News & Politics

Maysles Brothers, Misunderstood in Their Time


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April 11, 1963, Vol. VIII, No. 25

Movie Journal

By Jonas Mekas

For several months I have been hearing about the new film by Al and David Maysles, “The Showman.” The Maysles brothers, in case you don’t know, were responsible (together with Ricky Leacock) for “Cuba Si, Yankee No,” “Primary,” “African Train Ride,” and a few other films which revolutionized documentary film-making around the world. Like Leacock, the Maysles lately turned their cameras from general subjects to the dramatization of the lives of individual men. For their first feature documentary drama, they chose Joe Levine, a film distributor. A man is a man is a man.

As I said, I have been hearing about this movie. As is usual with the American independents, the first news came from abroad.

In this case, it came from London, where the film was shown at a private screening. The viewers thought it was a devastating work. Then Louis Marcorelles, one of the Cahiers critics, shouts to me over the phone from Paris, all excited, that he just saw a great documentary which I should see — “The Showman.”

It was only last Friday that I saw the Maysles film. It is as good a piece of documentary film-making as I was told. It is a powerful portrait of a businessman; the world and the personality of one of the film moguls is nakedly presented. The film will be a lasting document of a unique kind, a source of study and talk for years to come — for some people. (By the way, the film contains some of the most beautiful footage of Sophia Loren ever recorded by camera.)

Now, I am telling all this, and I am boiling mad. Because there is more to this story.

For seven years now the Film Institute of City College has been giving the so-called Robert Flaherty Awards for the best documentary film of the year. When I heard that “The Showman” was submitted, I knew that at least one film would be worth seeing. But when the jury (Herman Weinberg, Sidney Meyers, Lewis Jacobs, Dwight MacDonald, Amos Vogel, Arthur Meyer, and myself) was called to select the winners, we found that the Institute had already prescreened the seventy or so films which were submitted for the awards. We were shown only ten of them. And “The Showman” wasn’t among those ten. When I inquired about “The Showman” I was told by the Institute that I could well see it, but I couldn’t vote on it. So I sat through nine contrived, old-fashioned documentaries. The tenth was a film by Leacock, his magnificent documentary of football — I don’t know how it was passed by the Institute — but it was immediately eliminated by the jury, after one minute of viewing, before I was able to open my astonished mouth. It was then and there that I realized the jury wasn’t much better than the Institute.

To complete the fiasco, the self-appointed committee for the selection of American documentaries for the Cannes Film Festival (television section), National Education Television, rejected “The Showman,” finding it not worthy of Cannes. Instead, America will be reprented at the Festival by a dozen contrivances. I think that film-makers should ignore these self-appointed pre-selection committees in New York and Washington. Film-makers should insist on their own right to submit their films to festivals.

As for the Flaherty Awards, the word is FIASCO. The awards, founded by one of the freest spirits in cinema, Hans Richter, have degenerated into the most conservative, backward academicism. The documentary film in America has completely changed during the past three years. Educators will have to pull their pants up high to understand what’s going on in cinema today. The documentary film (as well as other film genres) is breaking out of the academic, classical frame and is learning to speak a new, spontaneous language of the mid-century.

It is time for a good blast. It is time to burn down film institutes. Film schools are for fools. If a film like “The Showman” or Leacock’s work is being rejected, then somebody has to say: ENOUGH, OUT WITH YOU! LET’S CLEAR OUT THE STINK, OPEN THE WINDOWS — OH, IT’S A GOOD BREEZE!

[Each weekday morning, we post an excerpt from another issue of the Voice, going in order from our oldest archives. Visit our Clip Job archive page to see excerpts back to 1956.]


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