Iconic 82-year-old filmmaker Albert Maysles is having a good month. HBO’s fictional adaptation of the Maysles brothers’ 1975 documentary, Grey Gardens–starring Jessica Lange and Drew Barrymore as the original Grey ladies, Big and Little Edith Beale–premiered this past Saturday. And Maysles Cinema, the documentary theater founded by Albert and his son Philip, opened its doors to the Harlem Community a year ago this month. Because of its scale–the theater has a maximum seating of 60, and shows only 4-5 films a week–the eponymous cinema has opportunities like no other: Screenings are treated as events and frequently feature engaging Q&As with filmmakers, artists, politicians, musicians, and the like. (And did we mention that the show times are handwritten on a huge piece of paper? We find that oddly chic.) From documentary masterpieces to niche artifacts to films on local Harlemite concerns like real estate-driven development and rezoning issues, programming directors Philip Maysles and Jessica Green strive to balance films catering to neighborhood concerns, as well as to greater New York and a global audience at large. Father and son took some time out to talk to us about Grey Gardens, their small-scale, big-hearted cinematic operation, and the various responses they’ve encountered to both.
When you finished filming Grey Gardens, did you think the film was going to have the kind of cultural impact it has had?
In a dream. We were very proud of what we did. We felt like we were breaking into new territory of getting that much closer into the mother/daughter relationship–which is the most powerful relationship. We couldn’t have dreamed that the film would’ve expressed itself in so many different ways.
Have you ever felt that its cult following and now mainstream popularity have overshadowed some of your other works?
No. I think it just led people to be even more interested in viewing some of my other films. One thing that is an inherent part of many documentary films is that, of course, film is of no value without viewers. And each viewer has his/her own frame of reference that allows them to see the film in a particular way. Since Grey Gardens has had millions of different points of view, why not extend that into people making a Broadway musical, fiction film–whatever they want–as long as they pay due respect to the characters?
When HBO approached you on doing a film of it, what was your initial reaction?
I thought putting the film in still another form was a very good idea. Of course, I wanted to be sure that people who were making the film were doing so with the utmost respect for the two women. They showed me the script and, after my review of it, took my comments very seriously and did a nice job.
I’m sure you’ve been asked this many times, but what do you say of critics who dismiss Grey Gardens as an exploitation of the two women?
I feel very strongly about that sort of thing. They’re way off course and the irony of it is that they make these claims to protect these two women from the camera…(laughing)–these two women don’t need any protection. The underlying notion in claiming exploitation is that they’re just crazy. So it’s all in attempting to defend these women from exploitation that they’re really undermining the beliefs that viewers have that these are really healthy people. When we finished the film, we showed it to a group of some 500 psychotherapists and even they didn’t quite get it. They went off into all this hocus pocus language of their profession. I see it as an act of great courage for the two ladies to open their doors in such a way that we had total access to them. People who claim exploitation say: “Only crazy people do that sort of thing.” But we gave honor to their openness.
The peculiar thing–but not so peculiar when you understand it fully–is that my understanding of their whole psychology is that they couldn’t quite take the life of American aristocracy and the Bouviers. The only way they could fully be themselves was to seclude themselves–to sing and dance and to fashion their clothes. All of these creative efforts they could do and do fully and love each other. So along come these two guys with a camera who offer them a chance to come out into society–it was the greatest boon for them. They could still be themselves and gain access to the whole world. They didn’t have the kinds of ill health that characterized the population around them. Instead, they had each other. So in a way, they’re models of a good relationship.
Knowing what you know of the Beales, how do you think they’d react to all of this attention?
You’ve hit a very important question. I judge what we did in the film, what’s done in the musical and in the fiction film, and what will be done with my daughter’s Grey Gardens book–I judge all of this in terms of whether the two women would like each one of these things, and I think they would in each case.
The theater that you and your son Philip founded in Harlem, Maysles Cinema, celebrates its one year anniversary this month. Who came up with the concept of creating a theater solely for documentaries?
Philip: The idea evolved over a family dinner that followed a film screening downtown in 2004. My mother came up with the idea for the theater and Al was adamant that it be devoted to truth telling in film, be it documentary or fiction. Planning began and a board was formed in 2005.
Are there any films that have run in the theater that you’re particularly proud of?
Albert: Certainly the Haitian films that we showed. I have a personal interest in Haiti. I also went to South Africa and spent ten days filming there. Because we have friends there who have been making documentaries for some time and have been doing such good work, we were able to show their films and bring them to the theater and do an interesting Q&A. And the same goes for the Tibetan films.
Why establish it in Harlem?
Albert: We liked Harlem a great deal. When we were on the Upper West Side, there seemed to be no one on the streets and no feeling of community. And here there is a lively community that we find very interesting. My son is very interested in social justice and racial acceptance.
How have you been received by the community?
Philip: The response is complex and varied. Some people are a little confused as to what goes on here, since most people have never seen a movie theater in a small storefront space, especially one that asks for a $7 donation rather than insist everyone pay $12. Others get it right away and are excited by the offerings and still others may take pause at seeing unfamiliar white (and non-white) faces. At times older Harlem residents express skepticism until our intentions are made clear to them. In the context of the sea changes taking place in Harlem–displacement, lack of community driven development, and growing economic inequality–and a history of exploitation, this is understandable and our goal is to create a space that resists these tendencies. It takes encouragement, a lot of outreach, and collaboration at every turn to get people into the theater and get involved. Once they’ve seen a powerful film or experienced the intimacy and relevance of our discussions and receptions, people are quick to let us know how vital and needed this place is.
For more information on Maysles Cinema and Albert’s upcoming projects, go to mayslesfilms.com.