“I have a point of view, which is not to have a point of view.”
This Monday, documentary students at The New School for Media Studies were treated to a master class from Albert Maysles, whose pioneering documentaries such as Salesman and Grey Gardens helped pave the way for cinéma vérité, or direct cinema. At 85 years old, Maysles hasn’t slowed down, continuing to produce and shoot his unique brand of observational documentaries and develop his uncanny ability to purely capture his subjects’ personalities and humanity. Maysles described his modus operandi as “observing, listening and being patient” in order to establish a direct connection between the subject and the audience. “Pay attention!” and “get close, get close!” he stressed, and from the career-spanning clips of his work which he presented, it’s clear that Maysles has never stopped paying attention.
Once described by Jean-Luc Godard as America’s greatest cinematographer, Maysles offered tips to the room full of aspiring documentary filmmakers. “I was always very much aware of how much just a face can transmit,” he explained. By simply observing the faces of his subjects, often with an uncomfortable directness and duration, Maysles captures some of his greatest moments. For example, he showed a serious of clips featuring musicians listening to playbacks of their music, which proved his claim that you can learn everything you need to know about a person by observing his reactions. In fact, the same could said for Maysles, who looked on beaming. “It feels so good when you get it just right!” he said.
Despite what other documentarians may say about the nature of truth (Herzog, perhaps), Maysles firmly believes that by faithful capturing reality a filmmaker can approach an essential truth about his subjects. Though “truth” is implied by the term cinema veritee, Maysles nonetheless prefers “direct cinema” for his work, which stresses instead the closeness required to capture reality. Maysles’ optimism towards the power of cinema and his faith in his craft is infectious. As a parting word, he encouraged his audience once again to get close and pay attention. If we had more truthful portraits of individuals, he suggested, the world might be a better place; there’d be no strangers anymore.