Maysles retains vision of truth

Film: Charles Theatre welcomes, celebrates director with showings of pioneering movies made with his late brother.

April 28, 1999|By Ann Hornaday | Ann Hornaday,SUN FILM CRITIC

Albert Maysles has never liked the term "cinema verite," even though he is credited with helping to invent it.

Maysles, with his late brother David, used hand-held cameras, synchronous sound and no narration to create an intimate, urgent, occasionally frenetic style of filmmaking that came to be called "cinema verite" -- loosely translated as the cinema of truth. But Maysles has always preferred the term "direct cinema" to describe his work.

"People talk of the near-death experience as being so revelatory," said Albert Maysles from his Manhattan office during a phone conversation.

"But the camera is very rarely privy to it. The really good documentary filmmaker is filming as the near-life experience takes place."

Albert Maysles, who at 73 still possesses peppery energy and a peripatetic curiosity, will discuss his films tomorrow evening at the Charles Theatre, which is running three of the Maysles brothers' best-loved films throughout the weekend.

Tomorrow through Sunday, the theater will show "Salesman" (1968), a grim, often heartbreaking portrait of four travel- ing Bible salesmen, and "Grey Gardens" (1976), about Big Edie and Little Edie Beale, a mother and daughter who lived in solidarity and squalor on a decrepit estate on Long Island. On Friday and Saturday, the Charles will feature, as a midnight show, "Gimme Shelter" (1970), about the Rolling Stones concert tour that culminated in a slaying in Altamont, Calif.

"Grey Gardens" is one of the Maysles' better-known films, largely because the Beales were relatives of the late Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis. But "Salesman" is a rarely-seen gem, an example of how the Maysles married style and content to produce distinctive, emblematic portraits of America in miniature. In the case of "Salesman," the portrait is one of greed, loneliness and the dream deferred.

"It's a cornucopia of America," Maysles said of the film. "It's not necessarily a compliment to the culture, but nevertheless it's an insight into where we are and where we're going unless something changes. It's a signal to shape up and stop this whole process of selling, buying and alienation."

Maysles noted that it took 25 years for the movie to be shown on television. "I'd go to one of the networks and show it, and it was always, `It's too depressing.' It didn't fit into their definition of entertainment. Now, if it's `Death of a Salesman,' where somebody actually dies and it's not real, and it's got Arthur Miller's name on it, then it can pass."

One of the ironies of the Maysles' legacy is that the conventions they pioneered -- the hand-held camera, natural lighting and sound and unvarnished visual aesthetic -- have been co-opted by Hollywood, MTV and Madison Avenue as pure style divorced from the subject matter that made the Maysles' films so revolutionary in the first place. The result, Maysles suggested, is a culture that has become "visually illiterate."

"We're bedazzled by visual nonsense," he explained. "All those fleeting images that are so fast-cut and zany, they just have no impact, except [to] serve the purpose of getting people to watch more television."

Before signing off, Maysles offered one last insight. "This will interest you a great deal," he said. "I looked up entertainment in the dictionary, and I found two definitions. The first one was `diversion,' which has taken over the whole of mass media. The other definition is `engagement.' Very little of it is engaged. When you're engaged with something, the viewer has to put something back into it. It's a partnership of activity."

Screenings

What: "Salesman," "Grey Gardens," "Gimme Shelter"

Where: Charles Theatre, 1711 N. Charles St.

When: Tomorrow through Sunday (call for times); Albert Maysles will discuss

his films after the 7: 05 p.m. screening of "Salesman" tomorrow

Call: 410-727-FILM

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