Well, no sooner had we wrapped up the leftover kugel from our metaphorical shiva for Leonard Nimoy than we have to take it out of the fridge again in memorial of another beloved Jewish elder of Boston, legendary documentarian Albert Maysles, who died last night at 88. (There’s a more specific Hamlet joke to made here, about the funeral baked meats coldly furnishing forth the Maysles table, but I’m too death-fatigued to figure out exactly what it is.)
I don’t think it’s too much of an overstatement to say that Albert Maysles, along with his brother David (who died of a stroke in 1987) and his colleague D.A. Pennebaker, invented the modern documentary as we know it, making use of new portable film technology to capture, in his words, “life as it really is.”
The lives that he put on film were of an astonishingly varied variety, from rock superstars The Rolling Stones at the height of their fame in Gimme Shelter to characters on the margins of the society in which they were once the ultimate insiders, as in Grey Gardens, his most famous film.
If I have to explain to you what Grey Gardens is about, I’m not judging you, but we probably have nothing in common. It’s an exploration into the lives of Edith Ewing Bouvier Beale (“Big Edie”) and her 50-something daughter, Edith Bouvier Beale (“Little Edie”), scions of privilege now passing a half-mad existence among a horde of cats, raccoons, and tins of “liver paté” in their ruined estate of Grey Gardens in East Hampton.
A gorgeous, chilling, and deeply empathetic look at two women who have, as a matter of equal parts free will and destiny—does one lead to the other? Who has done the rejecting here?—to live at the outskirts of society, the Maysles, armed with nothing more than a camera and a microphone, committed to posterity to of the most indelible (not to mention quotable) characters in cinema history, made all the more unforgettable for being real.
As fascinating as the Beales are, it’s doubtful that another filmmaker could have gotten them to open up in the way Maysles did (or would thought to try), but Albert Maysles knew instinctively what it was to be an outsider. As a Jewish boy growing up in Boston in the 1930s, he was a frequent target of anti-Semitic bullies, and was diagnosed as a child with a learning disability that he would later credit with helping him develop his ability as a deep listener, a skill that would inform his work throughout his career.
Indeed, no matter who Maysles was shooting, you can tell that his is a presence in which they feel safe, in which they—perhaps finally—feel understood and seen. It’s this quality, profoundly empathic yet free from sentiment, for which Maysles will just be most remembered. Well, that and his iconic glasses, which really were a revolutionary costume for the day.
Related: Home Away From Home