Photo courtesy of Popped Magazine
Interview with Albert Maysles by –bEn M>True story. I was working for this magazine about commercials in New York City. I was sent to this interview by my editor (a monster, one of the scariest most intimidating women you've ever seen) in June 2001 with only the faintest recognition of who Albert Maysles was. I'd seen Gimme Shelter a few years ago, but prior to this interview, none of the Maysles brothers other documentaries. After this interview, I hunted down a ton of their work, and was always amazed by what I saw. So, I'm supposed to be doing this interview with someone at Maysles, in the very top floor of the David Letterman building, and, I get there and there's this huge poster of Mick Jagger for Gimme Shelter when you enter, and you're like ‘shit, I'm outta my element,' which is a good thing. And, a secretary leads me to Mr. Albert Maysles, founder and director of Maysles films, the man I am not supposed to be meeting (as I was supposed to be meeting with the head of their commercial division). So I say, ‘wonderful to meet you sir,' and am whisked off to a back editing room with Mr. Maysles, where he proceeds to enlighten me with some knowledge that I am not ready for in the slightest. About an hour into this life-altering conversation, we are interrupted by the head of their commercial division, an utter bore, who I am whisked off into actually doing my job with (interviewing him).
Before I left Albert Maysles, I told him I published a zine, and asked him, since I knew the publication I worked for wouldn't publish 99% of what he had told me (considering they were about commercials, and Mr. Maysles was anti-commercials), if I could publish the full transcription of our conversation in my own zine, to which he gladly agreed (fully supporting independent media).
Of course, my prediction concerning the magazine I was working for at the time came true, however, it was too late. Fate had already intervened. I mistakenly had interviewed the original Maysles, and had seen the light. The following, was the interview which never should've happened.
PSF: So could you tell me when Maysles films started?
Maysles Films opened in '62. Maysles Shorts was probably 4 or 5 years ago. Originally it was my brother and myself and then, many years back Susan Froemke joined us (I think she was one of our first secretaries) and she worked herself all the way up to where she was producing films for quite some time, and also making commercials. I'm a college graduate and I have a graduate degree in psychology, and I taught psychology at Boston University for several years and I also worked in a mental hospital in Boston so, I made the transition into filmmaking by going to Russia in 1955 and making a film in mental hospitals in Russia. My first film was Psychiatry in Russia and I've been making documentaries ever since. And commercials and infomercials.
PSF: Who did you make Psychiatry in Russia for?
Just for myself. Also, I'm regarded as one of the pioneers in documentary filmmaking in that around 1960 some basic changes were made in the way documentaries are made. Well up until that time you couldn't make a sync sound documentary without having to plug the camera into the wall so the equipment was unwieldy. So with some other guys we developed the portable equipment that would allow just two people to make a documentary. One person doing the sound and the other doing the camera. And that was my brother and myself. We've been making commercials since '63. The first infomercial was for IBM, which was a portrait of itself. That was in 1963 so we go way back. But we added on other people more recently.
PSF: What were some of the more important documentaries?
We were the first to make the documentary a feature. Up until that time there were documentaries that were feature-length, maybe (they) would be as long as an hour and a half but they didn't hold up as dramatic films. They couldn't be compared with feature films (which were fiction). We made 3 films all of which [held up]: the first one was Salesman, Gimme Shelter and Grey Gardens. All 3 of those films were feature films, although they're strictly nonfiction. Salesman was about four door to door bible salesman but it's not just about them. Salesmen selling the bible is kind of a metaphor for American culture so, it's a very profound film. Grey Gardens was about these two women who are eccentric, the aunt and cousin of Jackie Onassis, a mother and daughter living in a haunted house, a house which they never left in twenty years.
PSF: At all?
That's right. And Grey Gardens is the name of the estate in East Hampton, Long Island. In fact it's about the most profound human relationship -which is the mother and the daughter relationship. I don't know of any nonfiction film that has penetrated a human relationship as deeply as that film did. So Salesman gets people into the very nature of American society and Gimme Shelter of course, -if you want to know the end of the ‘60's that's the film to see. Just as the earlier period of that decade could be represented in good part by the Beatles film we made. That was called What's Happening – The Beatles in the USA.
PSF: What was the most profound insight in Salesmen you found?
The whole notion of selling anything. The idea that the bible can be sold is already some kind of profanity. It's a study of many things, one of them being alienation in our society. You'll remember the name Charles Lamb, who was a famous English poet, and in one of his poems he states that perhaps the sweetest sound, whether it's in the country or the city, is the sound of a knocking on the door. So here a salesman comes and it turns out to be not that at all. So it may sound sweet, but then it turns out to be a sales pitch in which neither salesperson nor customer are relating to life, but to a sale. Or the possibility of turning the guy down. So it's a study also of what it is to be a housewife.
PSF: How do you think that the documentary approach informs commercials? Do you see it as the same corruption?
The distribution of documentaries in America is very unfair to the filmmaker. There's no way that you can make an independent film and get it shown on commercial television. You didn't know that but it's true. Think about it. You can get it shown maybe on a cable network, but then the viewership is very small and you get paid very little and then, it's still not your films – it's their's. Nothing as corrupt as that exists in literature. If you write a book, it's a book. You either write, or you would like to write, maybe you've written a book but even there they say, "we'll publish it but you've got to change the title" or "it's not dramatic enough" – they'll ask for changes. But that's not as profound a problem as making a documentary and trying to get it shown. The opportunities are much less, it's more profound.
PSF: What did you think of the tremendous success of Wim Wenders' Buena Vista Social Club?
I haven't heard that he's gotten an offer to show it on commercial television. It was a good film. It's not gonna help us [in terms of the effect on other documentaries] because the barrier we're trying to break through... well, let me put it this way. Getting a documentary in the movie theaters, that's something else. You can either rent a theatre if you want and Gimme Shelter is every bit as good as that film but normal distributors wouldn't show it because somehow they thought it was too depressing or something like that. So we had to get independent financing. But they did show it in NY at the Plaza theatre for a whole year.
See part of what we're dealing with (you'll be fascinated when I tell you this) is the definition of entertainment. You've never looked it up in the dictionary. I'll tell you what you'd find if you looked it up. Two definitions: diversion and engagement. And the films that we make are engagement. And that's obviously an important part of the definition of entertainment but most entertainment is simply a mode of escape, is diversion. It's funny, you know commercials, they're not engagement. They could be. But they're diversions so where do they divert you from and where do they divert you to? Do they divert you to buying a product? I doubt it. Do you find yourself critical of commercials? I think they're shit, just between you and me. What was that all about, you know what I mean? No message, no direction but it needn't be that way.
Let me give you an example. Let's say that I was doing a commercial for flowers. Now I had an experience when I went to Russia the first time, forty-five years ago. At that time it was very difficult to meet Russians, obviously, it was only two years after Stalin's death and the Stalinist system was still in place (I was twenty eight then) and I met another American who was about the same age. We were practically the only Americans in the whole country and I said ‘people say that it's difficult to meet Russians but I'm determined to meet average Russian people.' And he says ‘you know it's funny you should say that because last night I had a date and went out and bought myself a bouquet of flowers, went to the Metro and started going down the escalator.' And as he was going down holding this bouquet of flowers he sees this just amazingly attractive, striking beauty, a woman coming up toward him and he instinctively throws her the bouquet of flowers. She grabs them, they get closer and closer and they're so stunned by this romantic moment that they go on their own way and they never see each other again. What if that were the commercial? For flowers. Two things. One is, it would be engaging in a meaningful romantic way. It would be selling the flowers because it would be reminding the viewer of how to use the product –the word of mouth would be fabulous. Everybody would be talking about it ‘gee did you see that commercial the other day?' I mean, I don't know if you'd even call it a commercial –I'm not used to that. That would be an innovation, and it'd be psychologically of the most powerful sort of engagement because it's giving you something that you want, and you're grabbing hold of it. You grab hold of that commercial the way the woman was given the gift of the bouquet, the viewer is given the gift of a romantic moment. You see how that differs from most commercials.
I wouldn't want to go up and down the escalator waiting for someone –you've got to set it up but you could set it up with setting up somebody with the bouquet of flowers and he goes on the escalator and it may take an hour before he sees that attractive person right there, and I'm behind him with my video camera – right, and he'll throw the bouquet of flowers maybe two or three time before we get the right one, so it can be done.
[Responding to his inquiries on my poems.]
Nothing like a good poem. If I had the go-ahead I would love to make commercials that are more like poems than like the commercials you see. I would find something going on which would illustrate what a particular product has going for it, but it would be an instance out of life. The bouquet of flowers for example. Maybe even something spontaneously. Apart from that, there's gonna be a market soon for short films (there's no market right now for short films but there will be), so I would like to make little poetic moments. I'll just give you an example. I'm sitting on the bus and I see this big very very very much overweight black woman with a big hulk of a head sitting on her shoulders. I'm the only one looking at her, but I'm not staring at her but still I'm looking carefully, 'cause I don't want to offend her. As I'm looking at her, somehow I anticipate something and I nudge the woman to my right and now she's looking so the two of us are looking at her. Just at that moment, a little girl who's also black, maybe ten years old, gets up walks around front of this heavy woman and nestles her head between (has to be her mother) her mother's breasts, and falls asleep. Well the look that comes over the mother is just heavenly, and the whole scene is so beautiful so the woman that I've nudged turns to me and says ‘oh that's so beautiful, I'm so glad that you made me notice that' and I say ‘well, if I had my little video camera I would've gotten it' but you know I would've taken it to say Mike Wallace (60 Minutes) and he would've said ‘it's beautiful but it's not entertainment (diversion) and it's not news –I guess you'd call it a poem but we don't do poetry. But a couple years from now maybe it'll get shown, on the Internet. But there may be moments as beautiful as that, or thought provoking , whatever to illustrate the point that you want to make about a particular product, so you show that and the word of mouth becomes so fabulous, that a company would be so daring to advertise in such a human way and it would begin maybe in a small way to turn advertising in a small way to be of some value to people, not just to the company but to the people and therefore, because it's of more value to the consumer, the consumer will respond by being more sympathetic with the company that the company would be so kind.
PSF: What are some of the projects in the works?
The biggest client we have right now is HBO. They do a dozen or so really good documentaries a year and we usually do one of them. So we're doing one right now of a black family in Mississippi in the delta region and it's gonna be very good. I'm one of the filmmakers, Susan Froemke, Deborah Dickstein, and myself.
PSF: When will that be airing?
Sometime within a year. A couple are in the wind. One of them... I'm nuts about meeting strangers and part of it is I have the ability to trust people right away, and consequently to get that in return, so filming strangers is sort of like the test of that ability. So I get on long distance trains in different parts of the world, I find a stranger on the train where there's an interesting story evolving, just beginning and I start filming them on the train and (it could be Russia, Indonesia, wherever), I get off the train with that person and by then you're filming the story and I'll end up with half a dozen major stories which will be in the film about: it's about trains but it's really about the people inside the trains.
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