May 12, 2007

The Maysles Brothers

If you look up the word “entertainment” in the dictionary, it’s first defined as “diversion.” But the second definition is “engagement.” And the second one, I think, is the best one.
I just happened to drop into the BFI the other night and caught a series of stunning documentaries by the Maysles brothers.

Back in the sixties improvements in technology allowed the brothers, as a two person crew to 'go out with a camera, not on a tripod, but on the shoulder and with a sound person that was in sync and disconnected.' It is in essence this innovation that is at the heart of their films, whether it be following around Hollywood producers, Salesmen or Truman Capote.

What is interesting is that here improvement in technology facilitated (or created) a philosophy of filmaking. Their equipment allowed an intimate 'liveness' in their work - following rather than dictating the events happening around them, as Albert Maysles says:
A true documentary is shot with no control. You might even call it the uncontrolled cinema. Because once you begin to control the audience it’s not even the real thing. And so that’s part of the problem with the reality shows. They want to control things, so we get the control but lose the reality.
Their films are beautiful. And full of reality. They play out as a series of overheard conversations and anecdotes - moments of chance recorded for the first time by a camera that just happened to be there. Watching the series of films that played out in BFI showing I have never felt closer to the era they portrayed or the characters in them. That apparently Phillip Seymore Hoffman studied their 30 minute film of Truman Capote religiously for his Oscar-winning turn as the little man, is entirely understandable - through the Maysles un-selfconscious lens Truman feels so close you could almost touch him - and for the first time I found his charisma utterly irresistable.

The same was even more the case for their film of Marlon Brando, for which they simply filmed the actor during a day of press interviews. What you get is about the most beautiful portrait of Brando as a fiercely intelligent, funny and staggering charismatic human being quietly trapped in a role he has almost open disdain for. The 30 minute short got a joyous round-of-applause in the BFIs crowded auditorium.

The documentaries are showing again on Wednesday night - as part of a whole season of their work - I urge you to go. It's a truly engaging piece of cinema, history and cinema history.

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