Behind the scenes of Gimme Shelter
In 1974, after harboring dissident author Alexander Solzhenitsyn in his country home, cellist and conductor Mstislav Rostropovich was forced into exile from the USSR. Fifteen years later, the Soviet Union dissolved, and Rostropovich returned to Moscow to conduct a concert with the National Symphony Orchestra. In Soldiers of Music: Rostropovich Returns to Russia (91), Albert Maysles—the late New York–based Direct Cinema pioneer whose very first film, the 14-minute documentary Psychiatry in Russia (56), was shot in Moscow—accompanied the celebrated musician and his family to document the emotional weeklong journey.
Midway through the film, the family travels to the grave of another Soviet dissident, scientist Andrei Sakharov. Just prior to this scene, we’ve watched Rostropovich tell broadcast journalist Mike Wallace that Sakharov was the greatest figure of his generation. Wallace, a recurring nuisance throughout the film, is documenting the Rostropovich trip for 60 Minutes, and Maysles’s camera, handheld and personal in contrast to the impersonal, stationary camera that usually captures Wallace’s interviews, observes him extract sound bites using glib and heavy-handed techniques. Wallace’s tone-deaf scenery-chewing recalls the press corps of Maysles’s Meet Marlon Brando (65), a similarly self-satisfied group who, during a junket for Morituri, are blindsided by an intensely engaged Brando, who proceeds to playfully tear into their inane queries.
Wallace’s methods couldn’t be further from Maysles’s sensitive and unintrusive approach. In the scene immediately following Wallace’s bombastic interview, Maysles walks silently with the Rostropovich family to Sakharov’s grave. The camera trails behind father, mother, and daughter as they lay a wreath next to Sakharov’s tombstone. They huddle around the grave for a moment of silence.
Meet Marlon Brando
In a two-minute take, Maysles’ moves his camera with amazing attentiveness. One by one, he closes in on their faces, starting with Rostropovich, whose quivering lip gives way to sniffling midway through the shot. His daughter Olga also chokes up but regains her composure when she notices her father struggling; she offers a comforting look. Meanwhile, his wife Galina Vishnevskaya remains stoic. The camera follows her misty breath as it floats toward the grave, before settling on a photo of Sakharov. “So that’s how a man sacrificed his life,” we hear her say, as the camera pauses on Sakharov’s face for several seconds. Maysles pans left, and the family is suddenly in the distance, walking out of the cemetery together while the filmmaker remains behind.
In great observational filmmaking, the camera is a character. It has its own unique gaze. The audience, consciously or unconsciously, judges how it’s directed. In many situations every movement, every zoom, and every pan is a loaded ethical and aesthetic decision. The visit to Sakharov’s grave derives its power from the empathy and expressiveness of Maysles’s camerawork, which fully registers the complex and intense emotions brewing in this space. The camera adjusts at the precise moment it threatens to lapse into gawking, allowing the Rostropovich family their space.
Would a younger Albert Maysles have behaved the same way? Unlike his brother and collaborator David, Albert Maysles was not a major presence in the editing room. But thanks to his acute and distinctive eye and the deft hand of editors such as Charlotte Zwerin, Ellen Hovde, and Deborah Dickson, he is one of nonfiction cinema’s greatest and most enduring figures.
Starting in the Sixties, the Maysles, Zwerin, and other collaborators authored game-changing chapters to the documentary playbook, with each successive supplement complicating matters. The innovation sprung from newly accessible technology—lightweight 16mm cameras and portable sound recorders—that allowed filmmakers to freely roam, gathering sounds and images. The Maysles operated as a two-man crew, with Albert shooting and David recording sound. Those images and sounds were handheld and personal and therefore imperfect and subjective. For some viewers, there was a sense, however false, that the filmmakers were invisible presences, like the proverbial fly on the wall.
The Maysles were realizing the thrilling and radical new aesthetic possibilities of this technology, applying them to the documentation of day-to-day life. Is an artist allowed to stand on a balcony and film a woman roaming around in her swimsuit, as the Maysles do in Showman (63)? If a filmmaker receives permission from the woman to use her image, do they need to let the viewer know, and if so, how? Or is there an implicit trust between audience and filmmaker? What if the filmmaker had asked that woman to appear on the beach? The Maysles’ films, which helped introduce the idea of a filmmaker finding poetry in real time, naturally aroused some suspicion.
Born in 1926, Albert Maysles grew up in the Boston area, studied psychology at Syracuse. In the mid-Fifties he went on to teach it as a graduate student in Boston, where he also worked at a mental hospital. Made during this time, Psychiatry in Russia is a report on the state of mental health care institutions in Russia. Because Maysles did not record sound, he narrated the film, spelling out his findings in a manner belying his later work. In 1960, he worked alongside Robert Drew, Richard Leacock, and D.A. Pennebaker on the groundbreaking Direct Cinema film Primary, which observes rival Democrats John F. Kennedy and Hubert Humphrey during the Wisconsin primary.
With Love from Truman
Throughout the rest of the Sixties, Maysles collaborated with his brother on a series of shorter works that pointed to their cinema’s goals and interests. Showman follows Hollywood producer Joseph P. Levine, on guard throughout the film, and his underlings during the Oscar campaign for Two Women; in the process, it reveals the compromises made in the name of success. Cut Piece (65) records a Yoko Ono performance piece and, with its zooms and shifting perspectives, subtly reveals how a camera operator’s gaze determines how we watch. With Love from Truman (66) tracks Truman Capote during the promotional campaign for In Cold Blood. Capote talks about the book inaugurating a new literary genre, “the nonfiction novel,” and says that he wrote it to “accommodate an aesthetic theory . . . that you can produce a work of art out of factual material that has the same impact that the most imaginative literature does.”
Salesman (68), the Maysles’ attempt at nonfiction storytelling, and the cinematic equivalent of Capote’s experiment, shadows four Boston-based Bible peddlers as they knock on doors selling lavish holy books. The camera’s presence is ambiguous. It follows the film’s characters going door to door with breathtakingly smooth tracking shots. At first, it is positioned behind its four subjects as they give their flustered potential customers the hard sell. But eventually it becomes less of a disinterested observer. It suddenly appears in a living room, waiting for the knock on the door. Later, when one subject returns from a successful sale, the camera seemingly stands on both sides of a motel threshold. Throughout the film, it zooms in on faces as people respond to the sales pitch, weighing a number of factors: the practical (do they really have the money or desire to purchase these expensive books?), the empathetic (should they reward this desperate man who’s just trying to make a buck?), and the spiritual (what would Jesus do?). To a disturbing degree, the camera maintains control of its scenes, but it also observes its subjects with sensitivity.
While the camera’s role feels unresolved in Salesman, there’s far more clarity in Maysles and Zwerin’s next and greatest film, Gimme Shelter (70), which is constructed around the Rolling Stones’ catastrophic 1969 concert at the Altamont Speedway. In one of the film’s first shots, Mick Jagger prances around the stage wearing a superhero cape. The crowd is enthralled; the camera is curious. It zooms in on the singer until it has him pinned in a close-up. As he struts, the camera stays tight, never letting him go. The scene changes. We’re suddenly looking at the same shot on a monitor in an editing suite, as is Jagger. Zwerin and the Maysles have the Stones under their thumb, forcing them to confront their posturing (would there be an Act of Killing without Gimme Shelter?). As Albert films their dazed responses, David explains the way documentary editing works: “This gives us freedom. All you guys watching it, we may only be on you for a minute, then go to anything.”
Having elegantly established the way this new nonfiction cinema works—giving us a sense of the camera operator’s gaze, showing us how the editor shapes that gaze—the Maysles’ next film scrambled a potential misreading of their work: namely, that they were invisible presences and that their gaze was innocent. Their perverse chamber documentary Grey Gardens (75) is set in and around a dilapidated mansion where Edith “Big Edie” Ewing Bouvier Beale lives with her daughter, Edith “Little Edie” Bouvier Beale. There’s something unbearably sad about their circumstances. It’s not just the condition of the house but also the two women’s relationship. They constantly bicker, and most of their conversations revolve around the past. Little Edie seems particularly haunted by her inability to find a suitor. How could the Maysles seamlessly assimilate their camera into this situation? They couldn’t, and they didn’t try.
Throughout, Albert’s camera seems to be looking for the right way to frame his subjects. The Beales are distant relatives of the Kennedy family, and the aristocratic class has a rich tradition of dignified artistic representation. We are shown many photographs and paintings of the Beales that are in line with this tradition—but Grey Gardens in no way adheres to those standards. The camera is frequently at a downward angle. We stare from above at Big Edie and Little Edie as they sunbathe or eat ice cream in bed. When Little Edie addresses the camera, she is looking up at David. Later, when she performs a dance routine for the camera, Albert follows her movements, but he does not dance with her.
It is unfortunate and unfair that distribution and discussion of Maysles’s work tends to elide most of the films created after Grey Gardens. Soldiers of Music: Rostropovich Returns to Russia is one of a string of films produced by Peter Gelb, then an executive at the Columbia Artists talent agency. Gelb and Maysles’s decade-long collaboration resulted in six other features from 1985-94. More than simple work-for-hire projects, these films are unusual for the amount of trust they place in Maysles’s observational camerawork, which guides us through rehearsals and performances, rivetingly showcasing virtuosity (Jessye Norman Sings Carmen, 89; Horowitz Plays Mozart, 87). Maysles also picks up on the tension in the room, be it affectionate (1992’s sexy Baroque Duet, in which, through word and body language, Kathleen Battle and Wynton Marsalis constantly flirt with each other) or antagonistic (Accent on the Offbeat, 94).
Accent on the Offbeat
Whereas Accent on the Offbeat offers definitive, sometimes uproarious proof of the independence afforded Maysles during the Gelb era, Ozawa (85) is where his camera is at its sharpest. One of his final films co-directed with his brother, Ozawa is a patient, gently probing profile of the Japanese-born, U.S.-based conductor Seiji Ozawa that delicately explores his prickly relationship with his homeland. As his career was ascending, Ozawa relocated to the West. Upon returning, he was shunned by his Japanese music contemporaries who refused to work with someone who had “picked up too many Western ways” and regarded him as a conductor who expressed his opinions too confidently, perhaps to the point of abrasiveness. When this topic arises during lunch with a friend, Ozawa becomes completely caught up in the conversation but then suddenly realizes the Maysles are nearby. He looks at David: “Are you filming this? This is very private, very private.” The Maysles turn off their equipment, and in the next scene, Ozawa apologizes: “I’m sorry I stopped it. Sometimes I’m sensitive. And that moment I was sensitive.” “No, that’s the way you should be,” David responds.
While Ozawa’s nationality crisis forms the film’s narrative crux, its camera’s concerns are rooted in the art of conducting. As Ozawa espouses in meetings with students, a conductor’s every gesture carries significant weight. In long, intense takes, the camera holds on Ozawa, particularly his sweaty, expressive face, as he conducts. The parallel with nonfiction cinematography is clear: “All afternoon I was conducting, I never thought about technique. You just do it,” Ozawa says.
David Maysles passed away in January 1987. Maysles continued to make films for the rest of his life. Following the Gelb period, Maysles and his collaborators Deborah Dickson and Susan Froemke shifted to a series of social-issue films for HBO.
LaLee’s Kin: The Legacy of Cotton
Likely the most astonishing of the late-period Maysles films, Letting Go: A Hospice Journey (96) intimately observes hospice workers as they take care of three dying patients. One subject is forced to confront everyone he’s hurt in his life, including his wife, who accuses him of being emotionally distant. While this animosity eventually comes out into the open in bitter verbal fights, Maysles’s camera picks up on the tension early with a close-up of the husband’s arm frantically grasping his wife’s arm while she remains passive and reserved. LaLee’s Kin: The Legacy of Cotton (00) is a low-key portrait of a Mississippi Delta town mired in poverty. Its titular protagonist is an illiterate former cotton picker attempting to raise her grandchildren. More so than Letting Go, its editing sometimes betrays Maysles’s footage, treating intimate, candid testimony as fodder for fast-moving, heavy-handed, didactic montages. But by and large, we feel LaLee’s bond of trust with Maysles, whom she addresses candidly throughout the film. That’s particularly clear in a scene in which she reflects on the death of her adult son, ultimately coming to a devastating conclusion: “You like to love your children, but don’t love them too hard.”
Maysles mentored filmmakers throughout his life, and his influence is evident in many new works of nonfiction cinema. In 2005, he created the Maysles Documentary Center, a nonprofit cinema in Harlem. This April saw both the theatrical release of Iris and the premiere of the long-in-the-works In Transit. The affable, slickly constructed Iris profiles 90-something fashion icon Iris Apfel, a witty New Yorker who seems most comfortable directly addressing Maysles’s camera. Shot on Amtrak’s Empire Builder train, In Transit focuses on fleeting, intimate, and occasionally revelatory conversations among passengers. At times Maysles’s camera activates the conversations, at others it eavesdrops. At one point, a young woman looks at the camera and says: “These are the things I talk about in my head that I can’t tell anybody. I’m not supposed to be telling you these things.” In Transit offers further evidence of the trust earned by Maysles, an empathetic, gifted filmmaker who left us with a series of unresolvable ethical questions and a treasure trove of indelible images.