Albert Maysles, Pioneering Documentary Filmmaker, Dies
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The documentary filmmaker Albert Maysles has died. Maysles and his brother David made the groundbreaking documentaries "Gimme Shelter" and "Grey Gardens" among others. Maysles was still making films when he died. He was 88. NPR's Lynn Neary has this remembrance.
LYNN NEARY, BYLINE: The Maysles brothers first drew attention to their work with the 1968 film "Salesman." They followed four salesmen as they peddled Bibles door-to-door.
(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "SALESMAN")
UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #1: What would the least expensive be?
UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: Well, could I ask you this? Do you have a minute, I could show you through the whole library? If you're interested in the Bible...
UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #1: Do I have to have a whole library?
UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: Not necessarily. If you want the library, fine. If you want just the Bible, that's wonderful.
UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #1: Yeah. You want to come in?
UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: Please, yeah.
NEARY: Albert and his brother David were doing something different. They kept their cameras rolling at all times while the subjects of their films lived out their lives. The Maysles' work was often compared to the French cinema verite. In this country, this style of documentary was known as direct cinema. Cinematographer Kirsten Johnson says the Maysles had a huge influence on her generation of filmmakers.
KIRSTEN JOHNSON: They are the go-to people in terms of watching films that make you feel like you're right in the middle of something and you're right in the middle of something unexpected.
NEARY: When the Maysles were filming the Rolling Stones during their 1969 U.S. tour, something very unexpected happened when someone was killed during their notorious concert at Altamont. The Maysles recorded the moment in their film "Gimme Shelter."
(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "GIMME SHELTER")
UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: We need a doctor under the left-hand scaffold as soon as possible, please.
NEARY: "Gimme Shelter" won much critical acclaim, but some questioned whether the Maysles had exploited a violent situation. The question of exploitation came up again with their most famous film, "Grey Gardens," a vivid look at the lives of Edith Beale and her daughter Edie, who lived in squalor on an estate in East Hampton, N.Y.
(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "GREY GARDENS")
UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #2: I suppose I won't get out of here until she dies or I die. I don't know when I'm going to get out of here.
UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #3: Well, why do you want to get out?
UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #2: Because I don't like it.
UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #3: Any place would be much worse, any place on Earth.
UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #2: Yeah, but I like freedom.
NEARY: "Grey Gardens" was later made into an HBO mini-series and a Broadway musical. Shortly before the show opened, Albert Maysles told NPR that he loved the Beales and never felt he was exploiting them.
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED BROADCAST)
ALBERT MAYSLES: I don't think they needed any kind of overprotection from us. They can stand on their own ground. On the other hand, if you don't care to respect the people you're filming, then you can exploit them. But we had a genuine fondness for these people.
NEARY: The Maysles never put distance between themselves and their subjects, says Kirsten Johnson. Rather, their films were all about making a connection with people.
JOHNSON: And that's the thing that I really hang onto, is that it's not that the camera creates a wall between you and other people, or a distance. It's about a place of emotional connection being possible.
NEARY: After his brother died in 1987, Albert Maysles worked with a variety of co-directors. Most recently, his documentary "Iris" was well-received at the New York Film Festival. It's a portrait of designer and well-known New York fashion figure Iris Apfel, who says Maysles easily won her trust.
IRIS APFEL: He was a very loving gentleman and very kindly. And you didn't have any feeling that it was gotcha or anything like that. It was just very comfortable and I was very happy doing it.
NEARY: Albert Maysles died at home last night of pancreatic cancer. His last documentary, "In Transit," is scheduled to open at the Tribeca Film Festival next month. Lynn Neary, NPR News, Washington.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "GIMME SHELTER")
THE ROLLING STONES: (Singing) It's just a shot away. Sister, it's just a kiss away... Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.