201. Albert Maysles Is My Neighbor

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A few nights ago I went to see a screening of Grey Gardens at the newly minted Videology in Brooklyn. I ordered a cocktail called the Don Draper (aka a Sidecar) and sat down in the cozy theatre in the back room. Did I mention I smuggled in my dinner from Vanessa’s Dumplings? Totally worth it.

I looked over to my left and saw an older man with stark white hair sitting against the wall (made up of entirely of old DVDs and VHS tapes). This had to be Albert Maysles, one of the oldest living documentarian filmmakers and the founder of the famous Maysles Institute in Harlem. I couldn’t wait to hear what the 86 year-old storyteller had to say about the film he and his brother (David Maysles) shot in East Hampton over 30 years ago. The duo actually began shooting documentaries back in the 1960’s.

Maysles Bros

Albert and David Maysles (credit: Getty Images)

After the screening, Maysles started off by saying, “There’s nothing more to say. It’s all in the film.” Although he probably could have gotten away with the answer, we all had questions. He talked about how long it took to film (6 weeks), edit (6 months), and how he got involved in the film (originally shooting a movie about childhood in the Hamptons, a friend got word that the Board of Health was going to shut down Grey Gardens and told the brothers to bring their camera). The brothers gained the trust of “the Ediths” almost immediately, especially Little Edie, who you can tell loves the spotlight from the minute the movie begins. My favorite part is when Mrs. Beale boils corn directly on her bed and offers some to her daughter and handyman, Jerry. They all sit in the bedroom eating corn like it’s totally normal. I asked Mr. Maysles what ever happened to Jerry. He said he moved to Saudi Arabia and just recently made a film of his own.

When discussing Grey Gardens, Maysles pointed out that the film is about the process of becoming friends with the subjects because after seeing it, now they become your friends, too. I thought that was a special way to look at it. I asked him what his favorite part of the film was and he immediately said, “Tea for Two.” There is a scene when Edith Bouvier Beale begins randomly singing the 1925 musical number from No, No, Nanette. As Maysles said, “Looking back, it was just so appropriate.” He also assured future and aspiring documentarians that “things happen.” He couldn’t have predicted that one of the Beale’s 26 cats would start peeing behind a painting or that Mrs. Beale’s bathing suit would fall off, but that’s why “you must have confidence in life,” he said. When asked how bad the house smelled he simply said, “Don’t remind me of the smell.”

I walked up to him after the Q&A and told him I live in Harlem. Apparently we only live a few blocks from each other. I mentioned that I wanted to make a documentary about my parents but was worried that they might not feel comfortable with the camera. He lovingly shook my shoulders and said, “But they feel comfortable with you.” At that moment, I felt inspired. Inspired to create and go out there and make things. Because, no matter what, “things happen.”

For those of you who are in New York and interested in meeting Mr. Maysles, he’s celebrating his 86th birthday this Thursday. The party includes a screening of Gimme Shelter, the Maysles brothers’ documentary about The Rolling Stones.

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