Life in Hollywood, below-the-line

Life in Hollywood, below-the-line
Work gloves at the end of the 2006/2007 television season (photo by Richard Blair)

Wednesday, March 11, 2015

The Maysles Brothers

(photo courtesy of Maysles Films)

"Making a film isn't finding the answer to a question, it's trying to capture life as it is."
     Albert Maysles

Albert Maysles died last week.  Although the name might not mean much to the current generation of film students (with the possible exception of those interested in documentaries), Albert and David -- the Maysles Brothers -- were a big deal when I was studying film. They made their mark with Salesmen, a gritty documentary that followed a door-to-door bible salesman making his rounds, then went on to make Gimmie Shelter, which documented the drama behind a free concert the Rolling Stones put on for the San Francisco Bay Area in 1969, where four people died among the vast crowd of 300,000 -- including one man who was murdered by the Hell's Angels. Taking place on a chilly Saturday in December, Altamont served as a dark book-end to a busy year that saw the first man walk on the moon, the start of the Chicago Eight trial, the Manson murders (which scared the hell out of Los Angeles), the legendary good vibes of the Woodstock festival, and finally the ugly spectacle of Altamont as it played out in the bleak gray hills east of San Francisco.*  

If Woodstock marked the high point of the peace-and-love 60's, Altamont pretty much drove a wooden stake through what was left of its heart.
You can read about the Maysles' careers and filmography here, or in any of the obituaries currently circulating... but what you won’t learn there is how they made a living between their documentary projects.  Documentaries are relatively popular now -- with so many television outlets in this Brave New Digital World, a good documentary filmmaker can actually make a semi-decent living these days -- but back then, docs were art house curiosities funded largely by grants from foundations, and seen mostly by social activists and film students.The average movie goer (arms laden down with a giant tub of hot, buttered popcorn and half gallon of Coke) couldn't care less about documentaries in those days.  
So how to make a living among the barbarians? If you can't beat 'em, join 'em -- that's how. The Maysles Brothers financed their documentaries by making television commercials, among other things.  Although I have no idea how many commercials they made over the years, I worked on at least one for Kal Kan dog food, and another for Business Week magazine back in the early 80's.   
At first, Albert and David came across as rather tweedy and reserved, but they were very nice guys with a great sense of humor. They were patient, too -- an essential quality for any documentary film-maker.  Sitting there with a camera on his shoulder, hour after hour, Albert would roll when his instincts dictated as David cajoled the proper answers from a variety of civilian dog trainers for that Kal Kan spot.  I'll never forget walking into the home of one trainer out near Riverside only to have a Whippet sail past my head above eye level, all four legs canted off to one side like a Moto X biker doing some serious aerials at the X Games.  

At six feet tall, I had to look up to follow the flight of that dog...
That's one of the very cool things about this ridiculous business -- you get out in the world to see things most people don't.  It's not always pretty, and not always pleasant, but sometimes it really can blow your mind.
We made the long drive out to Edwards Air Force Base for the Business Week spot, there to film the CEO of Rockwell pontificating underneath one of the four B-1 bombers then in existence. The B-1 program had been cancelled by President Carter, leaving only those four prototypes, one of which was wheeled out of the hanger as a backdrop set for the commercial.**

I was fascinated by airplanes and rockets while growing up, so that day at Edward's AFB was like a little kid being set loose in Disneyland.  Everywhere I looked, another jet would come blasting by every few minutes -- an A-10 Warthog practicing loops, rolls, and simulated attack runs on tank targets, an F-15 doing full-power vertical S-curve climbs, and an F-104 Starfighter flashing past on a low-altitude speed run.  

It felt like they were putting on a show just for me.

The B-1 was a sleek, dark death machine, with all the form-follows-function beauty of a Great White Shark. We set up the camera and lights under the wings, then waited for the talent to arrive. And waited, and waited… which was fine by me; I was happy watching all those jets flying overhead.  The camera assistant, however -- a skinny young man who bore an uncanny resemblance to a youthful Leon Trotsky -- became restless, and decided to snap a few pictures with a tiny 35 mm camera that looked a lot like something a spy might carry. He wandered back under the rear of the plane, then framed a picture of the jet engine's exhaust nozzles.

Seconds later, four heavily armed security police raced up in a jeep to confront the assistant, demanding to know what the fuck he was doing and why. A long, earnest discussion ensued, during which the producer finally managed to convince them that our camera assistant was not in fact a Soviet agent working for the KGB.  

I still run into that assistant every few years, and every time he just shakes his head at the memory of that day.  
The public radio program Fresh Air re-ran a short-but-sweet interview with Albert conducted in 1987, which offers some telling insights into the man as a cinematographer and film-maker.  I wish it was longer -- at only ten minutes, that interview is twenty minutes too short for me -- but it's worth a listen.  
The photo above (from the Maysle's website) is how I'll remember Albert: slightly owlish behind those big glasses, always with a bemused, engaging smile. He was good man and a great filmmaker, and like so many of his passing generation, he'll be missed.

Albert Maysles, November 26, 1926 -- March 5, 2015

*I couldn't make it to Woodstock, but was at Altamont all the way to the bloody end -- just another human cork bobbing along that great seething mass of inebriated humanity...

** Ronald Reagan later cancelled Carter's cancellation, and the B-1 bomber remains in limited service to this day. 


Anonymous said...

Thank you.

Michael Taylor said...

Anonymous --

You're welcome -- glad you liked it. And thanks for tuning in...

Anonymous said...

very touching obituary for Albert. Talented artist with a great eye. Those of us who were fortunate to have crossed paths with him were richer for it. k

Michael Taylor said...

Anonymous K --

Indeed we were. Thanks...