Lest the impending glut of Oscar-seeking product prevent the proper treatment later, let me state it plainly here. The latest movie by Rushmore co-writer/director Wes Anderson, The Royal Tenenbaums, is a triumph of production design as precocious art-brat doodling--the one that will finally earn the eloquent young heir to the wordsmithing throne of Preston Sturges a little credit for his equally discerning eye.
But will that credit fully belong to him? As Tenenbaums itself is the story of a family in which competition breeds contempt, it so happens that there's a sad-eyed sibling on the other side of the camera who toils in the shadow of his celebrated older brother--a story line revealed in a behind-the-scenes documentary (airing on the Independent Film Channel) co-directed by cinema vérité pioneer Albert Maysles. Illustrator Eric Anderson, whose somewhat unenviable job it was to design and draw the enormous murals that detail the Tenenbaums' history and adorn the walls of their Manhattan manse, is seen here quietly suffering his perfectionist brother's disappointment and (occasionally) accepting his awkward praise. In a scene whose acute familial pain rivals that in the classic Grey Gardens (which Maysles made with his younger brother), Wes calls on his relative peon to remember the name of the Brady Bunch's puffy-haired patriarch. Then, pulling out a Sharpie, the director correctively fills in the curls on Eric's otherwise impeccable sketch of the Tenenbaums' Mike Brady-resembling Chas (played by Ben Stiller). Maysles may or may not relate directly to the drama of the gifted child--but, like his late brother, he did study psychology before opting to render his diagnoses on celluloid.
A series of half-hour gestalts, "With the Filmmaker: Portraits by Albert Maysles" is indeed an analytical exercise, observing four highly individual psyches in the act of imprinting themselves on the ostensibly collaborative medium of film. If artistic obsession is the defining trait here, the neurosis--both blessing and curse, of course--manifests itself differently in the cases of Maysles's first two patients. Where the fidgety Wes Anderson whines that the end product can never be exactly as the meticulous artist has planned, the mellowing Martin Scorsese (in the series' debut episode) appears to have taken a page from the Dalai Lama's diary, remaining relatively peaceful in the presence of chaos. (Subsequent "Portraits" are slated to sketch Robert Duvall and Jane Campion.) The snapshot-style freeze-frames that Maysles employs in "Portraits" are portraits in themselves, and brilliantly telling of their subjects' stages in life. The 31-year-old Anderson is aptly caught in mid-stride, running through snowy mountains alongside a leashed beagle. Scorsese, more self-aware than ever in middle age, is caught in repose, holding his head in his hands while the soundtrack of the four-hour documentary on Italian cinema that he's struggling to cut spills out his own voiceover lament on the auteur's agony ("Talking, jabbering, babbling, hectoring, screaming voices raging through your head").
How wonderfully appropriate it is that Maysles, still a nimble shooter at age 75, should turn his digital-video camera on Scorsese, a filmmaker with whom he shares more than mere workaholism. Both helped chronicle the counterculture's last waltz in '69: Maysles as co-director of the legendary Stones doc Gimme Shelter, Scorsese as co-supervising editor of Michael Wadleigh's kaleidoscopic Woodstock. And is it just me, or does Scorsese's renowned Copacabana shot in GoodFellas owe a debt of gratitude to Maysles's astounding single take in the 1960 Primary, which practically invented the artful variety of vérité by tracking the back of JFK's head as the presidential hopeful navigated a phalanx of photographers and sycophants? (And Maysles didn't have the benefit of a jiggle-free Steadicam setup 40 years ago.)
Either way, Scorsese gives himself entirely to Maysles's camera, sharing every detail of his labor in the cutting room, in the screening room, in the production office, and on location in Rome. (Incidentally, obsessive fans of the director can see still more of their idol's recent activity in The Films of Martin Scorsese, a conventional but rewarding doc that airs Wednesday at 7:00 p.m. on the Encore network.) Hardly your standard made-for-cable promo reel, the Scorsese portrait certainly does its duty for the auteur's $100 million historical whopper Gangs of New York (newly bumped by Miramax from Christmas to next summer). But its true subject is the miracle of his conversion from raging bull to loving father. Maysles once described his vision of genuine vérité as coming via the documentarian's empathy for the one being documented. Which is to say that the episode's final shot of Scorsese doting on his baby daughter through the lens of his own camcorder is the sight of not one but two filmmakers in love.
WITH THE FILMMAKER: PORTRAITS BY ALBERT MAYSLES 7:00 p.m. Mondays on the Independent Film Channel