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Images from Maysles SALESMAN
12.06.02
Arts and Culture:
Filmmaker Albert Maysles
More on This Story:
The Art of Direct Cinema

Albert Maysles has made portraits of famous people like John F. Kennedy and the Rolling Stones. But Albert Maysles is probably best known because he makes astonishing films about ordinary lives. Back in the 1960s, Maysles was one of the first filmmakers who harnessed a new generation of lightweight documentary cameras. Maysles used them to peer into people's souls in a way that nobody had ever done before.

As a society crammed to the gills with "reality TV" programming a la COPS, SURVIVOR, THE OSBOURNES, and THE REAL WORLD, we might not realize that much of the fare that seems so commonplace today grew out of the work of a small cadre of revolutionary filmmakers during the late 1950s and early 1960s. Their style came to be known as "direct cinema," a nonfiction variation on French cinema verite; their equipment consisted of lightweight hand-held cameras without tripods, and synchronized sound recording equipment; and their raison d'etre was to change the nature of documentary films by doing away with authoritative narrative voiceovers and interviewer questions, and attempting to capture events as they happened, without preplanning or staging, or interference.

The technological advances in film equipment and sound recording allowed these filmmakers to follow their subjects spontaneously while remaining less obtrusive than with traditional, bulky motion-picture cameras, and thus helped open a window on the private lives and thoughts of the film's subjects. Few viewers had ever witnessed such scenes. The film that heralded this breakthrough was 1960's PRIMARY, a collective effort of Robert Drew, Richard Leacock, D.A Pennebaker, and Albert Maysles, among others (known as Drew Associates), which captured the inner workings of the John F. Kennedy and Hubert Humphrey campaigns during that year's presidential primary. These filmmakers all went on to have distinguished careers of their own, creating seminal direct cinema documentaries that today stand as benchmarks of the craft.

Frederick Wiseman
Wiseman has made 35 documentaries since leaving his job as a law professor in 1967 to film TITICUT FOLLIES, about a Massachusetts asylum for the criminally insane, which was banned in the United States for 25 years. Most of his films are involved meditative studies of social institutions and systems.

Major Films:
TITICUT FOLLIES (1967)
HIGH SCHOOL (1969)
WELFARE (1975)
THE STORE (1983)
ZOO (1993)
PUBLIC HOUSING (1997)
DOMESTIC VIOLENCE (2002)

Further Resources:
PBS Series POV biography


D.A. Pennebaker
Along with filmmaker Richard Leacock, Pennebaker was primarily responsible for developing the lightweight 16mm synchronized sound camera that made so much of direct cinema possible. While Pennebaker has made forays into political subjects — PRIMARY, with the Drew Associates in 1960, and 1993's WAR ROOM, a film on the Clinton presidential campaign — he is perhaps best known for his portrayals of musicians and the music business, most notably with DON'T LOOK BACK (about Bob Dylan's 1965 tour) and MONTEREY POP.

Major Films:
PRIMARY (1960)
DON'T LOOK BACK (1967)
MONTEREY POP (1968)
ZIGGY STARDUST AND THE SPIDERS FROM MARS (1973)
THE WAR ROOM (1993)
MOON OVER BROADWAY (1997)
DOWN FROM THE MOUNTAIN (2000)

Further Resources:
BBC Q&A with D.A. Pennebaker


Maysles Brothers
Albert Maysles was teaching psychology at Boston University when he made his first film in the late 1950s, a study of mental institutions in the Soviet Union. He soon teamed up with his brother, David, to produce some of the most acclaimed, and controversial, documentaries of the latter half of the 20th century, including SALESMAN (about door-to-door bible salesmen in Boston), GIMME SHELTER (about the Rolling Stones' 1969 tour and the killing of a spectator at Altamont), and GREY GARDENS (a portrait of a reclusive mother and daughter living in a decaying Long Island mansion).

Major Films:
PRIMARY (1960)
SHOWMAN (1968)
SALESMAN (1969)
GIMME SHELTER (1970)
GREY GARDENS (1976)
CHRISTO IN PARIS (1991)
ABORTION (1992)
LETTING GO (1996)
LALEE'S KIN (2001)

Further Resources:
"Stories That Tell Themselves" (AUSTIN CHRONICLE)


Richard Leacock
Born in the Canary Islands, Leacock made his first film at age 14, a study of a local banana plantation. After studying physics at Harvard, he served as a US Army combat cameraman during WWII and then as a cameraman for legendary documentary filmmaker Robert Flaherty (NANOOK OF THE NORTH, LOUISIANA STORY.) In 1960, he joined Drew Associates, co-producing and photographing such films as PRIMARY and CRISIS. Through the years, Leacock produced dozens of films in the direct cinema style, including A COMMUNITY OF PRAISE, a study of a fundamentalist Christian family in the Midwest. He later founded the film department at MIT, where he taught until 1988.

Major Films:
JAZZ DANCE (1954)
BERNSTEIN IN ISRAEL (1958)
PRIMARY (1960)
A HAPPY MOTHER'S DAY (1963)
STRAVINSKY: A PORTRAIT (1966)
A COMMUNITY OF PRAISE (1982)
A CELEBRATION OF SAINT SILAS (1993)

Further Resources:
National Film Board of Canada biography


Robert Drew
Drew is generally considered the father of the direct cinema style, a form he helped pioneer as the founder of film group Drew Associates. Drew began his career as a journalist for LIFE magazine, but turned to filmmaking in the late 1950s when he came to the conclusion that lightweight 16mm cameras with synchronized sound would be much more adept at capturing breaking news events than the lead-heavy tripod monsters in use at the time. He has gone on to make close to 80 films, many in collaboration with other direct cinema documentarians, including THE CHAIR (about a convict awaiting his execution), THE CHILDREN WERE WATCHING (on white supremacists parents), NEHRU (one of the first candid films made of a foreign head of state), LETTERS FROM VIETNAM, SONGS OF AMERICA (a portrait of Simon & Garfunkle), SIX AMERICANS ON AMERICA, and WARNINGS FROM GANGLAND (on Los Angeles street gangs). He continues to make films.

Major Films:
YANKI NO! (1960)
PRIMARY (1960)
PETEY AND JOHNNY (1961)
NEHRU (1962)
THE CHAIR (1962)
LETTERS FROM VIETNAM (1965)
STORM SIGNAL (1966)
SONGS OF AMERICA (1970)
SIX AMERICANS ON AMERICA (1976)
WARNINGS FROM GANGLAND (1985)
THE MILITIAMAN (1998)

Further Resources:
"Flies on the Wall With Attitude" (AUSTIN CHRONICLE)

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