The eye of the poet: Remembering Al Maysles

In the wake of Albert Maysles' passing on March 5, realscreen reached out to the doc community for its stories on the cinéma vérité pioneer. Here, we compile contributions from Marshall Curry, Chris Hegedus, D.A. Pennebaker and more.
March 19, 2015

Just days after his latest project was selected as part of the 2015 Tribeca Film Festival’s world documentary feature competition, and on the eve of the re-release of the iconic Grey Gardens, the passing of cinéma vérité pioneer Albert Maysles on March 5 came as a shock to the international doc community.

The Boston-born filmmaker – along with his brother David – was among the first to champion the style of direct cinema in such classic and seminal documentaries as Primary (1960), Salesman (1968) and Grey Gardens (1976), leaving an indelible mark on the medium and serving to influence myriad filmmakers after him.

In the wake of Maysles’ death, realscreen reached out to the doc community for its stories about the master documentarian, favorite interactions with him and the legacy he leaves behind.

Heidi Ewing (DetropiaJesus Camp)

Now that the great Albert Maysles is gone, there are wonderful old photographs circulating featuring he and his brother on location, hard at work, searching for their story.  These pictures fascinate me. There’s the young Al, lithe and intense, camera mounted on his shoulder, focused on whatever action is happening just outside of our frame of view. And there he is again, looking a bit tussled, surrounded by the glittering people that walk among us.

In some snaps he’s in some god-forsaken corner of America: a filthy kitchen, a cheap hotel room, the waiting area of an abortion clinic. I get the strong feeling it didn’t matter to Al where he was, as long as his gut told him there was a story to be found, a timeless character to behold, a wicked line or bit of repartee that he may be lucky enough to capture with his machine.

I know the feeling. That’s the way I feel with my own collaborator, my own “sister” Rachel (we’re friends but she feels like family) as we try our best to follow in the cinéma vérité tradition begun by the Maysles, by Barbara Kopple, by Susan Froemke, by Chris and D.A. We are all so deeply indebted to them. These are the giants who persuaded the world that there was magic in the mundane, that if you could just be patient and trust in the powers of quiet observation, the entire world could be illuminated for all of us – if only for a moment.

Doug Block (112 Weddings, 51 Birch Street)

To me, Al was more influential for who he was as a human being than for what he accomplished. Which is saying something, given that what he accomplished puts him in the pantheon of documentary filmmakers.  For such a legendary figure, he was incredibly warm and generous and accessible.  Always smiling, always approachable.  Always with a kind and positive word.  He was a consistent presence at doc festivals and events and always vibrated with boyish enthusiasm and energy.  And, good God, to still be working and making fine films at 88. If I last that long, I hope I’m simply upright. You’re never too old for role models, and forevermore when I think about “aging gracefully,” Al Maysles will be my inspiration.

photo courtesy of chris hegedus

Photo courtesy of Chris Hegedus

Chris Hegedus (Kings of PastryThe War Room)

Al was a huge inspiration for me to make the leap from photography to documentary films so I was always sad that we never worked together.  But last summer, I had the opportunity to film Al at his office in Harlem.  As we were talking, he reached into his desk and pulled out his very first camera. It was a tiny, primitive pinhole camera that he bought as a boy. Al put it up to his eye and showed me how he shot with it.  Then he reached behind him and held up a 10 x 12 photograph — the first photo he ever took with that camera. It was a portrait of his younger brother David asleep. The photograph is beautiful and impressionistic, and quite an astonishing picture to be taken by a child. Al was fond of quoting Orson Welles, who said “the eye of the cameraman must be the eye of the poet.” There’s no doubt that’s just what Al was, right from the start.

D. A. Pennebaker (Monterey PopDon’t Look Back)

I was on my way to Russia in the spring of 1959 to film the American Exhibition that was about to open in Moscow. Al Maysles found out about it and came to see if he could come along. He and his brother David had already gone there on a motorcycle and he showed me a film he’d made at a Russian mental hospital.  How he’d gotten them to let him film there intrigued me and since I’d never been there he seemed like a good companion for my filmmaking. I could see he was not just looking for a job but wanted to get to Russia as badly as I did. For us both it was going to be an adventure. So I arranged for an extra visa and the two of us spent the next four months filming Russia together, wherever the trains and trolleys would take us.  It was a fantastic adventure, and Al’s eager curiosity and ability to watch tirelessly through a camera bonded us as filmmakers for the rest of our lives. 

Marshall Curry (Point and ShootRacing Dreams)

Albert Maysles was a documentary Johnny Appleseed who tossed seeds of enthusiasm and encouragement out into the world and helped dozens of young filmmakers sprout up around him. I first got to know him at a screening series, where I shyly explained that I’d never made a film before but longed to try it.  “Come on in, the water’s great!” he said. Over the next few years I spent a number of mornings at his apartment in the Dakota, talking with him (mostly listening, really) about how digital cameras were changing documentaries, about the importance of empathy in shooting, and about the adventure of life.

I remember saying to him once, as we ended one of our sessions, “You, know, the things you’ve done and the people you’ve gotten to know are really amazing.” He gave me that twinkly-eyed smile and just said, “Lucky, lucky, lucky…” When I think about the time I got to spend with him, I feel the same way.

About The Author
Barry Walsh is editor and content director for realscreen, and has served as editor of the publication since 2009. With a career in entertainment media that spans two decades, prior to realscreen, he held the associate editor post for now defunct sister publication Boards, which focused on the advertising and commercial production industries. Before Boards, he served as editor of Canadian Music Network, a weekly music industry trade, and as music editor for As content director, he also oversees the development of content for the brand's market-leading events, the Realscreen Summit and Realscreen West, as well as new content initiatives.