The recent death of Albert Maysles set me reminiscing. I visited him at his spacious midtown Manhattan 54th Street offices in March 2005 while completing my PhD thesis, which examined a series of direct cinema celebrity portraits including films made by Maysles and his brother David.

Sandwiched between interviews with a Brazilian journalist and Polish film students, Albert sat patiently for an interview that ran way over my allotted hour. As well as being magnanimous with his time, he was generous with his facilities, inviting me to stay and watch at my leisure different versions of the film originally broadcast as What’s Happening! The Beatles in the USA (1964).

My grateful attitude to Albert Maysles personally and high estimation for much of his work has always been at odds with my unease regarding his ground zero approach to documentary style. Maysles emerged from the direct cinema movement, along with his brother David Maysles, Robert Drew, Donn Alan Pennebaker and Richard Leacock. All of these filmmakers worked at Drew Associates in the early 1960s (I have documented the background to this movement elsewhere. In Tom Ryan’s interview in this edition, Maysles again professes to avoid interviews and narration, still promoting the non-interventionist, observational style decades after direct cinema’s heyday. He expressed an unshakeable belief in the correspondence between the intact take and truth: “the interests of the people shooting and the people editing are in conflict with one another, because the raw material doesn’t want to be shaped. It wants to maintain its truthfulness.”(1) A list of “do’s and dont’s” on the Maysles Films website still includes a directive to filmmakers to “Remember, as a documentarian you are an observer, an author but not a director, a discoverer, not a controller.”

Even in the 1960s, this notion of providing a window on the world was never uncomplicatedly accepted. The French cinéma vérité movement, lead by Edgar Morin and Jean Rouch’s pioneering Chronicle of a Summer (1961), indicated a different path to American direct cinema by emphasising shared participation and interaction between filmmaker and subject. Filmmaker and critic James Blue summed up the differences in 1964:

The Europeans are eclectic, utilitarian. All ways lead to the Truth-God. They intervene, provoke situations that might suddenly reveal something. There is an attempt to try to obtain from the subject a kind of creative participation. The Americans are, for the most part, fundamentalists. They eschew all intervention whatever its goal. They cultivate an alert passivity. They seek self-effacement. They want the subject to forget that they are there. (2)

For me, the least interesting thing about the Maysles’ celebrity portrait films is their non-interventionist style. I prefer a more open view of the documentary field. Some of the filmmakers of most interest to me within or approximate to this space, such as Alain Resnais, Agnes Varda, Abbas Kiarostami, Chris Marker, Ross McElwee, Patricio Guzman, Kazuo Hara, Claude Lanzmann, Errol Morris, Joe Berlinger and Bruce Sinofsky, make or have made films diametrically opposed to Albert Maysles’ philosophy.

Celebrity Portraits

I want to consider how four celebrity portraits made by Maysles Films after the departure of Albert and David from Drew Associates transcend Albert’s prescriptive approach: the feature length film Gimme Shelter (1970) and the shorts Meet Marlon Brando (1966), With Love From Truman (1966) and What’s Happening!. Albert acted as cameraman on these films, David as sound man and supervising editor and long term collaborator Charlotte Zwerin was editor on all except What’s Happening!. A close analysis of the films reveals a reality far removed from the purist ideal of long takes, minimal editing and adherence to a chronological presentation of events. I will begin by briefly summarising their genesis and structure. I will then detail how these films appraise the media, how they treat performance and direct address and, finally, the impact of the passage of time on their reception today, almost 50 years later.

Albert Maysles Celebrity Portrait Films

Gimme Shelter

Gimme Shelter employs the most complex editing pattern and temporal structure of these portraits, foregrounding the role that editing plays in the construction of the film. Following the Rolling Stones largely during the final ten days of their 1969 U.S. tour, the film seldom uses the long take, its fractured chronology moving the audience backwards and forwards in time. Shortly after beginning, in a sequence recalling the cinéma vérité principles supported by Jean Rouch, Gimme Shelter lays bare the method of its own construction by featuring Mick Jagger and Charlie Watts in the editing suite, talking to David Maysles and Charlotte Zwerin about the editing process as they edit the very film we are watching. Later in the narrative, the film again returns to the Steenbeck during editing of footage from the free concert at the Altamont Speedway in California that ended the tour. Infamously, this footage includes the stabbing of a young black man, Meredith Hunter, by Hell’s Angels acting as bouncers, which was unwittingly captured on camera. The film’s narrative structure is circular, referring to this central event from the beginning as it is watched in the editing suite and returning throughout, particularly at the climax of the film. Sequences of negotiations in lawyer Melvin Belli’s office are similarly edited and inserted at intervals throughout the film, along with press conferences and ‘private’ scenes in hotels and recording studios.

Meet Marlon Brando was shot over one day in 1965 in Manhattan, as Brando promotes the film Morituri (Wicki 1965) by giving short interviews conducted by television presenters from around the country. The Maysles were hired to film these interviews, with each individual interview to be extracted and “aired in their home cities.”(3) Shortly after commencing this assignment, the Maysles decided it could be made into a film, even though “this was not anticipated by them or their employers.”(4) Structured around excerpts from a succession of interviews, the resulting film is tightly edited by David Maysles and co-producer Charlotte Zwerin, presenting an entertaining account of the charismatic Brando sparring with journalists. It is effectively a highlights reel, juxtaposing one interview with another, the narrative organized around Brando’s unorthodox response to the publicity junket.

What’s Happening! was originally commissioned for Granada TV to cover The Beatles’ first tour of the USA in February 1964. Albert Maysles told me Granada rang just two hours before the arrival of The Beatles at JFK Airport in New York, offering the job of filming the band’s tour for British television. The film alternates between scenes with the media, on stage or travelling in the back of cars or trains, and more intimate backstage moments in hotels or dressing rooms. While the Maysles initially cut an 81 minute version of the film, a 40 minute programme was shown on U.K. television in 1964 and in the US on CBS, with narration added by Carol Burnett. This version featured over the top radio DJ Murray the K, a constant presence throughout the tour, perhaps the most rabid example of the media frenzy surrounding the tour. The Beatles did not sign a release, so the longer version remained in limbo. In the 1980s Maysles Films reached an agreement to sell the footage to Apple Corps Ltd, The Beatles’ company, for $250,000.(5) The footage was re-edited to eventually become The Beatles: The First U.S. Visit (Dougherty and Fröemke 1991).

With Love From Truman was funded by National Educational Television as one of a series of half hour programmes on writers. It is largely structured around an encounter between its subject, Truman Capote, and Karen Gunderson, a journalist from Newsweek. Capote promotes his new “non-fiction novel” In Cold Blood, about the murder of the Clutter family in a small Kansas farming town. It begins with Capote at a promotional signing for the book, before accompanying him on a car trip to his Long Island holiday house, where he is conducts the camera around his home and is interviewed about the writing of In Cold Blood. The latter part of the film incorporates a sequence showing Capote escorting Detective Alvin Dewey, who was in charge of the murder investigation and had become a friend of the author, and his wife Marie around town as they visit New York, before returning to the Newsweek interview, revealing a carefully planned structure far removed from the immediacy and rawness promoted by Maysles. In the final scenes the film shifts gear once more, as Capote notes he was at the executions. Capote’s voiceover reads from the end of In Cold Blood, re-creating the executions through the eyes of Detective Dewey, as still images of Dewey and the killers appear. The film then cuts to the cemetery where the Clutters are buried, as Dewey contemplates how youngest daughter Nancy Clutter’s life would have unfolded if the murders had not occurred.

The Maysles and the mainstream media

Even where the films seem to adhere to the observational watching brief of direct cinema, resisting direct interviews or overt staging of the action, they take advantage of an inbuilt mise en abîme organising principle, watching and recording other members of the media as they record interviews with the celebrities. Each film except With Love From Truman features exchanges between their celebrity subjects and a media contingent demonstrating limited understanding of the artist they are interviewing. Given the symbiotic relationship between the media and celebrity, it is no surprise that the Maysles capture many interactions between these parties in maintaining their observational role. However, as some commentators have argued,(6) the manner in which these encounters are structured and presented within direct cinema films indicates a more active agenda. Standing outside the media, the portraits inevitably, if implicitly, reflect on how the media operates. Key sequences are arranged to convey the insincerity, shallowness and behind the scenes manipulation of the mainstream media.

Meet Marlon Brando contains the most comprehensive account of press vapidity. Spotlighting the relentless Hollywood promotional juggernaut, it contrasts Brando’s political awareness, probing curiosity and disdain for the mundane duties of a publicity tour with the “hucksterdom” of the press. The Maysles were originally hired as media insiders to record all the interviews at a promotional junket to sell the film Morituri for broadcast TV. Inspired by Brando’s idiosyncratic responses, the Maysles concentrate on Brando at his most coquettish (with both female and male interviewers) and politically controversial. Using heavy irony, he sends up his promotional role, underlining the disposable nature of the film: “For God’s sake, go see Morituri, or else you won’t know how to proceed in life”.

The distillation of interviews from a day’s shooting to selected moments in the Maysles’ tightly edited final product is designed to highlight the distinction between their philosophy and that of the mainstream media. Brando constantly wanders off message to talk about social issues such as the plight of the Native American, racism or education. Interviewers unconvincingly feign interest before fighting a losing battle to corral him back onto the promotional treadmill. A running joke where Brando responds to praise for the film by asking fawning interviewers if they have seen it, only to be told that they have not, reveals the farcical nature of the promotional exercise. Brando’s determined refusal to sell Morituri in Meet Marlon Brando is arresting to watch today for an audience inured to ‘making of’ extras and entertainment television shows featuring interviews with actors who invariably remain on-message during the promotional enterprise.

Albert Maysles Celebrity Portrait Films

What’s Happening!

The Maysles portray a similar gap between their art and the work of the mainstream media in Gimme Shelter and What’s Happening!. The latterfocuses on interviews with radio and TV presenters to sessions with photographers, and the ubiquitous presence of the self-styled “Fifth Beatle”, WINS DJ Murray the K. There are recurring playful exchanges where The Beatles make fun of the media, including imitating their incessant calls of “Hey Beatles” in the Central Park photo shoot, parodying electronic media advertisements, or making sarcastic asides in response to inanely predictable media questions (primarily about haircuts). In the editing suite sequences in Gimme Shelter,Mick Jagger is shown flinching at an interview where he describes himself as “financially unsatisfied, sexually satisfied”. Listening to a radio interview in which Hell’s Angels leader Sonny Barger savages the Stones, Charlie Watts sarcastically responds “Well done Sonny”, suggesting that his is a jaundiced account.

The Maysles felt an affinity with Capote’s pioneering efforts to write a “non-fiction novel” with In Cold Blood, comparing it to their own filmmaking methods, which accounts for why With Love From Truman differs from the other films. The media is treated relatively neutrally, even respectfully, in this film, which features just one interview, with Newsweek. This approach allows the Maysles to fashion a portrait paying homage to Capote as a kindred spirit and leading light in another alternative style of media, the “New Journalism” movement. Albert Maysles describes their aim in filming: “to find something that’s going on and to extract from it a story and elements that are of interest to us … The book that Truman Capote wrote was in the literary parallel form.”(7)During the interview Capote pronounces his aim: “to produce a work of art out of factual material that has the same impact that the most imaginative literature does. My point is that factual writing can reach the altitudes of poetry … and at the same time it has the extraordinary extra dimension of being completely true.”

The performing self

The celebrity portrait films raise issues of performance that problematise, or even contradict, the bolder claims of direct cinema filmmakers’ ability to film without ‘distortion’. These films are clearly not performed documentaries in the vein of Jane B. Par Agnès V. (Varda 1988), Truth or Dare (Keshishian 1991) or 20,000 Days on Earth (Forsyth and Pollard 2014), in which artifice, theatricality and story-telling is foregrounded and shaped in an active collaboration with the director. However, their narrative approach does reveal the organising intelligence behind the camera. Even a cursory examination of Meet Marlon Brando, Gimme Shelter, With Love From Truman and What’s Happening! shows subjects acknowledging, addressing and performing for the camera. Such self-consciousness does not in my view vitiate the authenticity of the portrait; rather it constitutes a productively playful element, which has been largely over-shadowed by the movement’s rhetoric and dogma.

In fact, the dominant trope in these films is of celebrity subjects playing up to the camera. The films are filled with interviews and direct to camera address. Recognising this fact upends the rhetorical claims surrounding the unobtrusiveness of the recording equipment in direct cinema, i.e. the notion that small, mobile and inconspicuous synchronised recording equipment, and constant trailing of the subject without intervention or direction, could allow the subject to disregard or forget the presence of cameras and recording equipment, thus providing an ‘authentic’, ‘natural’ or ‘spontaneous’ record of life.

The reciprocity implicit in the use of direct address demonstrates the level of interaction between celebrity subjects and the Maysles. Brando literally points the camera and the viewer’s attention towards off screen space at various moments (most notably towards an African-American woman on the street before engaging her on the question of race). Capote leads the camera as he guides his guests around his holiday house in With Love From Truman. Albert Maysles is at pains to point out that in Gimme Shelter, as the Stones requested to see the footage, the notorious and reflexive moments when they watch the climactic moments in the film as it is being edited are not “staged” (Dixon 188).(7) Yet this is still plainly a moment prepared for, and playing out in front of, the camera. At the very least, it’s necessary to acknowledge the complexities of representation and the role of filming as a material part of the reality documented.

Albert Maysles Celebrity Portrait Films

With Love From Truman

Of all the portraits, Meet Marlon Brando most clearly illustrates the point that humans are always social actors, engaged in degrees of performance that are fluid and polyvalent. The film is dominated by a continual dialogue about the distinction between acting (performance) and real life (authenticity). Brando tells an interviewer “we’re all actors” early on, noting that the male interviewer would be acting differently if he was in a bar with his friends, just as a female journalist with whom he’s flirting trumps him by saying “people change unconsciously when they’re on camera”. Meet Marlon Brando is unique among the portraits, as Brando is never in a space clearly designated as private; he remains on display being interviewed as part of a publicity tour throughout the film. Yet, despite this, there are many moments that are coded as authentic and revelatory. Brando breaks all the rules of the PR game, time and again refusing to spruik Morituri. He frequently introduces or pursues political discussions to the discomfiture of the interviewers. One of these interviewers even cuts him off by saying “but we’re not here to talk about that” as he asks about her interest in educational policy after reading that she was a Miss USA candidate who made a speech on this topic.

Acknowledging the significance and validity of these aspects of performance avoids engagement in an unproductive search for ‘fake’ and ‘authentic’ moments, removing us from the hermeneutic cul de sac of treating concepts such as ‘performance’ and ‘self’ as fixed and mutually exclusive. Rock stars are also not immune to knowing winks, including reflections on their sex lives. In Gimme Shelter, Keith Richards loudly declaims for the benefit of the camera as he heads towards the door of his hotel door “Is my local groupie in the room?” On a similar theme, Paul and Ringo self-consciously shield the identity of a girl they smuggle into their hotel room from the camera in What’s Happening!; Ringo has earlier told a girl he is sitting with at the Peppermint Lounge “The cameras are on us”, to which she responds by turning and giving an oversized cheesy grin to the camera.

Such moments recur throughout the film as members of the band joke, role-play and perform for the media. John pulls faces specifically for the Maysles’ camera during a Central Park photo-op, and at the beginning of the film Ringo says “you’re missing a fab shot” to the Maysles as they film him from inside The Beatles’ car while it is being mobbed. Ringo and George play games as they assume the roles of photographer and waiter respectively for the camera during the train trip to Washington. George addresses the Maysles’ camera, lifting his cap and jokingly saying “It’s me!”, having told the assembled media representatives “you’re wrecking the film”. During the same train trip, a rare slip in the band’s constantly happy performance occurs when Paul stares glumly straight back at the camera, echoing a similar moment in Gimme Shelter when Charlie Watts stares down the camera during the mixing of Wild Horses. In With Love From Truman, Capote’s reading of excerpts from In Cold Blood is palpably a performance created for the camera to record, functioning as a dramatic coda to the film.

Affect and mutability

Viewing these films half a century after they were made, I feel a strong emotional charge. One effect of the passage of time is to transform the sense of modernity, presentness and relentless forward motion at the heart of Albert Maysles’ promotion of the immediately recorded moment as evidence of the real. The disjunction between the transitory nature of the recorded moments and their preservation can lend these films a haunting quality, as quotidian moments are magnified in intensity. Bridging the gap between now and then, viewers today will experience a sense of remembering and re-experiencing, familiarity and strangeness, presence and absence.

The meaning of a project originally aimed at spontaneity and capturing the everyday experience of the film’s subjects is radically altered when viewed today. The indexical link to a past time and space lends the films a time capsule quality, recording the clothes, speech patterns and accents, mindsets, manners and tastes of particular milieux in the 1960s. The Beatles’ entanglements with modernity as incarnated by the USA in What’s Happening! have a different meaning today. The band’s delight at a transistor earpiece and surprise at the barrage of advertising and product endorsement on the profusion of television stations available reminds us of the seismic shift to the digital era. Paul’s pronouncement when he holds up his watch and tells the rest of the band in the hotel room on their first night in America: “anyone who wants the English time, I’ve still got mine to English” injects a mixture of wide-eyed wonder and parochialism at odds with the jetsetting superstardom of later years.

Laura Mulvey has been at the forefront of those arguing that as cinema moves into its second century and digital modes of production and exhibition proliferate, the sense of cinema as a virtual museum gains momentum. Contrary to Roland Barthes,(9) who saw cinema, with its shifting referent and constant, forward progression, as lacking the spectral quality of photography, Mulvey sees the accumulated film images from the past increasingly taking on the ghostly presence of a mausoleum. Even fleeting details that seemed marginal or banal can “acquire the aura that passing time bequeaths to the most ordinary objects.”(10) While cinema can annihilate time, re-animate the past and resurrect the dead, images from earlier eras paradoxically also appear ghostly, emphasising the distance between the present and the past, effectively memorialising the moment captured.

Isolated moments take on a distinct characteristic as the past is vivified, playing out in the present. The image of the celebrity resurrected across and through time has the power to seize the viewer. Marlon Brando responds to a comment from an interviewer about his sex symbol status by reflecting upon how he’s getting fat, joking “Have you seen me nude lately?”. This off-hand comment inevitably resonates differently today with our awareness of the older, obese incarnation of the star who lead a reclusive life during the final decades prior to his death in 2004. Likewise, with the benefit of hindsight the publication of In Cold Blood was a turning point in Capote’s life, a triumphant moment involving a sensational story that required sacrificial executions. Many viewers will be aware of a less radiant future of which he has no inkling. A similar distance exists between The Beatles portrayed by the Maysles in What’s Happening! and their later, jaded appearance in the break-up film Let it Be (Lindsay-Hogg 1970).

At the most elemental level, many subjects of these portraits or their associates appearing in the films are now dead: George Harrison, John Lennon, Truman Capote and Marlon Brando. This transformation of the subject, both absent and present, can shift the films’ emphasis from the quotidian to the uncanny. Such moments move us “towards the uncanny as an effect of confusion between living and dead.”(11) Even appearances of peripheral figures like The Beatles’ manager Brian Epstein in What’s Happening!, can engender this effect. At one point Epstein responds to a question as to whether he’s gone out in New York by saying he has not had time to, and needs to get up early in the morning. The sequence in which he appears reinforces this impression of a manager consumed with business. As he gleefully exclaims “Marvellous!” when told of the chart placement of the band’s new record, we register the loss inherent in his impending premature death in 1967.

There is a different affect with the literal appearance of death on the screen in Gimme Shelter. Its impact is not merely linked to the passage of time; its capacity to shock an audience was present at the time of its production. By happenstance rather than design, Gimme Shelter taps into a very specific notion of the contingent and the real: the capture of the precise moment of the expiry of life on film. The film struggles to make sense of the moment of death. Ultimately however, for all the slowing down, re-playing and stop framing of this pivotal moment, emphasising its inherent contingency and unintentional capture, the film can only demonstrate “the excess of death over its representation.”(12) A lack of context stymies all attempts to make sense of the killing, denying access to a more straightforward truth claim made by direct cinema promoters.

Albert Maysles Celebrity Portrait Films

Meet Marlon Brando

By contrast, context is explicit and clear, in the denotative sense, where the past is presented evocatively through the appearance of bygone characters, clothes or gestures. I find the old school press reporters dominating What’s Happening! or Meet Marlon Brando both unexpectedly moving and illuminating in reflecting social etiquette and social changes. In Gimme Shelter, the Rolling Stones’ clothes feature prominently. The Maysles lovingly detail Keith Richards’ snakeskin boots in close-up in the recording studio sequence and Mick Jagger’s dandyish scarf and cap as he moves between car and hotel room, strongly reinforcing the period nature of the film (these elements are both commented upon by Albert Maysles in his DVD commentary). More familiar images can also resonate, such as when Jagger, in his hotel room, breaks out into his signature strut to the opening riffs of Brown Sugar. Transposed from the stage to the domestic sphere, these familiar, distinctive trademark moves take on a new life.

As I have documented, while the footage in the films shot for TV was originally seen at best as a record of the moment, at worst as disposable footage of ephemeral celebrity, the Maysles showed more foresight and ambition in developing their commissioned pieces. Context changes over time, emphasising the protean nature of the image and the ever-shifting relations between past and present. These portraits are now as much as anything primary historical artefacts, containing rare footage of 1960s luminaries, incorporating unexpected moments and impressions. The films’ mutability is revealed in their archival value.

Having said that, Albert Maysles’ achievements with his key collaborators David Maysles and Charlotte Zwerin are in no sense an accident of history. Albert Maysles was an instinctively great cameraman with a refined eye, capable of isolating and framing essential details. He was a pioneer in getting the most out of the advances in equipment that expanded the opportunity for mobile shooting in the 1960s, without ever being captive to these advances. Even more importantly, he has always had an incredible rapport with and empathy for his subjects, the evidence of which is clear on the screen. This rapport contributed to results that perhaps even he and his filmmaking partners could not fully appreciate. As I have examined, these portrait films frequently move beyond a narrow conception of the observational documentary template in probing celebrity, relying on relatively complex structures and a clear ideological position. What worked as contemporary documentaries generations ago can now be viewed in a different register, offering up new meanings that grow richer over time.



1. Levin, G. Roy, Documentary Explorations: 15 Interviews with Filmmakers. New York: Doubleday, 1971, p. 277.

2. Blue, James, “Thoughts on Cinéma Vérité and a discussion with the Maysles Brothers.” Film Comment 2.4 (Fall 1964), p. 23.

3. Robert Steele, “Meet Marlon Brando.” Film Heritage 2 (Fall 1966) p. 2.

4. Ibid.

5. Dixon, Wheeler Winston, “An Interview with Albert Maysles.” Quarterly Review of Film and Video 20.3 (Summer 2003), p. 182.

6. Paul Arthur, “No Longer Absolute: Portraiture in American Avant-Garde and Documentary Films of the Sixties.” Rites of Realism, Essays on Corporeal Cinema. Ed. Ivone Margulies. Durham: Duke UP, 2003, pp. 93-118 and “Jargons of Authenticity (Three American Moments)” in Michael Renov ed., Theorizing Documentary, New York: Routledge, 1993, pp. 108-34; Jeanne Hall, “’Don’t you ever just watch?’ American Cinema Verité and Dont Look Back.” Documenting the Documentary: Close Readings of Documentary Film and Video. Eds. Barry Keith Grant and Jeanette Sloniowski. Detroit: Wayne State UP, 1998, pp. 223-37.

7. “Maysles Brothers”, Film Culture, 42 (Fall 1966), p. 114.

8. Dixon, op. cit., p 188.

9. Barthes, Roland, Camera Lucida: Reflections on Photography, Trans. Richard Howard, London: Vintage, 2000.

10. Mulvey, Laura, Death 24x A Second: Stillness and the Moving Image, London: Reaktion, 2006.

11. Ibid, p. 31.

12. Sobchack, Vivian. “Inscribing Ethical Space: Ten Propositions on Death, Representation and Documentary”, Quarterly Review of Film Studies, 9.4 (Fall 1984): p. 295.

About The Author

Tim O’Farrell teaches cinema at the Victorian College of the Arts, programmes films for the Melbourne International Film Festival, has a PhD in Cinema Studies from La Trobe University and works as a lawyer.

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