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Remembering Albert Maysles and His Beautiful, Empathetic Documentaries

Although the pioneer of cinema verite is gone, we've got two new works by him—"Iris" and In "Transit"—to pore over and keep his memory alive.

by Deenah Vollmer
May 6 2015, 11:55am



The author and Albert Maysles. Courtesy of the author

The second time I met famed filmmaker Albert Maysles was at his Harlem brownstone, back in 2005. His daughter Sara, a close friend of mine whom I'd met in college, had brought me along for an impromptu family dinner at their home. Al and his wife Gillian had only lived there for a few years, but it was decorated as if they had been there forever. I suppose I was going for that, too. I hadn't lived in New York a year, but I wanted to feel like I had been there my whole life.

With no family or roots in the city, the Maysles allowed me to come to their home and share multigenerational holiday meals with them. There, I was introduced to my new, very New York–feeling family, filled with anarchism, social justice, really excellent food—and Al. I wasn't the only person the Maysleses took in. Al was known for his great generosity—like bringing in a homeless man he had met on his way home, who ended up staying with the Maysles for months, or the 40 volleyball players Al brought home from Central Park, whom Gillian fed at moment's notice.

To meet Al was to create an immediate and lasting bond. Which is why I was deeply saddened when he passed away on March 5 of this year at the age of 88. Not only did cinema lose one of its great directors, but a brazen advocator of personal style and empathy.

Although the pioneer of cinema verite is gone, we've got two new works by him— Iris and In Transit—to pore over and keep his memory alive. Like his classics such as Grey Gardens (1975) and Salesman (1969), these new films employ the "get close" approach he developed with his late brother David. They capture interior realms with no voiceover narration or talking heads, just showing people doing what they do.

Iris Apfel in 'Iris' (2015), by Albert Maysles. Photo courtesy of Magnolia Pictures

Iris opened last month, and follows 93-year-old businesswoman and fashion icon Iris Apfel. It functions as both a portrait of the subject as well as a mirror of the filmmaker and his method.

When I asked Al's daughter Rebekah, who also produced the film, why he chose to make a film about Iris, she said, "I think he saw her as someone like him." The comparison makes a lot of sense to me. After all, they both were born in the 1920s of Jewish origin; they both have lived in whimsical New York homes that dreams are made of; they both have had lives full of love; and both they have worked incredibly hard at their crafts.

Related: VICE Meets Albert Maysles

They also shared a love for personalized outfits. Apfel's improvised accessory combinations punctuated Al's new film almost as much as her deadpan humor. Her clothes help make the film a visual smorgasbord of color and pattern juxtapositions. Similarly, Al was no stranger to expressing himself through fashion. He customized his clothing with the same flare he retrofitted his cameras. He'd add zippers to button-down shirts and sew over the brand names on the free jackets and bags he received. Al hated logos and ads, but he loved free things and famously collected fluorescent-colored airplane socks, even hotel soaps.

"Personal style was never revolutionary to me," said Rebekah. "My family was supportive of being yourself. What inspired me [about Iris] was her life as a woman who manages five businesses and her 100-year-old husband, [Carl]."

Iris's success is also, like Al's, bolstered by loving relationships. Though Albert lived well into his 80s, pretty darn old by most estimates, when Iris's husband Carl celebrates his centennial birthday in the film, it feels unfair that we won't be allowed to do the same for Al, 12 years from now.

Al's daughter Rebekah told me, "I felt he was very young to die." And that sentiment stings, especially considering how much great work he was making at the time of his death. Iris is a powerful portrait that, alone, would be a perfect bookend to his career, but it's joined by the stellar In Transit, which premiered last month at Tribeca Film Festival.

Still from 'In Transit' (2015), by Albert Maysles. Photo courtesy of the Maysles Documentary Center

At last month's Tribeca Film Festival premiere, the film restarted several times before the audio kicked in. Had Al been there, his daughter Sara told me, he would have stood up, fist raised, and yelled at the screen, which is something Al was known to do. When their son Philip was in high school, Al accompanied him and his friends to a screening of Juliette Binoche's film Blue. In the middle of the film, Al stood up, raising a fist and shouted, "Pretentious bullshit!" Philip was mortified, and for a long time after, Al's children made him promise he wouldn't yell during movies. But he still did whenever it was out of focus, or there were too many ads, or problems with the sound.

I saw In Transit with my friend Taryn Gould, a documentary filmmaker whom I introduced to Al at a party a few years ago. When she told Al about her film—which, like Iris, is also about an older woman with panache, in this case Andy Warhol factory girl Ivy Nicholson—Al told Taryn he would like to come and film with her for a day.

Whereas it had taken Taryn a long time to get Ivy to open up, Ivy almost immediately poured herself out to Al, flirting and dancing. At one point, Al pulled Taryn aside and said, "She's nothing but herself, isn't she?"

Then he added: "Documentary film is just about making friends and introducing an audience to people they would never otherwise meet."

Two strangers in 'In Transit' (2015), by Albert Maysles. Photo courtesy of the Maysles Documentary Center

Which sums up In Transit quite well. Not since reading Stud Terkel's 1974 oral-history project Working have I felt so moved by people's ability to tell their own story in their own voice. Regardless of education—or years in therapy, ordinary people have an extraordinary capacity for eloquence when given respect and the opportunity to speak. Watching the film, Taryn and I found ourselves gasping every few moments. How were such intimate moments captured? But we knew. If you're curious and gentle and loving like Al always was, people would give you themselves.

By the end of the film I was in love with everyone: the pregnant woman three days past due, the train conductors who wonder what would happen if she gave birth on the train, the kid who is changing schools and eager to meet new friends, and the woman about to be reunited with the daughter she hadn't seen in 47 years.

Al's films generously welcome a broad range of people, and Al welcomed just as many in his own life, myself included.

Whether you were a celebrity or someone without a home, Al always listened. Often, while listening, he'd hold your hand. His legacy is his style, and his style was his empathy. His voice was giving people their own voice, a space to be who they are. It's communicated and represented by his work, his family, and the way he touched everyone who came in contact with him.

Go see Iris, which is in theaters now.

Also, support the Maysles Documentary Center in Harlem, which continues his legacy by screening documentary films shown few places else and offering classes for teenagers on producing, fundraising, and editing documentaries.

Deenah Vollmer is a writer and musician in Brooklyn.