Who's Zooming Who?

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

While the Beatles sang, mocked American advertising, sneaked a girl into their room, and twisted at the Peppermint Lounge, the filmmakers trained their sights on such handlers as radio announcer "Murray the K." In this, they foreshadowed Gimme Shelter (1970), their infamous account of the Rolling Stones' deadly Altamont concert, which focused almost as much on the show's promotion as on the event itself. Even so, for all the fabricated hullabaloo, What's Happening! resembles Salesman for being about the Beatles' best customers: women.

Maysles remains at a loss to explain the Fab Four's incredible sex appeal. "I suppose I should be able to," he says. "You know I started out as a psychologist?" Perhaps owing to this background, Maysles does prove adept at analyzing the audience/performer dynamic at Altamont, which he does in terms of the Stones' music itself. "It would be very hard to find more appropriate lyrics for the events at Altamont than the ones in 'Sympathy for the Devil,'" he says, perhaps thinking of the title character's seductive "wealth and taste," not to mention the "puzzling" nature of his game.

While Mick Jagger couldn't charm away discord at Altamont, Christo's powers of persuasion prompted tension of a different sort. In Running Fence and Christo in Paris (both screening Tuesday, August 11), the Maysleses documented the community debate surrounding the artist's plans, in Fence, to stretch 24 miles of white nylon down the northern California coast and, in Paris, to wrap the city's beloved Pont-Neuf bridge in silky cloth. Fence substituted the Stones' "dark" lyrics with those of the oppressively peppy Eagles ("Take It to the Limit"), while the film concentrated on Christo's own groupies, the generally mellow hippies who helped erect the curtain.

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

From California ranchers facing off against angry environmentalists to Parisian politicians, Christo's temporary projects set off public debates over the nature of art. And as the visionary showman and his wife Jeanne-Claude campaign door-to-door to drum up community support, the filmmakers' interest comes clear. "If Christo and his wife were documentary filmmakers, they would be doing what we do," Maysles observes. "The project is the reaction."

In turn, Muhammad Ali and Larry Holmes trained their attention mostly on each other in the 1980 Muhammad and Larry (screening with Showman on Tuesday), in which the boxers prepare for their fight with verbal sparring matches. Charming as ever, Ali works both the fans and the cameras by flexing his powerful wit (e.g., "What did Abe Lincoln say when he woke up from a three-day drunk?" Punch line: "I freed the who?"). For his part, Holmes brags about his mansion and jabs Ali for his non-pork-eating ways. As their spirited rivalry fails to hide an underlying camaraderie, Muhammad and Larry pithily demonstrates what the Maysleses most wanted to capture on film--the real warmth beneath the showmen. The film closes with Ali describing his feelings toward his opponent. "I like him," he says simply.

As do the palpably amiable Maysleses, who attributed their success to their mother for teaching them what Al calls "that quality of trust and liking people [that] has helped to open doors for us." The elder Maysles says he brings that quality to every encounter. "I have great fun talking to strangers. My kids have always sort of rolled their eyes when they see me talking to a stranger, because they're not quite used to, or maybe even comfortable with, that immediate kind of intimacy." According to him, it's the ability to translate this intimacy onto the screen that distinguishes the brothers' films from those of many other doc-makers. Take Michael Moore, for example, whom Maysles characterizes as his "extreme opposite." He continues: "[Moore] really targets people for his purposes. I wouldn't think of abusing people the way he does." Later, he adds, "I wouldn't trust this guy... At least Roger Smith of General Motors was wise enough to say, 'No, I don't want to be filmed by you, you're a creep.'"

So while Maysles might praise the "publicization of the private" as the most significant trend of our time, he dislikes the talk-show-style abuse of that trust. More than anything, he says, he wants to document "life as it is--no better, no worse, no different." On screen and in conversation, the man's charm is contagious. Indeed, by the end of our talk, Al Maysles had this Michael Moore fan tempted to agree with his criticism--and ready to spill my own best secrets.

Oak Street Cinema's retrospective of the Maysles Brothers includes screenings of Grey Gardens on Wednesday and Thursday, and continues on Tuesday evenings through August 18. For more information, call 331-3134.

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