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One On 1: Albert Maysles Keeps Watchful Eye On Life

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Filmmaker Albert Maysles has won Emmy and Sundance Festival awards, and has received several lifetime achievement honors. At age 82, he's still going, with more than a few new projects in the works. NY1's Budd Mishkin filed the following "One On 1" report.

When you've been making documentaries for more than 50 years, chance encounters are really moments that can provide new inspiration.

"This guy comes toward me walking like this (impersonates a man with hands raised and outstretched) and uh suddenly I realized what he was doing. He was chasing a butterfly. That's something to film," says Maysles.

Albert Maysles has found "something to film" all over the globe, documenting the lives of patients in psychiatric hospitals in Russia, poor families in the south and Cuba, but also luminaries like Truman Capote, The Rolling Stones and The Beatles.

Maysles is credited with pioneering the "direct cinema" style in America. Just video and audio -- no narration. He says he long ago ditched the tripod and predisposed point of view.

"Other people are out to get somebody, to prove their point and so they end up with something that falls short of informing the viewer as to what is really going on," says Maysles.

He cites the scene from his film about four bible salesmen, a film cited for its cultural significance in the Library of Congress.

"You've already been feeling what he's been going through and now you feel all the more what it is to be him," says Maysles. "And uh, the narration would have done no good but only bad."

Maysles' most recent film with a New York angle was "The Gates", Christo and Jean Claude's long saga to build a project for the city.

But the Maysles film which has had the greatest afterlife is Grey Gardens, the unvarnished story of a reclusive socialite mother and daughter living in squalor in an East Hampton mansion known to many as Jacqueline Kennedy's aunt and cousin "Big Edie" and "Little Edie" Bouvier Beale.


"The film had the advantage of tapping into the most profound human relationship, one neglected by so many other filmmakers, namely the mother-daughter relationship," says Maysles.

Since its release in 1975, there have been books, a Broadway musical, this year's made for TV movie and gatherings of fans like one at Maysles offices. The film resonated for "Big Edie" and "Little Edie," too.

"Her mother was dying. One of those last moments she turned to her mother and asked if there was something more she wanted to say, and the mother responded by saying 'There's nothing more to say, it's all in the film,'" says Maysles.

Many of Maysles subjects were not well known. Others became known all over the world.

"February 1964 got a telephone call from Grenada Television, 'The Beatles are arriving in two hours would you like to make a film on them?' Put my hand over the phone and said to my brother, 'Who are The Beatles? Are they any good?' He said, 'Oh they're great,'" says Maysles.

Five years later, Maysles traveled with the Rolling Stones. "Gimme Shelter" documented a concert tour which ended in tragedy at the Altamont Speedway in California, when a young man was killed by a member of the Hell's Angels. Maysles caught the killing on camera.

Budd Mishkin: Obviously it's a tragic situation, but on some level as a filmmaker that night when you know you have this moment on film, is there some sense of exhilaration?

Albert Maysles: Oh yeah. I mean you are so pleased that, in fact, we were so interested and hopeful that we got it we weren't absolutely sure we got it right until a couple days later.

One thing you notice immediately about Albert Maysles is his calmness. But that quiet speaking voice describes growing up in Boston in the 1930s as anything but calm.


"The Irish kids were fairly pugilistic," says Maysles. "So they were all too eager to get into fights with Jewish kids so I was fighting all the time in self-defense."

Years later, Maysles made a film about and befriended four Irish bible salesmen from his hometown.

"It wasn't trying to get back at them at all. Quite the opposite," says Maysles. "It was to understand them, to like them, and to make a lifelong connection which I could never have done as a kid."

Maysles says he grew up in a loving home. Among the memories that still inspire him is, ironically, the one time he says his father hit him with a strap for misbehaving.

"I looked back and there he was with his head against the wall crying," says Maysles. "And I stood there in utter amazement. He could have told me how much he loved me 1,000 times but not as strongly as just that time where I could see that he was so sorry for possibly hurting me."

Maysles says that moment, a human moment, that moment of intimacy is what he's looking for in his films.

He got a masters and then taught psychology at Boston University in the mid 1950s, but felt he could achieve more with a camera than in the classroom.

"I had this notion that being a psychologist and having worked in mental hospitals, going to Russia, I'd be able to, if I could get in, I could do something interesting in mental hospitals," says Maysles.

So began a lifetime of befriending strangers and journeys around the globe, with his brother David on audio. David Maysles was only 54 when he died in 1987.


"Work was helpful in getting away from the pain of realizing that my brother was gone," says Maysles.

The Maysles became synonymous with the genre of "direct cinema." They had many admirers and many critics too who accused them of "exploitation."

"They're not used to seeing films that get that close to the heart and soul of a person and that kind of scares many a critic," says Maysles.

Maysles says he lived at The Dakota when, in his words, "the people were more interesting than just being rich."

A few years back, he and his wife moved to Harlem, to live close to their four grown children. He also bought a nearby building which houses plenty of office space, and a small theater for screenings.

Maysles created a non profit organization that provides training and apprenticeships to youngsters in Harlem.

He's hardly slowing down, with documentaries planned on subjects ranging from New York's subway system, the conversations of four to six year olds and Muhammad Ali. But he says the job of the person behind the camera has always remained the same.

"By exposing the true nature of the person, getting really a heart to heart kind of exposition, that that's the healthiest thing that the person can do in being filmed," says Maysles. "To open their heart and mind to the viewer, and the best that a camera person can do."

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