulder and with a sound person that was in sync and disconnected. That was the technology. But then also, partly because the technology wasn’t there, there wasn’t a philosophy that went along with it. You had to as best you could try to get information, which is not as directly cinematic. Not as cinematic as it would be with a camera that’s up close capturing the experience, of giving you the feeling of being present. So you had to substitute that with narration and a host to give it more credibility. These people weren’t even there and they were talking about material that doesn’t tell it fully either! So they had to add their own research or whatever to it. All of which doesn’t direct us to what we can do now. Another way to spark it up would be to add music. In a way television hasn’t caught up yet to the advances we made with so-called direct cinema. They’re still using music, and the television commercial is a perfect example of what went wrong. People are substituting fancy cinematography, fast-cutting, over-dramatized music, because they don’t have the real thing. And it works because people don’t know the other. For example when we invented this kind of equipment that allowed us to be so close to people, it took over ten years before anyone was interested in promoting what we had. What did they care? They weren’t showing our stuff. And they still don’t. Just think about that. It’s still seen as the work of “outsiders.” Festivals often have hundreds of documentary entries and very few of them have a chance to make it onto commercial television.
Rail: Can you talk about the commercial situation? Why won’t they show the stuff? Why won’t they let filmmakers make their own films? What powers that idea?
Maysles: They want control. The word control is very interesting; it crosses all kinds of lines in that discussion. A true documentary is shot with no control. You might even call it the uncontrolled cinema. Because once you begin to control the audience it’s not even the real thing. And so that’s part of the problem with the reality shows. They want to control things, so we get the control but lose the reality.
Rail: Uncontrolled cinema, I like that. But then wouldn’t someone come across and say cinema is controlled in editing? You still have to make a decision.
Maysles: Right. But it’s a whole range of decisions that you make. If you choose a range of decisions that get to the true character of the material itself, without violating what appears to be the case, then you control it so it won’t be changed.
Rail: You’re controlling something that was once uncontrollable.
Maysles: So you can keep it uncontrollable. Our editors have always found that when they’re editing it’s the chronology that gets thrown out of position. Until we get really close to the end, and then without even thinking about it, it falls back into the original chronology. But with commercial entities it is usually about control, only about what they want to do. Let me give you an example. About ten years ago I got a call from the Rockefeller Foundations, saying “We’d like to send you to North Korea to make a movie there.” So I go. I get to Beijing, and I hear from them again, “There’s a guy on your flight, Tom Johnson from CNN.” They want me to meet him. So I’m in the waiting room the next day, waiting for the plane to take off, and I see the only other Caucasian, and I say “You must be Tom Johnson,” and he says “yeah.” And I say “I’m Albert Maysles,” and he says “Oh I know who you are.” And the discussion stopped. I say, “Aren’t you interested in what I’m doing?” He said “Oh no we’re doing our own stuff.” So the film never got made. So here we are all these years later, and that much less with North Korea. The North Koreans gave me permission to make the film I wanted to make, too.
Rail: So the difference with places like CNN: they’re coming from kind of a top-down business model. You’re coming into it as someone who has access and experience and an idea of presenting the material to open up different parts of the world. They’re just not interested; it’s just a wall.
Maysles: It’s a commercial. Or what they think is going to be a commercial.
Rail: That’s interesting because isn’t it true that audiences have developed more of an appreciation of the verite style and you would think that the commercial entities would flock to using that.
Maysles: I’m an optimistic thinker. And just as reality in literature has moved—everybody reads nonfiction now—the bestseller lists have nonfiction—so there’s a significant movement in that direction in film as well. But already so many of the feature films are using documentary techniques.
Rail: For a while now—the hand-held look, very clearly documentary-style shooting.
Maysles: In 1963 I made a little film with Jean-Luc Godard. We were talking about the documentary philosophy and technique. And in the middle of his talking about it he referred to, even in his own films, what he called a divine accident. And that just happened accidentally, and it was a great moment in the film. He says lets make a film full of divine accidents. But substitute the word divine for reality. Reality is almost a divine course, in that it controls everything, and you just abide by it. But the thing is he also said that the eye behind the camera should be the eye of the poet. Because if the poet wasn’t there, if it was just a camera. People sometimes try to describe what I do by saying I have the eye of a poet.
Rail: Yes, you need that ability to pick out details, reactions, cut-aways. So I have a particular interest in social issue documentaries like the Enron film or The Corporation, or even Fahrenheit 911, which is an essay of sorts, an Op Ed. What’s your opinion of films like that?
Maysles: Well it’s not the same kind of information that a film without a point of view would have. I try to distance myself from the point of view. But there are times when you have a preference. And that’s another kind of documentary, that’s very important. A point of view film, had we had one, called, say, Weapons of Mass Destruction, right at the start of the Iraq War, well, we couldn’t have gone into it with a lie, or had we gone in we’d be out by this time. So it’s very important that that kind of film exists.
Rail: I’ve heard you say that you’d like to make the world a better place through the kind of filmmaking you’ve had such a hand in creating. But what do you see as the major problem now?
Maysles: The major, major things that have gone wrong with our culture is that people’s respect of true knowledge has slacked off. For some time there’s been a certain healthier skepticism about what has been given to us as being true. That’s good but now it’s become cynical criticism so we can’t, in this country, believe anything. A society that feels it can’t know anything truly can’t know anything. Knowledge is worthless unless it’s true. People have the same skepticism about any documentary as well. So even if I make a film that is fairly true the average person is deprived of that kind of confidence, and therefore doesn’t get the full value of it. Also, the level of distrust of anything that you read is at its peak now. Or at least let’s hope that it doesn’t get worst; it can’t go that much further.
Rail: So in a way, perhaps the poetry of the lens can sway things, because you actually see something happen…
Maysles: Edmund Burke, the great English philosopher, said, “Evil will triumph as long as good people do nothing.” So the converse of that is if you do something good, then evil has a less chance of getting out and making its way.
Rail: That’s a good point.