The Direct Cinema of David and Albert Maysles

Jonathan B Vogels,
The Direct Cinema of David and Albert Maysles.
Carbondale, Southern Illinois University Press, 2005.
ISBN: 0 8093 2643 4
US$45 (hb)
(Review copy supplied by Southern Illinois University Press)

In an age when the term direct cinema is most often used as an epithet and derided as bankrupt and mendacious by members of the new documentary elite such as Errol Morris, it’s not surprising that critical studies of American direct cinema filmmakers of the 1960s have become thin on the ground.

It was not ever thus. In the 1960s and 1970s, arguments raged in documentary circles over the validity of claims that a strictly observational, non-interventionist, ‘uncontrolled’ filming style guaranteed a superior rendering of ‘reality’. Serious film journals such as Film CommentFilm Quarterly and Film Culture, and books published by Louis Macorelles, Stephen Mamber and M. Ali Issari and Doris A. Paul, all focussed on direct cinema, often comparing and contrasting it to its more catalytic and interventionist European counterpart, cinéma vérité. While the rise of post-structuralism and post-modernism has lead to a suspicion of notions such as ‘truth’, ‘objectivity’, ‘reality’ and ‘facts’, in this era it was still possible to find supporters for the claims of some direct cinema practitioners to provide some kind of objective truth.

Against this background author Jonathan P. Vogels claims that his new book The Direct Cinema of David and Albert Maysles is the first full length treatment of the Maysles’ career, rectifying a large gap in the market. His stated intention is to investigate the films from an interdisciplinary perspective, and he declares that he will use close analysis to consider the significance of the films.

True to his word, Vogels provides a work that is strong on close analysis in a literary style, demonstrating solid research particularly on earlier films which are not otherwise well documented or readily accessible. His enthusiasm for the subject is never in doubt: in the opening chapter Vogels comes across more as a cheerleader than an inquisitive, detached critic of the Maysles’ work. In the opening chapter he previews his response to the controversy and charges of exploitation that at times surrounded the Maysles’ treatment of their subjects in films such as Salesman (US 1967) and Grey Gardens (US 1976) by saying “their films ennoble rather than degrade their subjects” (15). He effectively pre-empts many of the Maysles’ critics in a similar vein, stating that:

Albert and David Maysles typically had to defend their films against confused audiences, reproachful film critics, disdainful film theorists, and even other filmmakers who did not appreciate or understand the brothers’ aesthetic. (13)

Of the Maysles’ films, the main focus is on SalesmanGimme Shelter (US 1970) and Grey Gardens. Further chapters are also devoted to the brothers’ work with the artist Christo Javacheff and his wife Jeanne-Claude, and a survey of their work on a series of celebrity profiles between 1962 and 1966. This latter chapter follows the well-trodden path set by much critical engagement with direct cinema over nearly half a century now, contemplating the work in terms of a division between ‘authenticity’ and ‘manufacture’. Vogels largely adheres to this simple binary, the terms of which were originally set by some of the filmmakers’ wilder claims about accessing reality through a designated stylistic approach. So he will posit the “innocence of those being filmed” as being “one of the great advantages” (25) of filming in the early 1960s, and the use of voice-over in Showman (US 1962) as compromising the film’s authenticity (26). Vogels notes the ambiguous status of most of these portraits, which despite being commissions and thus restricting the Maysles’ freedom, focused on subjects associated with social awareness or the counter-culture such as Truman Capote (With Love from Truman, 1966), Marlon Brando (Meet Marlon Brando, 1965), and The Beatles (What’s Happening! The Beatles in the USA, 1964).

The topic of authenticity, a perennial theme in discussions of direct cinema filmmakers, also gets plenty of coverage throughout the rest of Vogels’ book. This is in part due to the fact that filmmakers such as the Maysles, DA Pennebaker and Ricky Leacock spent much of their early careers in the 1960s making claims for the objectivity of their work and the access that their observational, non-interventionist style of filmmaking ostensibly provided to ‘reality’. With the benefit of hindsight, these claims were obviously unsustainable. Vogels doesn’t attempt to deny this, but his statements on the topic are often fuzzily humanistic; what can one make of statements such as “seeking authenticity, [the Maysles] also confronted the inevitable breakdowns of modern communication” (73), or “For [the Maysles] authenticity was linked to the desire to expand human connectedness” (153). The idea of authenticity is taken for granted here; the threshold issue of the deeply problematic nature of identifying the authentic, particularly in relation to cinema, whether fiction or non-fiction, is never directly acknowledged.

Vogels attempts to situate this appeal to the authentic in the times, framing it as a reaction against the “stultifying culture of Cold War America”, a desire for greater immediacy supported by social scientists as well as social critics such as Susan Sontag and Norman Mailer (4). At first sight, Albert and David Maysles’ background as social scientists, having both studied psychology at Syracuse University, would seem to dovetail with this approach of disinterestedly cataloguing life as it unfolded before their camera.

However, when Vogels attempts to frame the Maysles as modernist filmmakers things get a bit more confused. As Vogels himself acknowledges before providing a potted survey of the history of modernism, modernism “encompasses a wide range of materials, styles, subject matter, and art forms” (9). This may be so, but within film culture there’s more than a degree of agreement among scholars and theorists in identifying modernist cinematic tendencies, which are usually linked to formalist or avant-garde tendencies or the strain of creative high modernism associated with the European art cinema.

Vogels acknowledges articles by David Davidson and Kenneth Robson which refer to the modernist effect of Grey Gardens. In his subsequent analysis, Vogels never quite comes to grips with how the nominally hands-off approach of the Maysles squares with his claims for their modernism, beyond occasional references to reflexivity, “the limits of language” and their faith in science and knowledge. While many may agree with his claims that the Maysles stretched the boundaries of non-fiction filmmaking in Salesman, or, more problematically, Grey Gardens, his comparison of the latter film with “vintage Faulkner” due to its “circular plot, time imagery and repetitive language” (18), or a cubist painting due to its “fragmented, frequently repetitive narrative” (126) seem strained and unlikely.

The films of the Maysles brothers are ripe for re-appraisal, but on different terms to the tired old debates about authenticity, reality and intervention. Particularly in the early 1960s, they were pioneering works in a technical sense, as Maysles moved out of the studio, taking advantage of technological changes such as mobile equipment and synch sound. However, these are also works that change over time. They have been re-cycled in different formats (video/DVD) and in other works, as when footage from What’s Happening! was sold and included in a separate release re-packaged as The Beatles’ First US Visit (just as the Maysles’ contemporary D.A. Pennebaker’s footage from Don’t Look Back (US 1967) and Eat the Document (US 1972) was incorporated into Martin Scorsese’s Dylan documentary No Direction Home (UK/USA/Japan 2006).

The element of spontaneity and presentness that was so much a part of the Maysles’ contemporary charge gives way today to a unique link to the past, evoking nostalgia and an archival aura. This is not a critical study that will extend the orthodox terms of debate surrounding direct cinema. Rather, it is a useful study by a largely devoted fan, providing valuable biographical information on the Maysles’ career, and designed for a readership interested in either direct cinema and/or the often compelling work of Albert and David Maysles.

Tim O’Farrell
La Trobe University, Australia.

Created on: Monday, 13 November 2006