Several months ago I boarded the number ten bus to my studio and took my seat opposite an elderly man. He looked at me with such intensity that I was immediately caught up in his conversation with the woman sitting next to him.
His conversation was about the war, and how it is always the youngsters, himself included, who fight and often give up their lives. He was talking to the woman, but all the while kept looking back at me. And I quite naturally returned his gaze.
He then went on to state that as it was only 9:00 am, and as he usually gets up at 8:30, he happily had a full day of activities ahead of him. Then, again staring so intently at me, he said, ‘I’m 86 years old and… I’m totally blind.’
It’s something I would have filmed – or, rather, videotaped – and easily could have done so had I a camera with me. But I didn’t face the lost opportunity with deep regret, because scenes as telling as that seem to fall into my lap almost daily. Perhaps I’m more watchful than others. In any case, the problem for me is not gaining access to other people’s life experiences but, rather, what do I do with it?
Can you imagine me, full of satisfaction at having captured that scene, recorded so beautifully (those eyes, the surprise ending that never quite ends because it leaves you dwelling on a spiritual wonderment of how a blind man can ‘see’)? Say that I somehow make contact with a titan in television, the big decision-maker. ‘We don’t do that,’ he says, obviously not quite caught up as I in the thrill and excitement of that poetic moment. ‘We don’t show other people’s stuff, we need total control. And besides, we do news, various kinds of entertainment, but this is… I don’t know what. Kind of depressing, Al.’
It’s a pity, but then…
Then, another day, same bus stop, again on my way to work. (Note: ‘work’ might have been the video I’d be taking of the scene about to take place). I walk out on to the street and look far down Central Park West to see if a bus is coming, but none is in sight. Returning to the curb, I see there is now another person also waiting for the bus. She is quite elderly and, as with women of her age, she’s had plenty of time to get all dolled up. Her hair perfectly ordered, hat ever-so-well perched, her suit so neat and trim. She rests her hand on my shoulder and, in true motherly fashion, sweetly suggests I ‘be patient, the bus will come.’ Perhaps she senses how frail she looks and lets me know, ‘I’m getting into my nineties.’ With phrases like that, she was making me all the more curious and comfortable about getting into whatever details of her life she might share.
No sooner had it occurred to me that she must have lost so many of her friends and relatives, she came up with: ‘I’ve lost everyone, and just two years ago, when I lost my sister, it left me completely devastated.’
I wondered to myself, did she have children? ‘I never married, and my sister, she never married.’
Then, as the bus arrived and we climbed aboard, she took pause and turned back to me, now adding the final descriptive touch to the solidarity of the sisters’ relationship and why they never got married. ‘We had each other and I don’t think any man would want to come between us.’ A stranger only minutes before, I now felt so close to her that, in the moments left, I could only wonder what next she’d come up with. ‘I’ve lived so long and through so much history; nowadays it’s all too fast, too fast.’
So it is with the mass media. No time to ponder, no place for the kindness of strangers, for odd types of communication, for the persistent search for love. Instead, quick-cuts, mean-spirited role models and soulless, so-called beauty shots. The A roll has been replaced by the A&B roll, and A&B by the B. It’s Bruce Willis, not the blind man on the bus; it’s Dr. Ruth, not the lady at the curb.
The real world is out there, waiting for us to record selected moments – all kinds, some sublime. We can, through fragments of reality, know, understand, perhaps even love one another.
Maysles and his brother David are recognized as the creators of ‘direct cinema’ – America’s version of verité. Winner of a Career Achievement Award in 1994 from the International Documentary Association, Maysles’ credits include cult classics Gimme Shelter and Grey Gardens, the Oscar-nominated Christo’s Valley Curtain and a recent film Concert of Wills: Making the Getty Center.