September 8, 2009

A Dull, Grey Disappointment: 'Maysles' Fails to Live Up to Maysles

This book, purportedly about one of the major figures in American documentary film, was a huge disappointment. It's badly written, but what made me furious was the waste of an opportunity to do something valuable. I don't think it unreasonable to expect that a book titled with the name of a person (Albert Maysles) should tell us quite a bit about the person. Certainly it should be more than the convoluted, yet surprisingly simplistic, notions of the author about that person's work. But that's all we get: an almost stream-of-consciousness outpouring of tenuous connections from secondary sources, put together in a way that may have made sense to the author, but is not very helpful to the reader.

The author of the book, Joe McElhaney, an associate professor of film studies at Hunter College, reminds me of a young cameraman I sent to the Italian market in Philadelphia to get a few shots of tomatoes for a film on migrant workers. Because those shots wouldn't take a whole roll of film, I told him to shoot anything else he thought was interesting. When we screened the dailies, I saw some very good, very interesting shots of the market in the early morning--produce trucks, people opening their stores, trash burning in oil drums, kids on the way to school--and then, at the very end of the reel, when I'd almost given up hope, there were 30 seconds of beautiful images of tomatoes. "Good," I said. "I was beginning to wonder." The cameraman said, "This voice in my head kept saying, ‘When you're sent to the market to shoot tomatoes, you'd better come back with some shots of tomatoes.'" I'm afraid if McElhaney had been that cameraman, he would have forgotten to shoot the tomatoes.

In his book, Outliers: The Story of Success, Malcolm Gladwell sets out "the 10,000 hour rule" and quotes neurologist Daniel Levitin, who says, "In study after study--of composers, basketball players, writers, ice skaters, concert pianists, chess players, master criminals and what have you-- this number comes up again and again. . . No one has yet found a case in which true world-class expertise was accomplished in less time."

This rule presumably also holds true for world-class cameramen and documentarians. And I'd like to know a lot more about how Maysles spent those first 10,000 hours of his documentary life--what mistakes he made, and what he learned from them; what theories he may have developed as a result of shooting his very first films in the Soviet Union--not so much as a documentarian, but as a psychologist gathering data; what it meant to him--at the time and looking back--to be one of the select few at Drew Associates, including Ricky Leacock, DA Pennebaker and of course Robert Drew, who were creating a new kind of American documentary. The book doesn't tell us.

It tells us that Albert Maysles was a Jew in Irish Boston, and suggests this may have affected his films. We learn that he served in the tank corps in World War II and went to college on the G.I. Bill, earning bachelor's and master's degrees in psychology. His brother David also earned a BA in psychology. Do you think that had anything to do with the kind of personal documentaries they made that closely observe human behavior? Did it make Al a better shooter or David a better interviewer? We'll never know.

You'll find no mention of Maysles's marriage or his children in the book except for an author's acknowledgment to Maysles's daughter Sara, who "patiently took me through the company's photographs."

We learn also that the Maysles brothers liked to work with women. The names Deborah Dickson, Kathy Dougherty, Susan Froemke, Ellen Hovde, Barbara Kopple, Muffie Meyer and Charlotte Zwerin run through the book. Each of these women worked with the Maysles as an editor and often producer and/or co-director, and each became a successful documentary filmmaker in her own right. As far as I can tell, all of them except Zwerin are still alive and still working, most of them apparently in New York City, home of Hunter College, where McElhaney teaches. So it wouldn't have been a monumental task to interview all or at least some of them about their days with the Maysles brothers: why they chose to work with them, what they learned, how this might have affected their own films, and so on--the usual questions any semi-competent documentarian would have asked. But nowhere in the book is there a quotation directly attributed to any of them that cannot be traced to some secondary source. One is left to conclude that no such interviews were done. And if, for some reason, they refused to be interviewed, that would open up another interesting line of investigation.

About the writing: The book is dull, dense and gray. Long words, long sentences, long paragraphs, the page unrelieved by so much as a subhead to break the gray and offer the reader a signpost pointing where the author intends to go next. It reads like a data dump of every note the author may have had in his computer that bears even remotely on the topic. By the time I got to page 41, I was ready to give up--too much work for too little return. But, yes, I did soldier on to the end.

I also ran a series of readability tests on the first 20 pages. On the Flesch Reading Ease Scale, the score was 36, meaning the reader needs to be well into college in order to be familiar with this kind of turgid prose. The Flesch Grade Level score was 15.4-the reading level of a college senior. The FOG Index came in at a grade level of 18.4. That's doctoral studies, where everything not written in another language might as well be, and no one expects an author to give even a moment's thought to making things easy for the reader.

Here's a representative passage:

"However, cinephilia repeatedly celebrates not simply the image but the reality that gives birth to that image, hence its attraction to the indexical; its celebration of traces, fragments, and inscriptions; its love for flawed and incomplete films; as well as its overall fascination with the production process. Cinephilia is not fixated upon fictional characters so much as the actors portraying those characters; not so much with the hermeneutics of narrative structure as with quotable dialogue; and not so much with story as with style." (My italics.)

I've been around filmmaking, and especially documentary filmmaking, for more than 40 years, and I have never, ever, heard anyone use the terms "indexical" or "hermeneutics." To whom would one say them?

The author establishes at the outset that Albert Maysles is a shooter/director who did not edit the footage or become involved in the structure of the films--and then goes on to write about structural relationships as if they had something to do with the book's subject. Case in point: the controversial close-up of Jacqueline Kennedy's hands twisting nervously behind her back as she speaks to an audience in Primary. Al Maysles got the shot--a nice piece of behavior. But in the film, her speech starts with a cut to the close-up of her hands followed by a cut to a medium shot of her speaking, seen from the crowd's point of view. Maysles had nothing to do with that structure, and all discussion of it is irrelevant.

The author writes, "Maysles stated that he has ‘a religious feeling' about the ability to capture reality." Now, "a religious feeling" about anything has to lead to something valuable, revealing-- dare I say, Important? But instead of following this up with what this means to Maysles in documentary terms and in terms of the Maysles brothers' filmography, the author wanders off into quotations from Roberto Rossellini and Andre Bazin, making a confused connection between realism in fiction films and abstracting models of reality in documentary. They are not the same.

Maysles brings up documentary reality again in an interview with the author toward the end of the book. He says, "There's this prejudice that still exists that if it's real (which that film is), then what's the contribution of the filmmaker, if it's not about direction? But in a documentary, if you're ‘directing,' you're in trouble." Again, the author does not follow this up, but asks instead what other filmmakers Maysles met at the conference he attended in Lyon, France.

In the whole book, wasn't there anything to like?

Well, the interview is interesting, not for the author's questions, which are often longer than the answers he receives, but for what Maysles manages to reveal about his work in spite of the questions he's asked.

And there's a complete filmography, which has value. Certainly if you are a graduate student working on a thesis dealing with the Maysles brothers or cinéma vérité or direct cinema, you'll find all the reference material you may require in that and the bibliography at the end of the book. Then all you need is a good idea to hold it together.

Just don't look for it in this book.

Barry Hampe is the author of Making Documentary Films and Videos, Second Edition (www.makingdocumentaryfilms.com) and is working on a new book about filming behavioral documentaries. E-mail: barry@barryhampe.com.

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