Who's Zooming Who?

A documentary retrospective of the Maysles Brothers puts the focus on both sides of the camera

"It's a question of seduction. You must be charming," a friend tells the artist Christo in the documentary Christo in Paris, advising him how to win approval for his controversial public art project. Filmmakers Al and David Maysles captured the moment and heeded the advice, judging from their dozens of documentaries and from a recent phone conversation with Albert Maysles. "It's hard for me to imagine anybody not being accessible to my filming them," boasts the elder Maysles from his office in New York. (David Maysles died in 1987.) Indeed, it's precisely the brothers' skill at winning trust and intimacy from their subjects that incites as much ire as praise. (A seven-film retrospective of the Maysleses' work is currently under way at Oak Street Cinema.)

Most of this controversy swirls around the 1976 film Grey Gardens (screening Wednesday and Thursday), the Maysleses' most censured and celebrated experiment in "direct cinema." Many critics of the time objected that the Maysleses had trespassed the fine line between documentation and exploitation by recording the eccentricities of Jackie Onassis's aunt and cousin--Edith Bouvier Beale and her daughter Edie--in such unflinching (some say unflattering) detail. In a 1976 interview , Al Maysles praised the admittedly "odd" women as honest exemplars of raw emotion, rhetorically asking the question, "When you lay yourself wide open, to filmmakers you trust, is that an injury or a strength?"

Now, Maysles suggests that angry critics feigned paternal concern for the women but were actually more interested in protecting themselves from the film's not-so-pretty human truths. And considering the horrified reaction of (primarily male) reviewers to the Beales' bodies, he's probably right. In the film, octogenarian Edith gloats that she hasn't worn a girdle in 25 years, claiming that her body is "sacred ground." But Newsweek demurred, complaining about the "old woman's sagging, wrinkled flesh," while The New York Times' Walter Goodman expressed his revulsion at Edith's "flabby and creased" arms and Edie's "heavy thighs." In brilliant response, Edie herself quipped, "The film unnerved Mr. Goodman. The film portrays age. Age portends death. Death brings God and Mr. Goodman cannot face God... Mr. Goodman thinks we need cosmetic surgery."

Discreet charm: Christo presents his work to the public in the  Maysles Brothers' documentary Running Fence
Discreet charm: Christo presents his work to the public in the Maysles Brothers' documentary Running Fence

Such feistiness aside, the exact nature of the filmmakers' relationship to their subjects did raise eyebrows. In the film, Edie in particular is shown courting the camera, performing dance routines from her halcyon debutante days and mercilessly flirting with the cameraman. ("Darling David, where have you been all my life? All I needed was this man," she confesses.) Watching Grey Gardens today, the question remains: Who's zooming who here? But the ongoing fracas surrounding the film threatens to overshadow the extent to which the Maysleses negotiate these issues in their other works, which consistently feature salesmen and performers--might we say seducers?--of various kinds.

Al Maysles disagrees. "Actually, we're especially drawn to ordinary people," he says, citing the 1968 Salesman, which follows four Bible peddlers on their door-to-door rounds, as the brothers' most "characteristic" work. "I mean, you say that you can describe them as hustlers, but at the same time, the film is as close as you can get to a real cross section of America in that it's as much about women as it is about men. It's called Salesman, [but] it's really about the customers as well, and all the customers are women." Still, watching the Bible-hawkers build "trust" with their customers while working their way into women's homes suggests certain parallels to the documentarians' own process. And might Maysles be referring to the plight of the independent filmmaker when he describes Paul Brennan's difficulty selling the Good Book? "The more poetry one has," Maysles says, "[and] the more life-giving someone is in that business, the less successful he is."

Like Salesman, the 1963 Showman (screening Tuesday) prompts comparison to the Maysleses' endeavors as it documents the wheeling and dealing of film distributor Joseph E. Levine, the man responsible for the likes of Hercules and Sophia Loren's Two Women (as well as Godard's Contempt, believe it or not). As Levine "handles" Loren, he becomes a celebrity of sorts himself, far removed from his poor roots in Boston. Surely the Maysleses could relate, not least for their own bittersweet memories of growing up Jewish in the Boston area. Still, their position as perpetually struggling documentarians differs considerably. "The commercial TV networks--ABC, NBC, CBS, CNN--simply refuse to show independent documentaries," Maysles says. "Grey Gardens was never shown anywhere on TV." (Amazingly, during the course of our conversation, the filmmaker learns that the BBC has just bid $45,000 to broadcast it.)

If anything, the Maysleses moved as far away as they could from "ordinary people" when they agreed in 1964 to document the Beatles' first trip to America in What's Happening! The Beatles in the U.S.A. (Tuesday, August 18). Notably, the Fab Four demonstrated a keen awareness of their role at the center of the media circus, listening to themselves on the radio along with the rest of America and proving themselves as quintessential hams for the camera. Maysles remembers feeling that the Beatles' showmanship was "a little unfortunate, because we didn't want them to behave in any special way for us. But long before the band had arrived in America for the first time, the photographers had gotten them into that mode of behavior... Being themselves by that time was kind of acting for the camera."

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