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Sanctuary of 'Grey Gardens'

The 1976 documentary about the unusual world of the two Edie Beales is a high point in the work of the Maysles brothers.

August 16, 1998|Kristine McKenna | Kristine McKenna is a frequent contributor to Calendar

Maysles' first collaboration with his brother, a documentary on producer Joseph Levine titled "Showman," was shot after he left Drew & Associates in 1962, and completed in 1963. The brothers' next film, "The Beatles: The First U.S. Visit," fell into their laps the same year, when they got a call from Granada television inviting them to film the Beatles, who were arriving in New York in two hours. The following year the pair had another brush with major star power when United Artists hired them to film Marlon Brando's promotional tour for the 1965 film "Morituri."

"As we were filming we realized Brando was giving something entirely different from a promotional pitch, so we cut the footage into a film called 'Meet Marlon Brando,' " says Maysles of this riveting record of a Brando in full command of his gifts.

In the course of making their next film, "A Visit With Truman Capote," the brothers stumbled across the subject matter for the film Albert Maysles regards as their best work.

"After we finished the film with Truman, David had lunch with Joe Fox, who was Capote's editor at Random House, and Fox suggested we do a film on door-to-door salesmen. So we found four guys

selling Bibles door to door in New England and started filming them," says Maysles of the genesis of their 1968 film, "Salesman."

Though Maysles believes "Salesman" is their best film, their most widely seen film is probably "Gimme Shelter." A chronicle of a 1969 Rolling Stones concert at Altamont Speedway, "Gimme Shelter" includes footage of a Hells Angel, one of the group of bikers that had been put in charge of security, stabbing a concert-goer to death. In retrospect, this diabolical bacchanal seems to mark the moment when the utopian '60s began dissolving into darkness--and the brothers captured exactly that in this terrifying film.

"You get so caught up in what you're doing that you don't realize the danger, and we weren't as frightened as we should've been," recalls Maysles of being at the center of that hurricane.

Their next film, which was nominated for an Oscar in 1973, was on the artist Christo's "Valley Curtain." "Grey Gardens" occupied them until 1976. Then came two more films on Christo, and a pair of films on classical music. The partnership then ended with David Maysles' death from a stroke.

"After David's death Susan Froemke took on David's role and she's a fabulous partner," says Maysles. The filmmaker now lives in Manhattan with his wife, Gillian Walker, a family therapist. He has made documentaries about pianist Vladimir Horowitz, singer Jessye Norman, abortion, the hospice movement, and the building of the Getty Museum over the past decade.

"For the Getty film we went back and filmed every year for 12 years," says Maysles of "Concert of Wills: Making the Getty Center," which aired on HBO in December.

Maysles is now working with his team on a film about a black family in the Mississippi Delta.

"So many issues relevant to our lives surface in this film: education, the terrible pattern of men abandoning their families, welfare--they're all part of this story," says Maysles.

"Margaret Mead once said that the most important thing in the world was for people to find a common basis for understanding. Being an independent filmmaker, especially a documentarian, you've gotta be angry at the system, but I've never wanted to make films that were judgmental, and I distrust films where it's obvious the filmmaker was out to get somebody. The most essential thing in this, or any, endeavor is empathy."

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