One of the godfathers of modern documentary film, Albert Maysles’ career stretches back to the 1960s when he and his brother David, often working as a two- man crew, began making stripped down documentaries. The brothers’ best known collaboration is Grey Gardens (1976), which introduced the world to the Beales, a mother-daughter pair who retreated to a decrepit East Hampton mansion to bicker and dream about their faded glamour. In the cluttered office he maintains above the Maysles Cinema on Harlem’s Lenox Avenue, Albert Maysles spoke to BULLETT about favorites from his catalog.
Salesman (1968): Documents four men selling Bibles door-to-door.
I picked Salesman because Norman Mailer saw it and said it probably tells more about America than any other film. There’s something very personal about it in that the main character, in an obtuse fashion, is like my father. He’s somebody in the wrong job. My father was a postal worker, but he should have been a musician. Paul Brennan is a Bible salesman and should have been a poet. It was very American, this buying and selling, and it got into the hopes and the despair of what capitalism can bring. Then, it is the Bible, so it’s not only the men who were selling but also the women that are caught at home, unawares. It’s kind of an exploitive relationship.
We met the Stones at a significant moment in American history, and everything fell into place to describe that time at the end of the sixties when things were turning sour. There’s all the violence—the Hells Angels, the killing, the drug scene—all accompanied by the music, which coincidentally seemed to perfectly parallel the times. I was on the stage for most of the filming, but my brother happened to be on a truck with another cameraman when the killing took place, and they were in easy view of what was happening so they got some film of it. Vincent Canby, the New York Times reviewer, saw the film and thought that we must have said “A-ha!” when we looked at that footage in the editing room. The Times took that notion and he titled his review, “Making Murder Pay.”
Grey Gardens (1976): Dissects the complicated relationship between the Beales, a mother and daughter of former wealth and status, as their physical and mental health fades.
We were doing some filming of Lee Radziwill, Jacqueline Kennedy’s sister, who wanted us to make a documentary of her childhood in the Hamptons. About three days into filming she got a call from young Edie saying that she and her mother were in trouble with the Board of Health, and would you come over and help out? We brought our cameras and started filming at the house, and when Lee saw the footage, I think she felt kind of upstaged and lost interest in her own film. We shot it over a period of six weeks. Maybe forty hours of film. We thought for a moment that we would even stay in the house—there was plenty of room—but my brother had a place rented for the summer in the Hamptons, so we stayed there instead. The most difficult part of the filming was that the smell was just terrible from the cats. It was indescribable. But it was worth putting up with.
Running Fence (1977): Followed Christo and Jeanne-Claude as they sought permission to erect a 24-mile nylon fence across the California countryside. We’ve made several Christo and Jeanne- Claude projects, but this one is one of my favorites. It was a real test of the steadfastness of these two people—that they would put up with so much resistance from the government, but they finally succeeded in getting full permission… Actually, they didn’t really get the full permission, but they went ahead anyway. It was one of the earlier films of them, and it made us certain that we were on the right track by filming them. It’s one thing to film an artist standing in front of a canvas, but it’s not that cinematic. This was the perfect kind of thing for a filmmaker. Christo and Jeanne- Claude themselves kind of rejoiced over the fact that it was a temporary thing, but were also very pleased that we were there to capture it. There will always be the film.
My father’s instrument was the cornet; Wynton Marsalis’s is the trumpet. My father’s cornet has always hung on the wall of my kitchen. When I’m having breakfast I always have that in view, and it reminds me of the connection with my father. When I was a child, I would go with my father to the closet once a year and put on his World War I uniform—hat and boots and everything. I noticed that at the back of the closet was an old leather case, and there was something taboo about it so I never said anything about it. Except one year we kind of caught each other’s eyes, and he went back and pulled out the case, opened it up, pulled out a cornet, put it to his lips, moved the valves with his fingers, and then put it back in the case. He didn’t play it.
I discovered from my mother later on that my uncle Sam played the violin, my uncle Joe played percussion, and there was an uncle George who also played together with my father. He died before I was born, and when he died, my father didn’t have the heart to play anymore. I never heard my father play. But one day, as I was looking at the cornet, I noticed that it needed to be polished. So I asked the cleaning lady to polish it. And the next day I noticed that she must have dropped it, because she’d smashed the front end. So I took it to the office—it was at that time that we were finishing the film of Wynton Marsalis—I brought the cornet to him to tell him the story. He took hold of it, put it to his lips, moved the valves, and played, played on my father’s cornet. It was the first and only time I’ve ever heard it played.