In the wave of social changes that shook the postwar generation in the United States, Direct Cinema contributed a new perspective on reality based on the ontological truth that cinema and its mechanical recording could provide, having been undermined by years of propaganda. The emergence of lighter cameras as well as synchronic sound allowed for shots which were closer to real events. Robert Drew’s Primary (1960) is a primordial film for Direct Cinema and it closely follows closely the electoral primaries involving John F. Kennedy and Hubert Humphrey, the two Democrat candidates in the Wisconsin primary. With live sound, light-weight cameras, and an absence of commentary and interviews, Primary initiated a new way of making documentaries which three cameramen would further develop: Richard Leacock, Donn Alan Pennebaker, and Albert Maysles. It is interesting to see how their different takes on US society can be explained by their background. Leacock, a physicist, tried to capture the objective reality of everyday life (Peter and Johnny, The Chair, Happy Mother’s Day). Pennebaker, an electrical engineer, was passionate about the world of rock and roll (Don’t Look Back, Monterey Pop). Having trained as a lawyer, Fredrick Wiseman was the last to join the movement and he preferred to uncover institutional mechanisms (Titicut Follies, Law and Order, Juvenile Court). Albert Maysles, a psychologist, became known for his gift of capturing his subjects (celebrities or ordinary people) during intimate moments, in order to humanise, comprehend, and love them. Maysles himself said, “I believe that my desire to make films began in 1955 when I managed to get a visa and travel to the USSR. I was then a professional psychologist and I thought it would be a good idea to visit psychiatric hospitals and record what I saw. I am not a gifted writer, but I can handle a camera, which I had one with me at the time. Being able to speak to the right Soviet authorities at that time in order to get the permits was almost a miracle, and I was immediately captivated by the experience. In the United States we had little evidence of life in the USSR at that time; apart from speculating on life and politics behind the Iron Curtain, we had no contact at all with the people that we thought were our enemies”.
Psychiatry in Russia, filmed in 1955, did not make use of the technological development that would have rid it of a certain formalism, as would later be the case with Showman (1963). From New York to the Cannes Festival, the Maysles brothers (Albert with the camera and David handling the sound, production, and editing) penetrated the intricacies of the film business and the private side of Joe Levine, the American producer of Jean Luc Godard’s Le Mépris. Advised by Barbet Schroeder, Godard collaborated with Maysles on the short film Monparnasse-Lavallois (sketch of Paris vu par) of 1965. Godard proposed to him to film his story as if were a report on a true event, an episode of everyday life and feelings. The film-maker called it Action-Film (after Hiquilly’s Action-Sculpture): in it, chance starts to play a role in the making of the film to the extent that it determines the encounter with reality. According to Godard: “Albert Maysles worked like a TV reporter, as if he were dealing with a real event and without any manipulation. I limited myself to organizing it in the best possible way, without staging it like a normal scene”. What for Godard was just one experience, to the Maysles brothers it was the beginning of what their cinema would be, where, in contrast to Godard’s film, real events are treated as if they were fictions. In Salesman (1969), they portray the tragicomic misadventures of four bible salesmen. Nevertheless, these recordings of real life were edited as if the film were a narrative fiction. The documentary about Truman Capote, With Love From Truman (1966), filmed to coincide with the publication of In Cold Blood, bears witness to this process. The non-fictional perspective of the novel corresponds to the quest shared by the two brothers. In an interview of 1966 with the Maysles brothers, Jonas Mekas drew a parallel between Capote’s book and Direct Cinema. However, for David Maysles there was a difference: “In his book, Capote had to go back, that is, before the events had taken place. When the murder was committed he had to discover what had happened, and how it had happened. He had to go back and reconstruct the story; something that we did not do”. Maysles could not have known how right he was in his comment.
In Gimme Shelter (1970), Maysles ended up capturing on camera the murder of a young black man by a Hell’s Angel during a Rolling Stones concert in Altamont (California). With this film, the Maysles brothers filmed the end of the hippie dream, the end of an era, a watershed. One only has to see how the band members look at themselves on the screen of the editing room to see that it is already “post-watershed”. The Rolling Stones try to comprehend how everything happened and how it could have happened (the difference with Capote mentioned by Maysles seems to blur here). What Gimme Shelter represents the end of is the wind of freedom that had blown in the 60s, a certain innocence that had enabled the Maysles brothers to capture the private lives of the stars. The proximity and complicity that they achieved with The Beatles, Joe Levine, and Truman Capote, became unimaginable after this point. The Maysles brothers knew how to be in the right place at the right time. The magic of their films goes beyond their intrinsic qualities, offering direct testimony of an ephemeral state of grace. After with What’s Happening! The Beatles in the USA (1964), the figure of the artist became unimaginably fetishized and mediatized. However, the Maysles brothers were still able to approach the celebrities by distancing themselves from the media-driven hysteria (the camera is inside The Beatles’ car; the fans and the journalists are outside). In Meet Marlon Brando (1966), they film an interview of the actor with a journalist from Newsweek. By capturing the cameras and the journalists in their films, the Maysles brothers were able to remain unnoticed, thus reinforcing the sensation of their proximity to the celebrities and putting the latter at their ease. Now, it is easy to see that the pattern is always the same one. The “characters” of the Maysles brothers always have something to sell: a tour (The Beatles’s tour was nothing but a gigantic marketing campaign), bibles (in the Salesman), a book (In Cold Blood), or a film (Joe Levine selling Two Women; Marlon Brando selling Morituri). With time, the people being filmed lose their innocence before the camera and become part of the showbusiness spectacle. Grey Gardens (1975) marked the end of the classical era of Direct Cinema comes to an end. Edith Bouvier Beale and her daughter, filmed by the Maysles brothers in the women’s decadent mansion, almost theatrically portray their relationship and one can perceive a foreshadow of reality TV. The two women, by offering themselves as a spectacle (and involving the filmmakers as well), are conscious of being filmed, and thus they take advantage of it. From then on, the Maysles brothers did not have to film reality, since reality had become a fiction in itself. Grey Gardens, or innocence lost.