Tom RostonIndependent journalist Tom Roston checks in and writes about the world of documentaries in his column, Doc Soup.

You can follow Tom on Twitter @DocSoupMan.

Doc Soup: Telling the Truth in Film and in Print

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One of my favorite bands in the 1980s, Depeche Mode, used to sing: “get the balance right.”

I might be the first person to quote David Gahan in defense of the mission of the nonfiction writer (what a way to hack at my own credibility), but that’s the state I’m in. I have always tried to be fair in my writing, as was the case in a story I wrote for The New York Observer last week about Celia Maysles and her new documentary Wild Blue Yonder. Her film is about trying to come to terms with the memory of her late father David Masyles, the legendary documentarian who made such iconic films as Salesman (POV 1990), Gimme Shelter and Grey Gardens with his brother, Albert Maysles. She made the film as a way to resolve her own identity crisis as well as to get people talking about her father again. The problem was, when she approached her uncle Albert, he refused to grant her access to footage of her dad because of a legal dispute he’d had over the rights to the films he had made with his brother and also, he says, because he’s making his own autobiographical film.

I spent a fair amount of time with Celia, getting to know her and her motivations as best I could. Unfortunately, Albert declined to talk with me other than issuing a statement. I ended up writing a story that I crafted as objectively and as respectfully as possible. But sometimes, you just can’t win. When I went to the Cinema Eye Honors this week, a documentary filmmaker who is close to Celia told me at the after party that my piece was “snarky.” Huh? I can’t recall a snippet of snark in the entire piece. I do, however, recall several instances where I pulled punches. If you care to, please read the piece, and let me know where there’s snark. I don’t see it.

A film still of Celia Maysles and older woman from Wild Blue YonderI asked my accuser where the “snark” was, but couldn’t elicit an answer. Was it because I spend a lot of time discussing the dispute between Celia’s family and her uncle? Please — Celia and many of the people involved in the film admitted that that tension drove the film — so you know it’s got to drive an article about the making of the film.

Or maybe it’s “snarky” because I quote director Bruce Sinofsky dissing Albert Masyles. But, wait — he actually said those things. And frankly, more was said, but I decided not to include even more contentious comments from other filmmakers, partly because one of the interviewees was probably drunk at the time, but mostly because I thought it wasn’t necessary to go there to tell the story I was trying to tell.
So, harrumph. It’s just another reminder that you can’t please everyone. But it strikes me as ironic that a documentary filmmaker couldn’t empathize with a writer’s endeavor to tell a truthful story that is also compelling. It’s always harder when you’re on the other side of the pen/camera/keypad.

Tom Roston
Tom Roston
Tom Roston is a guest columnist for POV's documentary blog. He comes to us as a ten-year veteran of Premiere magazine, where he was a Senior Editor, and where he wrote the column, Notes from the Dream Factory. Tom was born and raised in New York City. He graduated from Brown University and started his career in journalism at The Nation and then Vanity Fair. Tom has also written for The New York Times, The Los Angeles Times, GQ, New York, Elle and other publications. Tom's favorite documentaries are: 1. Koyanisqaatsi - Godfrey Reggio 2. Hoop Dreams - Steve James 3. The Up series - Michael Apted 4. Crumb - Terry Zwigoff 5. Capturing the Friedmans - Andrew Jarecki
  • http://stillinmotion.typepad.com Pamela

    FOREIGNID: 15439
    FOREIGNPARENTID:
    I found it kind of difficult to be snarky about Celia–when I interviewed her, she gave me nothing but honest, straightforward thoughts and feelings about the making of her film. You can read it at http://stillinmotion.typepad.com/still_in_motion/2008/01/interview-celia.html

  • http://blogs.indiewire.com/twhalliii Tom Hall

    FOREIGNID: 15440
    FOREIGNPARENTID:
    Tom,
    I have no dog in this fight, but having seen the film, I think your article was a more than fair response to the film’s subject matter and presentation. That said, I can see how your portrait of Celia could be taken the wrong way; You’ve taken time to point out her running her fingers through people’s hair and given her a voice in the article that oscillates between strident and flippant. But I think your analysis and presentation of this conflict is very fair to all involved.
    As a film programmer myself, I have to be very careful here, but let me just say that my own response to the film is that I don’t really understand the central premise of the movie; If Celia is obsessed with seeing a moving image of her father, she can grab a copy of any Criterion Collection DVD of a Maysles film and watch the bonus features. If, on the other hand, the original premise was to be the steward of David’s solo film BLUE YONDER, then I think Albert is well within his rights to withhold access and the movie is a bit disingenuous in its portrayal of a daughter seeking to connect with a deceased parent. My own decision not to write about this film comes from a place of empathy; I feel for Celia AND for Albert and unfortunately, I don’t think you can talk about this issue, even taking the balanced approach your article takes, without treading on the thin ice of hurt feelings.

  • Tom

    FOREIGNID: 15441
    FOREIGNPARENTID:
    Thanks, Tom:
    Yeah, I can see how describing Celia running her fingers through her colleagues’ hair in a public setting might make me seem snide. But I describe it without judgment, and isn’t that act pretty friggin’ interesting? I think you get a clearer picture of her as a person from that behavior than almost anything else I describe in the piece. What self-respecting writer (or filmmaker) would cut out such a revealing trait? To me, Celia’s finger-combing perfectly characterized her open-heartedness, her affection for these people and, perhaps, a certain lack of self-awareness (again, no judgments). As you quote Robert Bresson on your site: “Make visible what, without you, might perhaps never have been seen.”
    And, yes, the ice is really thin in this part of the lake. That night of the Cinema Eye Honors, I was talking with an award-winner by the bar about the Maysles rift when a woman overheard us, and she laid in—hard—slamming Celia and her movie. She spoke with such venom; I couldn’t help thinking she had a dog in the fight.

  • Amanda

    FOREIGNID: 15442
    FOREIGNPARENTID:
    There’s a lot of people who would like to defend Albert, and there a plenty of reasons to. I agree with Tom:
    “My own decision not to write about this film comes from a place of empathy; I feel for Celia AND for Albert and unfortunately, I don’t think you can talk about this issue, even taking the balanced approach your article takes, without treading on the thin ice of hurt feelings.”
    With only one side of the story, what’s the story? Best leave it alone.