g The Film Panel Notetaker: Stranger Than Fiction - "Running Fence" - January 19, 2010

Wednesday, January 20, 2010

Stranger Than Fiction - "Running Fence" - January 19, 2010

January 19, 2010
New York, NY

Stranger Than Fiction's Thom Powers and "Running Fence" co-director Albert Maysles. Photo by Brian Geldin.

Fresh off last week’s Cinema Eye Honors, Thom Powers presented this week at Stranger Than Fiction David and Albert Maysles’ and Charlotte Zwerin’s 1978 documentary “Running Fence.” Albert Maysles, who was also at last week’s Cinema Eye Honors presenting an award, appeared at Stranger Than Fiction Tuesday night to speak after the screening of “Running Fence,” which was a beautiful portrait of artists Christo’s and the late Jeanne-Claude's white 
nylon fabric that stretched along 24 ½ miles of the California Pacific coastline that, like their last project The Gates in New York City, was originally met with opposition and skepticism by residents and local government, but their persistence paid off, and their art was displayed and gorgeously filmed by the legendary Maysles brothers.

Before asking questions, Powers noted how he saw in the credits the names of people who are doing such great work such as Robert Kenner (Food, Inc.) and Bruce Sinofsky (Brother’s Keeper). Maysles said he could understand why they’re making such good movies and while just watching again “Running Fence” on the screen there at Stranger Than Fiction, it reminded him why it is that he keeps doing it. “I’m 82 years old and I got 10 or 12 projects that I’d like to get going,” Maysles said. He recognizes the importance that so much is missing in mass media – “good people, doing good things…documentary has the power to capture that very directly, very deeply, and very truthfully.”

Thom’s first question to Maysles was, what his and his brother David’s origins were with Christo and Jeanne-Claude (as “Running Fence” was just one of many collaborations together). Maysles said around 1962 or '63 when he and his brother were making documentaries in France, they were doing something different by filming with cameras that didn’t need a tripod. It was a whole new thing called “direct cinema.” The French government invited them to Lyon where they met a guy who was designing a new camera, who they brought to Paris with them to show their first film, “Showman.” The guy brought two people along, Christo and Jeanne-Claude. “They were not just people working with a canvas, but they were out in the real world where art was made up of what’s actually going on,” Maysles said. It was perfect subject matter for the Maysles’ films. It did take a while for a film project to come along. Their first project together would be “Valley Curtain.”

Powers asked Maysles while watching the film again that night; did he have any memories of that period? Maysles said he thinks back to the words of Spinoza who said "All things excellent are as difficult as they are rare," which describes the nature of this project. He also was thinking about David (who passed away in 1987) and Jeanne-Claude (who passed away last November). “They’re gone, but there they are on the screen,” he said.

While watching Albert’s (and Antonio Ferrera’s) more recent film, “The Gates,” which is the only Christo and Jeanne-Claude project he’s seen in person, it had almost more meaning to him watching it on film than seeing The Gates in person. Maysles said, “That’s the strength of documentary,” Maysles said. “If the camerawork is good, it sees more than you would as a normal person. The viewer is given a better position to know what took place than having been there.” (For my 2007 film review and notes from the Antonio Ferrera Q&A at Silverdocs, go here.)

In visualizing “Running Fence,” how were they thinking through how to film it, Powers asked. Were they being conscious about their approach or more instinctive? Maysles said that each moment was instinctive. There was always something to be filmed, and a lot that shouldn’t be either, but they wanted to make sure they got the essentials.

A question from the audience to Maysles was where did they get the money to fund their film projects? “I don’t remember,” Maysles answered, generating a laugh from the audience. He remembered that some of his films like “Salesman” and “Grey Gardens” they paid for all by themselves. Powers interjected, asking if in the 1970s, they supplemented their films by making television commercials. “Thank g-d we don’t do that anymore,” Maysles replied. But it would have been tough without going with that income. He said he’d love to do another commercial someday if they allowed him to do them the way he likes to do them. He said he has an idea for a commercial for Kleenex where he’d go to a hospital where a woman is about to give birth. He’d start filming the moment the infant is being handed over to the mother. “It’s got to be a moment where there’s tears on her cheeks and she reaches for a Kleenex,” he said. Powers joked, “We may be able to arrange that.” (Referring to his expecting wife Raphaela sitting nearby).

Another member of the audience asked Maysles if he could clarify what he meant earlier as to which moments shouldn’t be filmed. Maysles said that he’s been making a film ("In Transit") about people that he meets on trains where there’s a story about to happen when they get off the train. (Maysles previously discussed this same scenario in some notes I took in 2007 when he spoke at BAM). He was about to film this woman who had a difficult story of a child that she couldn’t come to tell and be identified. He had to get it without offending her, so he filmed her hands. On the other hand, he said it’s so important not to go in the other direction and be so careful that you don’t get much value. It’s a matter of good taste and respect. He’s found over the years he’s filmed people with their vulnerabilities just as well as things that are positive traits done with love and understanding.

On being asked how he’s able to seem so invisible behind the camera while shooting his films, Maysles said that he’s been asked many times how he gets so close to the hearts and minds of the people he’s filming. “It’s because I have my heart and mind with them,” he said. His mother used to tell him that there’s good in everybody. With documentaries, that bridge can be gapped with good material that goes directly to the experience that people are having.

Lastly, Maysles talked about his Maysles Film Institute in Harlem. He said his original purpose to have it in Harlem was so that his four children would have enough space to have their own apartments and all be in the same neighborhood. One of the three buildings they were in houses the film company and a 60-seat movie theater. Unlike anywhere else in New York, they exclusively show documentaries. They also teach kids in the neighborhood how to make their own films. He added that only a few weeks earlier the most exciting moment in his life occurred when the kids showed their films to an audience and during the Q&A, one of the questions to them was if any of them are planning to make a career out of filmmaking, and everyone of them raised their hand.

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