Albert Maysles, godfather of American documentary cinema, dead at 88

Albert Maysles, acclaimed documentary filmmaker who helped pioneer feature-length nonfiction movies shot with lightweight, hand-held cameras, died Thursday, according to his production company.

The accliamed filmmaker died at his home in New York on Thursday, said his production company

Acclaimed documentary filmmaker Albert Maysles, seen here at the 2014 New York Film Festival, died at his home in New York on Thursday. He was 88. (Cindy Ord/Getty Images)

Albert Maysles, an acclaimed documentary filmmaker who helped pioneer feature-length nonfiction movies that used lightweight, hand-held cameras to spontaneously record the lives of both the famous and the unexamined, has died. He was 88.

Stacey Farrar, the marketing director of Maysles Films, his production company, said the filmmaker died at his home in New York on Thursday.

Creator of cult classics

Maysles was best known for a handful of cult classics he made with his brother, David, in the 1960s and 1970s, though he continued to make movies until late in his life and to mentor younger filmmakers.

Paul McCartney reflects on the 9/11 concert he helped organize in Albert Maysles and Bradley Kaplan's documentary The Love We Make. (TIFF)
​The Maysles Brothers — as many referred to them — chose subjects as ordinary as the struggles of Bible salesmen and as glamorous as Marlon Brando, Orson Welles and the Beatles, whom the pair followed in 1964 during their first trip to the United States.

One of their films, Gimme Shelter, about the Rolling Stones' Altamont Speedway concert on Dec. 6, 1969, captured on film the killing of a fan and the darkening of the hippie dream for an Age of Aquarius. The Altamont concert, which also featured Jefferson Airplane and Santana, was the Stones' disastrous effort to stage a festival like the Woodstock gathering a few months earlier.

Latest docs still to be released

He was active right up to this death. His documentary of the fashion icon Iris Apfel, Iris, is to be released in April. On Thursday, the Tribeca Film Festival announced that In Transit, a documentary he co-directed about the longest train route in the U.S., will premiere at this year's festival.

Documentary filmmaker Albert Maysles and fashion icon Iris Apfel attend an Iris photo call at the 52nd New York Film Festival last October. The doc is to be released in April. (Cindy Ord/Getty Images)
Born in Boston to Jewish immigrants from Eastern Europe, Maysles served in the U.S. Army from 1944 to 1946, studied at Syracuse and Boston University and taught psychology for three years before turning to film. His first foray into motion pictures was a 16-mm documentary he made in 1955 while visiting mental hospitals in the Soviet Union. 

Maysles started out as an assistant to Robert Drew, a pioneer of cinema verite, and his peers included such acclaimed documentary makers as D.A Pennebaker and Frederick Wiseman. He and Pennebaker were among those who worked with Drew on the groundbreaking 1960 documentary Primary, about rival Democratic presidential candidates John F. Kennedy and Hubert Humphrey.

Shooting life 'as it's lived'

The Maysles and others worked without scripts, sets or lighting. The resulting works had no narration, no filmed interviews and gave audiences a fly-on-the-wall feeling.

"Our films aren't the conventional kind, locked down and scripted before shooting begins," David Maysles once said of their films. "We shoot life as it's lived."

David Maysles, left, and Albert Maysles work on the streets of New York for Salesman in this July 1969 file photo. (AP Photo, File)
A technical revolution had made such films possible — the arrival of lightweight, portable sound and film equipment — and gave them the opportunity to observe their subjects with as little effect on events as possible.

In 1966, using the new equipment, they filmed Truman Capote shortly after he finished In Cold Blood. Capote explained that his book was his idea of the "nonfiction novel" — "a synthesis of journalism with fictional technique."

"We wanted to experiment in film the way Capote had experimented in literature," Maysles said in Hand-held and from the Heart, the filmmaker's autobiographical documentary. That led them to make the feature-length Salesman in 1968, following Bible salesmen from house to house as they try to convince people to buy what one of them calls "still the best-seller in the world."

Cinéma vérité style

The technique of unfettered observation allowed the Maysles Brothers to record such historical moments as the slaying of a fan at the Altamont concert, and the grim reaction of Mick Jagger, the Stones' singer, as he watched a replay of the footage. Before Altamont, the Maysles had filmed the Stones listening to a take of Wild Horses at a recording studio in Muscle Shoals, Alabama, and during a triumphant concert at Madison Square Garden, where Jagger was as in control of the show as he was helpless in Altamont, when Hell's Angels bikers hired for security had terrorized fans and musicians alike.

British rock group The Rolling Stones in concert at the Saville Theatre, London in 1969. (William Lovelace/Express/Getty Images)
The Maysles Brothers' techniques also helped them to capture on film the lives of a mother and her daughter, relatives of Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis, living in a falling-apart East Hampton mansion. The movie, Grey Gardens, was released in 1976 and debuted in 2006 as an acclaimed Broadway musical.

Some critics attacked the cinéma vérité techniques as falsely objective, given that the film ultimately viewed by audiences was usually a result of what the filmmakers chose to focus on and the cutting and selecting of the editing process.

"Any work of art is a combination of objective and subjective," Maysles once told The New York Times in response to those criticisms. "But I try to minimize my effect. I don't interview people, for instance. If you ask a question, that determines the answer. Making a film isn't finding the answer to a question; it's trying to capture life as it is."

After his brother died in 1987, Maysles continued to work with various collaborators on such films as Lalee's Kin: The Legacy of Cotton, which premiered at the Sundance Film Festival in 2002 and won the Best Cinematography award in the documentary category.

He also continued a longtime working relationship with artists Christo and Jeanne-Claude, whose process for creating monumental environmental art the Maysles documented in several films beginning in the 1970s.

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