Who's Zooming Who?

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

"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."

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."  

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.

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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