Curiosity and Empathy: A Look at the Albert Maysles Memorial Film Festival

by Pam Grady

The world became a little less interesting place in March when Albert Maysles, one of the pioneers of Direct Cinema and a keen chronicler of life, passed away at 88. Local documentary filmmaker David L. Brown responded to the loss by seeking a venue to host a film festival dedicated to Maysles. Brown acknowledges the debt that he owes to Maysles and his brother David as a filmmaker, but also says, “He was probably the most gracious, kind-hearted filmmaker I’ve ever met. He just left a deep impression on me. He was very inspiring. His values of love and empathy and kindness really resonated with me.”

Albert Maysles in his office in 2010. Credit: Myrna Suarez/Getty Images.

Albert Maysles in his office in 2010. Credit: Myrna Suarez/Getty Images.

GreyGardensThat empathy will be on full display during the week-long Albert Maysles Memorial Film Festival that gets underway at San Francisco’s Vogue Theatre on Friday, May 8, the same day that Maysles’ penultimate feature, Iris , opens in Bay Area theaters. Brown has programmed an array of films that span half a century of Maysles’ career, reflecting his and his collaborators’ curious minds and wide range of interests. In addition to screening 16 films, the event features a number of special guests either in person or via Skype, including filmmakers Haskell Wexler, D.A. Pennebaker, Susan Froemke and Jon Else, and cinematographers Stephen Lighthill and Joan Churchill.

The festival opens with Salesman (1968), Albert and David Maysles’ portrait of a quartet of door-to-door Bible hucksters, a compassionate portrait of desperate men trying to survive and succeed in a world with little use for them. Grey Gardens (1975), the brothers’, Ellen Hovde’s, and Muffie Meyer’s evocative peak into the lives of an eccentric mother and daughter—and a film that gave birth to a made-for-TV drama, a Broadway musical, and a second Maysles’ documentary, The Beales of Grey Gardens (2006) — is the main attraction on festival closing night. It is a rich program, top to bottom. Picking highlights is a near-impossible task, but here are some personal favorites:

Meet Marlon Brando (1966)—In this lively short, the Maysles capture the movie star on a promotional junket for the 1965 drama Morituri . Paired with Salesman in the festival program, it is the perfect companion piece as Brando humorously describes himself as a “huckster,” well aware that now that the acting part is over the other part of his job begins. As a salesman for the film, he is charming, self-deprecating (especially on the subject of his weight), forthright in his politics, and flirtatious with the ladies, including two young reporters, future Newhart star Mary Frann and 1964 Miss America Donna Axum.


Gimme Shelter (1970)—Cinematographers Lighthill and Churchill will be on hand at this screening for what promises to be a lively discussion. The Maysles’ infamous document of The Rolling Stones’ 1969 tour that ended with the disastrous concert at Altamont Speedway is as vital now as it was 45 years ago. Lighthill, who was stationed at the front of the stage at Altamont, has likened the experience to a lower rung of Dante’s hell, and this visceral film reveals exactly what he means.

Get Yer Ya-Yas Out! (2009)—A month before the debacle at Altamont, the Stones were in finer form at Madison Square Garden. This short celebrates the band at its best with never-before-seen footage of their legendary Thanksgiving weekend shows, including backstage visits with Jerry Garcia and Jimi Hendrix.

UmbrellasUmbrellas (1994)—The Albert Maysles Memorial Film Festival is screening five of Maysles’ six collaborations with husband-and-wife artists Christo and Jean-Claude, including the Oscar-nominated Christo’s Valley Fence (1974). All five are wonderful distillations of the artists and their large-scale installations, but Umbrellas , in which umbrellas unfurl simultaneously on hillsides in Japan and California and in which the artists confront unexpected ramifications of their work, may be the most moving.

Albert Maysles, Portraits, February 2, 2010

Albert Maysles, February 2, 2010. Credit: Myrna Suarez/Getty Images

Orson Welles in Spain (1966)—Albert and David Maysles find the legendary filmmaker in mid-pitch in this entrancing short. Welles wants to make a film about bullfighting, or at least about the type of people who come to bullfights in the hopes of seeing drawn blood, likening them to Roman spectators in the days of man vs. lion. But more intriguing than his salesmanship is the way he envisioned making this film. Years before Christopher Guest’s and Michael Winterbottom’s forays into cinema improvisation, that’s exactly what Welles envisioned: a film in which the actors wholly improvise their roles. A pity it didn’t happen, but at least the Maysles siblings recorded the impulse.


Friday, May 8-Thursday, May 14, 2015. Vogue Theatre, 3290 Sacramento, SF. (415) 346-2228. Click here for more information.


Opens May 8 at Landmark Opera Plaza in San Francisco, Landmark Shattuck in Berkeley, and Christopher B. Smith Rafael Film Center in San Rafael.

Horizontal RulePamGradyPam Grady is a San Francisco-based freelance writer whose work has appeared in the San Francisco Chronicle, Box Office, Keyframe, and other publications. She is a member of the San Francisco Film Critics Circle.

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