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The Reeler Blog

One Night Only: Maysles Cracks the Archives

"We just never got around to showing them," Albert Maysles told me on the phone Thursday as we talked about the rare shorts that make up tonight's Personal Archive program at Anthology Film Archives. "We probably even have more stuff we could look at, too. We have a 10-minute film we made of Orson Welles, but we might look at more of that material that we shot and even make a longer film of it. So that's probably one reason we haven't done anything with them."

(L-R) Albert and David Maysles in production on Salesman, 1968 (Photo: Bruce Davidson)

It was all very matter-of-fact, almost breathtakingly so: Prior to an office move in 2005, Maysles and his staff had occasion to revisit scores of films that he and his late brother David made during their years of collaboration. Among those they unearthed were an assortment of curios from the mid-'60s, mostly from the period between their decade-defining work chronicling The Beatles' first American visit in 1964 and the shattering tandem of Salesman and Gimme Shelter in 1969 and 1970, respectively. But as Maysles alluded to, these weren't just some knock-off one-reelers waiting idly for rediscovery. These were beautifully observed docs about an American in the Bolshoi Ballet (Anastasia), fledgling electronic-age corporate culture (IBM: A Self Portrait), before-they-were-famous performance art (Yoko Ono in Cut Piece) and a triptych of film studio commissions arguably more imaginative and intriguing than anything spawned from press junkets before or since.

The Maysles' timing and luck would have been nothing, of course, without their impeccable eyes and ears, chemistry yielding not just vintage shots of Sharon Tate getting down with a wild-eyed David Hemmings at Cannes in 1966 (or her future husband Roman Polanski directing her in The Fearless Vampire Killers; "Wasn't she gorgeous? Oh..." Maysles sighed), but an atmosphere of possibility foreshadowing the magnitude of the implosion the brothers would capture at Altamont three years later. For his part, Maysles simply stands by technique, which, of course, sounds like no technique at all.

"It was just a camera and a tape recorder and the two of us," he told The Reeler. "It was so easy for us to be there without imposing ourselves on what was going on. We could be anywhere any time filming exactly what we wanted. And also, people have said, 'Well, nowadays, people are so much more used to having the camera there.' But for us, it hasn't changed any. The basic thing is that people would much rather disclose than keep a secret. It's very easy for them to continue in the mode of being themselves rather than putting on something fake or whatever."

The films featured in tonight's program, in fact, showcase the authenticity behind the artifice. The feral title subject of Salvador Dali's Fantastic Dream (1966), commissioned by 20th Century Fox as a promotional vehicle prior the release of Fantastic Voyage, bounds, swerves and swats with paint brushes only when inspired -- and then, such as in the case of confronting a half-naked Raquel Welch, on any number of surfaces that cannot all be transferred to his patron's Manhattan headquarters. "We went to his hotel room at the St. Regis Hotel and we just started filming him," Maysles said. "It's the way we'd always do it. He had some visitors and whatever was going on, we filmed it. It was just a totally chance get-together." The narrator cites a "logic only (Dali) can understand," yet the madness makes perfect sense in keen context of the Maysles' frame.

The junket films -- reasonably titled 20th Century Fox Showreel (1965) and MGM Showreel (1966) -- screen like perfectly preserved time capsules of their era, revealing the sycophants and stargazers who swarmed sets and premieres of films like The Dirty Dozen and Von Ryan's Express. Darryl Zanuck announces the partnership between Fox and John Huston on The Bible. A mildly skeptical Keir Dullea, in pre-production on 2001: A Space Odyssey, describes the film as "a modern Ulysses," explaining his character to be "supposedly a man... well, not 'supposedly' -- that's no way to talk. A man who's never at a loss." Edward G. Robinson describes being mistaken for... Edward G. Robinson. Maysles' camera casually stands by as Frank Sinatra visits with Audrey Hepburn.

"Now that you've mentioned Frank Sinatra," Maysles said, "there's this wonderful little film that we did about the making of Tony Rome? Remember that film? We went to Florida and filmed that. I remember him having dinner with some of his friends, and it was like a get together of the Mafia. I think we filmed it; I'm not sure."

The filmmaker laughed, then paused. "Now that I mentioned it, I think I'll take a look for it."

Personal Archives: Maysles Films Inc. screens tonight at 8 at Anthology Film Archives; Albert Maysles will be in attendance. A reception follows; for more information, visit Anthology's Web site.

Posted at March 9, 2007 11:08 AM

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