Letting documentary subjects speak for themselves was a radical idea in 1960 when cameraman Albert Maysles joined a group of like-minded filmmakers to capture the Wisconsin primary battle between Sens. Hubert H. Humphrey and John F. Kennedy. Making use of new lightweight cameras and synchronous sound equipment, they created a startlingly intimate portrait of hands-on campaigning, and planted the seeds for "direct cinema."
This new form of nonfiction film eschewed traditional techniques, including talking head interviews and voice of God narration, for a more experiential approach, accompanying the subject and allowing events to unfold. Albert and his brother David Maysles (1932-1987) became masters of this form, compassionate chroniclers of everyone from artists and newsmakers to unheralded Americans.
The Maysles retrospective this week (Oct. 17-21), as part of the Detroit Docs International Film Festival, is a well-chosen immersion in their filmmaking philosophy. Over the course of a dozen films, the evolution of their influential style can be traced from its roots in newsreels.
That heritage is seen in Albert Maysles' first solo film, Psychiatry in Russia (1955, 13 minutes), where his naturalistic footage serves as visual wallpaper for the detailed narration explaining how treatment trumps theory in a post-Stalinist U.S.S.R.
Primary (1960, 53 minutes) goes a step further, employing some narration to explain political strategy, but concentrating on stunningly candid moments: a media savvy Humphrey coordinating a television call-in show; and Jackie Kennedy's white-gloved hands fluttering behind her back as she haltingly introduces her husband.
By working without preconceptions or an agenda, the brothers became expert at catching the telling moment, and the warmth they showed their subjects made them ideal chroniclers of American celebrity.
With Love from Truman (1966, 29 minutes) finds Capote building his own mythology after In Cold Blood's publication while revealing a powerful need for acknowledgment and accolades.
The charming, self-effacing movie star of Meet Marlon Brando (1965, 29 minutes) spends a day as a "huckster" for a film none of his television interviewers have seen and he's reluctant to discuss, but his real role is as actor-activist. The Hollywood wunderkind turned DIY auteur of Orson Welles in Spain (1966, 10 minutes) proposes using improvised dialogue for a (never-made) film about bullfighting aficionados.
The Maysleses had a knack for catching people at major moments of transition. As well-known for his braggadocio as his boxing, the Ali in Muhammad & Larry (1980, 26 minutes) prepares to fight his old sparring partner, and face his own limitations. (He would lose to Holmes in a technical knockout.)
Artists and musicians (from Vladimir Horowitz to the Rolling Stones) are the brothers' favorites: Cut Piece (1965, 8 minutes) finds a silent Yoko Ono losing her clothing. But it's another artist who uses fabric, Christo, who would become the Maysles brothers' most frequent artistic collaborator (six films over more than 30 years).
Christo and wife Jeanne-Claude, whose large-scale environmental installations require years of preparation and negotiations, are ideal subjects: there's devoted commitment, built-in conflict, and ultimately, visual splendor. Christo in Paris (1990, 58 minutes) is as much a love story between a Bulgarian refugee and aristocratic Parisian as it is about wrapping the Pont Neuf. Running Fence (1978, 58 minutes) demonstrates how Christo has to be a diplomat as well as an artist, and the way a massive temporary project affects a community.
Lalee's Kin: The Legacy of Cotton (2001, 88 minutes) epitomizes another type of Maysles film: social issues embodied in personal stories. With the mechanization of cotton harvesting, a rural way of life tracing back to slavery came to an end in the Mississippi Delta. A nurturing grandmother and dedicated school superintendent do daily battle with systemic poverty and entrenched illiteracy, seeing only incremental change.
Poverty is something altogether different for former socialites Edith Bouvier Beale and daughter "Little Edie," reclusive relatives of Jackie Kennedy Onassis living in dramatic squalor in a ramshackle East Hampton mansion. The intertwined pathologies of these flamboyantly eccentric women are vividly captured in Grey Gardens (1976, 94 minutes), the Maysleses' best-known film, a cult phenomenon that became a Broadway musical.
They're a human train wreck, but the brothers treat them with such magnanimity that it's never a freak show. That's especially true of the more sober The Beales of Grey Gardens (2006, 90 minutes), constructed from outtakes, which contains more of Edie's flagrant flirtation and less of the bitter, shrieking arguments that make the original such an emotional shocker.
Albert Maysles, who turns 81 in November, will be at the Detroit Film Theatre on Saturday to participate in a panel discussion following Primary, and a Q&A session after Grey Gardens, when he'll also show his current work-in-progress, an autobiographical documentary.
This new project may be Maysles' most difficult, as the man who allowed people to reveal themselves on film finally turns the all-seeing camera on himself
Detroit Docs is a co-operative effort of the Detroit Film Center and the Wayne State University Department of Communication. Screenings take place Wednesday, Oct. 17, to Sunday, Oct. 21, at three locations: the Detroit Film Theatre, located inside the DIA, 5200 Woodward Ave., Detroit (313-833-3237); the Detroit Film Center, 1227 Washington Blvd., Detroit (313-961-9936); and Cranbrook Art Museum (in the deSalle Auditorium), 39221 Woodward Ave., Bloomfield Hills (248-645-3323). Visit detroitdocs.com for a full schedule of events.
Schedule of Maysles retrospective at DFT
Wednesday, Oct. 17
(Shown with selections from Detroit Docs)
7 p.m. – Orson Welles in Spain
9:30 p.m. – Cut Piece
Thursday, Oct. 18
(7 & 9:30 p.m.)
Short films program:
With Love from Truman; Meet Marlon Brando; Psychiatry in Russia; Muhammad & Larry
Friday, Oct. 19
(7 & 9:30 p.m.)
Lalee's Kin: The Legacy of Cotton
Saturday, Oct. 20
1 p.m. – Primary with Albert Maysles panel
7 p.m. – Grey Gardens with Albert Maysles Q&A
Sunday, Oct. 21
1:30 p.m. – Christo in Paris and Running Fence
7:30 p.m. – The Beales of Grey Gardens