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The Maysles Brothers

…because real people are characters too, and the truth is anything but boring. Among the founders of the Direct Cinema movement, Albert and David Maysles believed that documentary filmmakers should present reality in an uncontrived format. Yet rather than using a pure fly-on-the-wall approach, the Maysles understood how the presence of the camera inevitably altered their subjects. As a result, their films captured the personalities of individuals ranging from struggling bible salesmen to Mick Jagger to the eccentric Beale ladies in a state of natural performance.



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Through their association with the Direct Cinema movement, the Maysles attempted to present an unfiltered version of reality in their films. Rather than crafting a narrative around their subjects or arguing for a specific cause, the Maysles basically turned their camera on and let it run. By taking this approach, they were able to capture their subjects in unguarded moments as the “characters” became more or less accustomed to the presence of a camera and crew in their lives. On one very infamous occasion, the Maysles accidentally recorded the murder of a music fan at the Rolling Stones concert in Altamont – at the time, they were simply trying to capture as much of the unfolding mayhem as possible. However, to make this approach effective, the Maysles needed to be filming more or less around the clock. They tended to embrace any new technology that made this process easier, such as the transition from celluloid film to video. And while it might be tempting to draw a through line from the Maysles and Direct Cinema to reality television, the Maysles actually hoped for something very different when they began to film: authenticity, not artificially constructed drama. It’s not their fault that they were occasionally present when the world created drama for them, or that their subjects were often naturally compelling characters.

In almost any history of Direct Cinema, the phrase “fly on the wall” arises as a description of the movement’s theory of film. However, the Maysles understood a very significant distinction here: a fly on the wall is barely noticeable, whereas even a tiny film crew consisting of a cameraman (Albert) and sound operator (David) is hard to miss. The Maysles were very aware of how their presence affected their subjects, often incorporating this fact into their work. For instance, in "Grey Gardens" the Beales often seem aware of the camera, yet paradoxically, their interaction with the filmmakers only seem to emphasize the truth of the Beale’s lives as lonely, isolated individuals. Similarly, when the Maysles recorded the stabbing at Altamont for "Gimme Shelter," their presence literally changed the course of history there by preserving video evidence. Rather than ignoring this fact, they acknowledged it by presenting it to the band on camera, turning the film into a meta-documentary. Although they wanted to present an honest portrait on film, the Maysles realized that everyday life now happens not in spite of the camera, but along with it – and occasionally, because the camera is there.

Instead of viewing documentary cinema as activism or propaganda, the Maysles hoped their films would start a conversation among viewers. Much in the same way a painting can yield different interpretations, the Maysles used documentary films to present the lives of their subjects to the viewers without bias. In this sense, the often rough quality of their films actually contributed to their cinematic mission. The grainy aesthetic supported the notion that the brothers simply took whatever available footage in order to convey the personalities of their subjects. Occasionally, as in the crumbling estate of "Grey Gardens," the environment also matched the DIY quality of the production. However, the Maysles were also careful to pay attention to the shots they gathered while filming, assembling a first cut in their head of the most powerful and moving images. The Maysles also had a natural grasp of when their subjects inadvertently revealed a larger truth about themselves or the world around them. Because documentarians can never understand the story ahead of time – or in the Maysles’s view, should not even seek out a story – observing the film as it develops during production can ultimately yield better, if occasionally unexpected, results.

Resources

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Book

The Direct Cinema of David and Albert Maysles

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Albert Maysles – Altamont Revisited

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Directing the Truth: An Interview with Albert Maysles

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Then and Now: Re-visiting Albert Maysles’ Early Celebrity Portrait Films

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Glimpses of Life: An interview with Albert Maysles

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6 Filmmaking Tips from Albert Maysles

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The Art of Documentary: Albert Maysles

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When the Maysles Brothers Filmed the Beatles

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8 Things About Albert Maysles

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Uncontrolled Cinema: Albert Maysles

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The Stones at the Speedway…

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