In 1973, Albert and David Maysles, well known for their intimate portraits of mammoth midcentury public figures from Marlon Brando to the Beatles, were commissioned by Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis and Lee Radziwell to make a film about their lives. While in the process of researching, the Maysles encountered their ostensible subjects’ estranged relatives, the Beales – Big Edie and daughter Little Edie – who toil their days unashamedly, often blissfully isolated in a crumbling estate. Alongside co-directors Ellen Hovde and Muffie Meyer, the brothers Maysles realized that the mesmerizing Beales, who were never shy to perform for the camera or confront the filmmakers, were the obvious choice for a documentary subject.
The result was Grey Gardens, which premiered at the New York Film Festival forty years ago and, after an initially mixed reception, grew to become one of the most celebrated and revisited documentaries in the history of the medium, eventually inspiring a stage musical, a new film assembled from outtakes, a HBO film starring Jessica Lange and Drew Barrymore, and numerous books and inquiries that formed the film’s cult audience. Even within a celebrated career that includes Salesman and Gimme Shelter,
Grey Gardens stands alone not only as evidence of the powerful connections with subjects that the nonfiction medium can form, but as an example about how turning one’s lens to a wonderful but heretofore unexamined corner of life can be a game-changer in of itself.
The film also encapsulates the Maysles’ philosophy of Direct Cinema, particularly their directive to form deeply empathetic connections with their subjects. Now a restored version of Grey Gardens will circulate theatrically from Janus Films beginning March 6. So here is as good a time as any to get a bit of free film school (for fans and filmmakers alike) from Albert Maysles.
Practice Empathy – in Filmmaking, and in Life
“And it’s very important right from the start to form a relationship with your subject where you are trusted. This way they are allowed to do what comes naturally, to disclose rather then to keep secret. This authenticity and ability to empathize comes from the cameraperson and the director. These are the words that keep coming up for documentary; empathy, experience, open-mindedness.
I would have the same advice for life. Establish an empathizing relationship. Mostly, with your eyes, so upon meeting someone they will, from the start, catch something in your eyes that indicates there is empathy. And then the rest of your relationship, the empathizing guarantees the subject to continue being himself or herself.”
Maysles has continually been taken to task in interviews, Q&As, and reviews as to whether Grey Gardens constitutes an example of exploitating a subject. But the reason the film has been so lasting is not because of an American Movie-style “get a load of this” glimpse into eccentric living, but because the directors developed a close relationship of trust throughout filming to the point where the Beales themselves became Grey Gardens’s first audience (and critics). Roger Ebert once referred to movies as an “empathy machine” – a means of accessing and relating to experiences and subjectivities that are not one’s own. This can also describe the possibilities of sincere documentary filmmaking.
Filmmaking is Poetry
“I think Orson Welles put it very well when he said that, ‘The eye of the cameraperson, behind the lens should be the eye of a poet.’ Well, what is poetry? In a way, there’s no special purpose behind a poem, and yet you end up with something quite beautiful, full of understanding and love.”
Respect Your Subjects and Represent Truth
Maysles emphasizes here a variation about his point regarding empathy, and in so doing clears up a misconception about the Direct Cinema style: it requires an active, not passive, documentarian. Or, in his words, “Fly on the wall is a misnomer – it’s active. You have to use your sensibilities and poetry to represent truth.”
Understand the Importance of Neorealism
Rachael Horovitz: “What kind of films were you watching in the ’50s?”
Albert Maysles: “I must have seen the Italian Neorealist school of filming. That really touched me because it was so down-to-earth. I always felt strongly that too much of what we see is celebrities and not enough ordinary people.”
Horovitz: “Is there a film of yours that communicates your point of view more than the others?”
Maysles: “Salesman – if only for the fact that it was, in a very major way, changing from us going fist-to-fist with the Irish to handshake-to-handshake. We really did become friends with the salesmen.”
As other directors have remarked upon, neorealism drastically reshaped the possibilities of filmmaking. By angling one’s lens away from spectacle and Hollywood-style heroes to the struggles of ordinary people, neorealism changed the political possibilities of cinema and opened up the medium as a powerful vessel for radical empathy.
The nuanced yet ultimately devastating Salesman is as neorealist a documentary if there ever was one, a patient and investigative inquiry into how the pursuit of the so-called American Dream plays out on the ground. But Albert and the late David Maysles were also well known for their portrayals of celebrities like Orson Welles and the Rolling Stones, major public figures like JFK (the brothers first made their mark as camera operators for Robert Drew’s Primary), and ambitious artists like Christo and Jeanne-Claude. This does not necessarily contradict the Maysles’ neorealist origins – rather, it explains why they were able to capture a side of famous people in ways no other documentarians could: by portraying them as people and observing their everyday experiences.
The Film Camera is a Means of Direct Experience
What a gift, indeed.
Remember, as a documentarian you are an observer, an author but not a director, a discoverer, not a controller.
Albert Maysles does not ascribe to the misleading presumption that practitioners of Direct Cinema are simply the vessels through which events are captured – passive “flies on the wall” recording events that would occur regardless of their presence. Instead, Maysles sees the work of honest documentary filmmaking as a process of arduous self-awareness in which one forges a particular relationship to a subject that is without pretense, that comes from an honest desire to better know the subject’s experiences. “Not directing” while directing a documentary film is hardly a path towards intellectual complacency. It’s an invitation to let the documentary find you through a process of patiently watching and experiencing the people and their gifts in front of you.