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R.I.P. Albert Maysles, documentary pioneer

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Spurred by new technology, the American documentary came into its own in the 1960s and 1970s, and the Maysles brothers, Albert and David, were at its forefront. David carried the shotgun mic and Nagra recorder, Albert carried the camera, and together they made movies that became cultural touchstones and helped define the language and scope of non-fiction film: Salesman, Gimme Shelter, Grey Gardens. Albert Maysles died Thursday night at his home in New York City; he was 88.

Born to Jewish immigrant parents in Boston and raised in Brookline, Albert Maysles began his career as a psychologist. A graduate of Syracuse and Boston University, Maysles taught for several years at the latter, before a fateful research trip to the USSR led him to take up filmmaking. His first documentary, the short Psychiatry In Russia (1955), was shot in Soviet mental hospitals on a hand-wound 16mm Keystone camera. A couple of years later, Maysles returned to the Eastern Bloc with his brother. The two traveled by motorcycle from Munich to Moscow, and during their trip, produced their first collaborative project, Youth In Poland (1957).


The late 1950s and early 1960s were a time of rapid change for non-fiction film. Filmmakers around the world were beginning to push the documentary in a direction that was less presentational and more observational. They were customizing 16mm cameras for handheld shooting, angling for a greater sense of intimacy and immediacy. Along with Richard Leacock and D.A. Pennebaker—both of whom worked with Albert Maysles as cameraman on Robert Drew’s groundbreaking Primary (1960)—the Maysleses came to define direct cinema, the American answer to cinema vérité.

After spending a large chunk of the 1960s directing off-the-cuff profiles of famous figures—What’s Happening! The Beatles in the U.S.A. (1964), Meet Marlon Brando (1965), Orson Welles In Spain (1966), With Love From Truman (1966), and so on—the Maysleses set out to make a nonfiction feature. The result was Salesman (1968), a portrait of four door-to-door Bible salesmen that the brothers funded and distributed themselves.


The film—credited to the Maysleses and their editor, Charlotte Zwerin—became a landmark of documentary filmmaking, as did their next major project, the Rolling Stones documentary Gimme Shelter (1970), also made in collaboration with Zwerin. Both are distinguished by their observational intimacy and by their willingness to interrogate themselves—never more troublingly than in Gimme Shelter’s most famous sequence, in which the filmmakers show Mick Jagger footage of a concertgoer being stabbed to death by a Hells Angel during the Altamont Free Concert. For many, the film symbolized the definitive end of the hippie era.

Grey Gardens (1975) would prove to be the brothers’ most enduringly popular work, a profile of an eccentric mother and daughter who live in seclusion at a dilapidated estate in the Hamptons. The movie is perhaps the definitive oddball profile doc—and it never fails to acknowledge that the filmmakers are intruders in a private world. The genius of the Maysleses lay in the fact that they resisted prompting their subjects, while always acknowledging that the presence of a camera had a way of changing things; in a sense, their movies recorded how people behaved around a fly-on-the-wall documentary crew.

Though his brother died of a stroke in 1987, Albert Maysles remained prolific up until the end, directing countless documentaries about artists and musicians, including a celebrated cycle of documentaries about another creative duo, the artists Christo and Jeanne-Claude—a project that the brothers began in the 1970s and which Albert continued into the 2000s. The first of the Christo and Jeanne-Claude films, Christo’s Valley Curtain (1974), earned the Maysleses their only Oscar nomination.

Maysles’ final completed film, Iris, a profile of interior designer Iris Apfel, is set to open in limited release at the end of April. At the time of his death, he was in post-production on In Transit, a collaborative project co-directed with four other filmmakers.