Sundance at BAM - Maysles Films Program
I went to the Brooklyn Academy of Music (BAM) on Sunday for the Maysles Films Program, a special showcase curated just for Sundance Institute at BAM. Documentary filmmaker Albert Maysles presented clips from his and his late brother David’s archive spanning from the 1950s to a sneak peak of Albert’s latest project In Transit.
Excerpts screened included: Russia, Moscow (1955-57), Yanki No! (1961), Untitled (1959), Showman [Outtakes] (1963), Carl Sandburg (1963), Anastasia (1962), What’s Happening! The Beatles in the U.S.A. (1964), With Love From Truman (1966)/Meet Marlon Brando [Outtakes] (1965), Off to War [Vietnam] (1965), Salvador Dali’s Fantastic Dream (1966), MGM Showreel (1966), Mother (1966), Gimme Shelter [Outtakes] (1969), McGovern (1972), Muhammad Ali in Zaire (1974), Grey Gardens [Outtakes] (1976), Maysles For Hire (1980’s and 90’s) and In Transit (work-in-progress).
Watching these excerpts play one after the other was like being a fly on the wall in a time machine of popular culture and politics in the 20th Century, but it’s not the history that you learn in school or see on the news. It’s unparalleled access to the little behind-the-scenes, candid moments from the lives of everyday people to celebrities. And how’s this for DVD commentary, without actually needing a DVD player: During the segment from Yanki No!, Albert spoke out, “I’ve taken most of the narration out because it was so full of propaganda.” If you were not lucky enough to view the program live and in person with Albert yesterday, it would be great if an actual DVD of the program was released, or perhaps an airing on PBS.
Before and after the presentation, Albert said a few words. Below are my notes from his talk.
Sundance Institute at BAM
June 10, 2007
Before the Program:
Albert began before the program saying that this is the most exciting time of our lives for documentaries. Suddenly, documentaries are emerging as more popular. It’s inevitable that it would happen. There’s a place for both fiction and non-fiction. There is a potential for cameras to pick up real life with out commercial people from Hollywood. It’s surprising that TV networks’ policies simply don’t take the work of independent filmmakers. Albert’s films are different because of the access. Most of his and his brother’s feature films are available through the Criterion Collection.
Albert pointed out that in 1955, he departed a career in psychology and got a visa to go to Russia to film the people there. It was important to know who these other people were that we might have engaged in warfare with. You get to see bits and pieces of impressions of the people.
Other clips Albert was about to show include a film about Anastasia from the Bolshoi Ballet. Excerpts from films of Truman Capote and Salvador Dali. A taste of his autobiography with a glimpse of his mother being sworn in as the president of Jewish women’s organization. A glimpse of George McGovern, the candidate for President of the U.S. in 1972. Albert said he might be the perfect guy to go with the perfect candidate to reveal his real character. Albert said, “Damn it! Why isn’t mass media working this way?” And finally, a glimpse of “In Transit,” where Albert traveled on several different trains in several different countries recording stories of the people traveling on them.
After the Program:
Albert told the audience that now they’ve had a glimpse into the past and the future. The image that touched him most was of his mother.
He then spoke of a friend who made a film about the war experience and showed it to The History Channel, but they didn’t accept it because it was too personal. Albert said we have to break through this nonsense. It’s about time we witness life like it is. There’s a whole world around us and lots to film.
Albert mentioned that when he shows his films to the subjects in them, they’ve had surprising reactions. He once he mad a film of a poor family in the South. It was a very loving and true story. He showed it to the grandmother of the family in the film who said, “well, that’s the truth,” but then asked, “can you make it longer?” And when Capote watched his own film, he came out crying.
In documentary filmmaking, Albert said there’s a wonderful word called “random.” That’s what goes on. He and his brother were a two-camera crew. You have to be interested to do a heart-to-heart story and ask yourself, can you really tell the truth? “I believe it,” he said. You might not be able to capture it all, but when you see something on the screen, it becomes your experience. That’s why he wanted to make his new film “In Transit.” One of the stories of a woman who travels to Philadelphia to see her mother in nearly 20 years.
“As you might have guessed, I’m excited about what I do,” Albert said. Albert’s family now lives in Harlem, where the Maysles Institute teaches kids 8 to twelve years old how to use cameras. Some of the children’s parents are in jail and send their films to their parents. This has taught them self respect.
There was only time for one question from the audience. The question asked: What made you make the transition from psychology to documentary filmmaking? Albert’s answer: Psychology is a kind of science that you everything until you find a truth. Before he started filming in Russia, he was given two pieces of advice that he didn’t follow: 1) Use a tripod and 2) follow a point of view. “Thank goodness I didn’t follow them,” he said.