Thursday, February 14, 2008

A Maysles Scrapbook by Albert Maysles

One of the greatest documentaries I have ever seen is Salesman by David and Albert Maysles. Their film follows four men as they cold call homes and attempt to sell expensive illustrated bibles to people who hardly seem to be able to afford them. The Maysles brothers, with their gear seemingly invisible, slip in and out of living rooms and document all of the labored negotiations and hard sell tactics of the four as they attempt to meet their sales quotas. Out of the four men, Paul “The Badger” Brennan becomes the center of focus as a man whose sales are slipping and whose faith in his product has disappeared. It is a story of both a tiring job where men leave their families for days to bring food to their tables and the demoralization of self that takes place when defeat is faced on a daily basis. The film is beautiful and funny yet delivers a painfully felt message of loneliness and pressure attached to the pursuit of the American Dream.

This film, like most of the direct cinema innovations of the 50’s and 60’s, avoided voice-over narration and showed the drama unfold as if we were watching an unmediated experience. The participants, although occasionally acknowledging the camera, are so at ease that they forget the presence in the room of David’s Nagra sound recorder and microphone and Albert’s hand modified Auricon 16mm camera.

Albert Maysles as a cinematographer and a photographer has spent his life observing and documenting the paths that his own life has taken for 51 years. A new book from Steidl and the Steven Kasher Gallery called A Maysles Scrapbook takes us through those 51 years of image making in the first comprehensive monograph of both Albert’s personal photography and the wonderful film collaborations he created with his brother.

The scrapbook starts with Albert’s earliest work from 1955-56 (there are those two magic years again) when he traveled to the Soviet Union investigating the care given in Russian mental hospitals. Using both still and movie cameras, he splits his time between his research as a psychologist and wandering the streets with his Leica. Much of this early work reveals Albert to be a fine photographer able to capture fleeting moments with a warmth towards humanity in an era when most Americans were viewing Soviet life as cold and threatening.

Quickly, the book delves into the 30 film works through several hundred pages of cinemagraphs (strips of film images), ephemera and behind the scenes portraits of the men at work. Much space is given to the three more acclaimed films: Salesman, Gimme Shelter and of course the classic, Grey Gardens.

The last of which, Grey Gardens, has taken on an extended life of its own by spawning a Broadway musical and a soon to be released movie. I recently saw the new release from 2006, The Beales of Grey Gardens which is a second 90 minute film constructed from unused footage from the original shoots. Again we are privy to the spontaneous fits of dialogue from the charming mother and daughter recluses who live in the raccoon ridden squalor of one of East Hampton’s shore homes. Both of these films are interesting for their direct cinema style that dissipates with Albert and David becoming characters in their own film as “Little Edie” Bouvier Beale the II alternates her flirtations between the two filmmakers and fights her mother for their attention. Both men seem to have been partially smitten with “Little Edie” and Albert’s scrapbook reveals his love for this eccentric woman with her infectious smile.

Though David Maysles sadly passed away in 1987, he obviously figures prominently throughout this book. The title, A Maysles Scrapbook could refer to Albert or to both brothers as this book serves as a wonderful tribute to David in photographs as well.

The book is constructed with paper stock that has a gritty matte feel covered with full bleed images. Superbly designed by Steven Kasher and Mark Michaelson, it has a similar hand-assembled, three-dimensional feel to their last collaboration in Least Wanted. The printing is good although at times the images seem to get a little too dense.

Martin Scorsese contributed a fine foreword in which he speaks highly of Albert’s fine camerawork and sensitivity to his subjects. After quoting Orson Welles, “The camera person should have an eye behind the camera that is the eye of a poet,” Scorsese writes, Al truly does have the eye of a poet. Which is ultimately what makes the camera disappear, and give way to life.

Note: Albert Maysles will be signing copies of his book A Maysles Scrapbook at Steven Kasher Gallery today Friday, February 15th from 6-8pm. Steven Kasher Gallery is located on the second floor of 521 west 23rd Street in New York City.

Buy online at Steidlville