The Thing You Didn’t Know About Documentary Filmmaker Albert Maysles


Arun Chaudhary in The Forward:

A camera operator who actually listens sounds like some impossibly perfect romantic partner, but viewing the Maysles’ work through this lens is an incredibly useful exercise for anyone with even a passing interest in documentary films.

Terms like “impressionistic,” “soft” and “dynamic” are used to describe Albert Maysles’ camerawork. But I think “listening” is a more apt word. His camera is constantly finding the most interesting sound — rather than the image — in any situation.

Even as dialogue plays, his camera will leave the subjects to capture the images behind the background noises: children playing with noisy wooden toys in a living room, that sort of thing. Traditionally, we see these images as “cutaways” in films, shots that cover up the editing happening in the dialogue, so the editor can cut back to the face seamlessly. But Albert confidently films these environmental moments as primary footage, sometimes even walking away from his subjects in mid-sentence even as his brother David would keep the mic on the speaker. Over and over again, we pan from sources of ambient noise to the faces of the subject. Emphasis on pan. That means these shots are one continuous take. Albert is making editing decisions that can’t be undone in the camera itself. And he is making these decisions on the basis of sound.

Here’s an example with a writerly touch: There’s a scene in “Salesman,” which follows four struggling door-to-door Bible salesman, in which the Maysleses suggest the poverty of a family not by narration or even dialogue but through the ambient audio track. The man of the house, a tired-looking fellow in a faded undershirt, puts on a record when he sees he has company. He’s clearly proud of his selection, and the scratchy Muzak cover of the Beatles’ “Yesterday” that comes on competes with the strained dialogue for the viewer’s attention and beautifully encapsulates the sadness of the scene. Lesser filmmakers might’ve asked the man to turn it down and missed a powerful opportunity.

More here.