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1999 Lifetime Achievement Award: The Maysles

A Trusting Gaze: the Cinema of the Maysles

Although Albert has reached the point in his career where lifetime achievement awards have become as inevitable as they are appropriate, the veteran documentarian still thinks of himself as an amateur. It’s not that Maysles, one of the founders of the American direct cinema movement of the ‘60s feels a false modesty about his work. “I like the word amateur because it means doing something for the love of it,” he points out, in a professorial tone that must have suited him during his youthful stint as a psychology instructor at Boston University. “Certainly, I have skills that are advanced and you can all me a professional but it’s true that I still believe in documentaries almost religiously.”

When Albert Maysles left teaching for independent filmmaking, first with the legendary team of Pennebaker, Leacock and Drew and later with his brother, David, he quickly showed a gift for cinematography. Never flashy, he went about the apparently simple business of capturing truth at 24 frames per second. In many ways, Albert’s style is similar to that of the photographer Henri Cartier-Bresson, of whom he’s said, “I can’t imagine a single photograph by him that did not express basic kindness towards people. And yet, and this is what is so fascinating about him, the love that he must have had for people did not blind him from the truths that were taking place before him.”

Much the same can be said for the groundbreaking films that Albert and David made in the ‘60s and ‘70s. Avoiding interviews, dramatic reenactments and voice-over narration, they created sharp, distinctive films that showed the dramatic – and true – lives of their subjects. Grey Gardens, Salesman and Gimme Shelter are classic Maysles films that allow the viewer to discover truth in a variety of situations without any insistence from the filmmakers.

Albert Maysles’ style is that of a psychologist, working with great faith to understand his subjects. He has commented, “There’s a difference between watching and seeing.” The Maysles have always approached their films with the understanding that the people in them were to be treated with dignity. “It’s kind of a paradox,” Albert admits. “The empathy you give allows the material that you’re getting to be imbued with intrinsic authenticity.”

A cameraman first, and then a director, Albert believes in “the gaze: there’s a way of looking at people that can convey your trust in them. In return, you will get their trust.” That trust has been given to Albert Maysles by his subjects and the many members of the public who have admired his truthful sense of storytelling for nearly 40 years.

Marc Glassman

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