The American cinema vérité movement—rhyming roughly alongside a culture-wide jones for truth-seeking that also gave rise to confessional poetry, singer-songwriter folk, and the post-Cassavetes American New Wave—was a short-lived airburst of principle, and David and Albert Maysles were its twin firebrands. Or so it seemed then, based on a small number of films, and upon the neo-genre itself supposedly rectifying the fakery-clotted crapola of Disney docs and agenda-dominated issue films. Perhaps a disappointment in the short run—both Pennebaker and the Maysleses ended up being far too game for riding in the roadie bus and filming pop concerts—cinema vérité proved to be a historical prophecy, not the running-with-the-devil antithesis to the documentary tradition but the tradition itself. Today vérité is a way of life; anyone can, and often it seems everybody will, make their own downloadable high-res/digital-video doc, sans budget, prospectus, outline, or point to prove. If Robert Drew’s Primary (1960)—upon which crew members Albert, D.A. Pennebaker, and Richard Leacock all cut their teeth—was the ersatz phenomenon’s Mercury mission, what we’re seeing today is the matter-of-fact colonization of space.
The Maysleses’ filmography is indeed spotty, and hardly only theirs: Virtually all of their films are co-credited to Susan Froemke, Charlotte Zwerin, Deborah Dickson, and/or Ellen Hovde, in various roles. Politically neutral (no Emile de Antonio napalm here) but culturally curious, the bros were preternaturally fortunate about the right place and time—being quarantined by fan-lust in the Plaza Hotel with John, Paul, George, and Ringo (What’s Happening! The Beatles in the USA, 1964), and, most famously, being open to the transformation of Gimme Shelter (1970) from a mere rock doc into a satanic snuff film lamenting the dark side of Woodstock-era youth power.
But so much of their subsequent output has dallied, PBS-style, with the careers of classical concert performers (1985’s Ozawa and Vladimir Horowitz: The Last Romantic, 1989’s Jessye Norman Sings Carmen, 1991’s Soldiers of Music: Rostropovich Returns to Russia, etc.) and considerations of Christo, from Christo’s Valley Curtain (1974) to 1995’s Umbrellas (and to an upcoming film on The Gates).
Two films retain their toehold on the abyss: Salesman (1968), a cataclysmically eloquent portrait of postwar-America-as-wasteland, in which four door-to-door Bible salesmen essentially sell their souls for the chance to grift uneducated working-classers in the name of Christ. Shot in serotonin-depleting black-and-white, it’s a horror movie of Beckettian purity, and also so real you can smell the Camel-blighted car interiors. On another planet, Grey Gardens (1975) visits a pair of shut-in Yankee aristo-nuts living in opulent squalor on Long Island, distant relatives to the Kennedy clan (via the Bouvier strand). Elderly grouch Big Edie and middle-aged wilted-lily Little Edie puff up for the invasive camera like pet store puppies, and every scene is a queasy stew of freak-show voyeurism and freestanding inquiry into the principles of nonfiction film: Is the filmmakers’ unblinking exploitation of the Bouvier-Beale family some kind of vérité violation? Is Grey Gardens‘ very point the subjectivity of moral judgments? (“If you’re worried about objectivity and subjectivity,” Albert has said elsewhere, “you’re afraid to film.”) A rosebush of philosophical knots, the movie nevertheless captures a homegrown social mold in amber, like a museum diorama for an extinct mammal.