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.
I 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.