Albert Maysles defined truth on film from ‘Salesman’ to ‘Gimme Shelter’

One of the titans of the documentary world has passed today.

There are many filmmakers whose work can be said to have influenced other artists, and certainly one of the ways we weigh the worth of an artistic legacy is by the way it seeps into the larger culture. By that standard, Albert Maysles was enormously important, and the mark he leaves on the definition of a documentary is immeasurable.

“Grey Gardens” is perhaps the most famous of his films, and one of the things I realized when I first saw it was that documentaries can be about anything. The point of the process is truth, and Maysles was ferociously dedicated to capturing moments of almost breathtaking truth. One of the first pieces of his work that I saw was “Gimme Shelter,” the documentary about the 1969 Altamont concert where Hell's Angels stabbed a concertgoer to death, an event which was recorded on film. What could easily just be a morbid look at a terrible event is instead a record of the atmosphere that would make that stabbing possible in the first place.

The reason “Grey Gardens” has such power is because it feels like the filmmakers were invited inside a secret world with its own language, and the relationship between Edith Bouvier and her daughter Edith Bouvier Beale is as rich as any fiction. There's been a sort of industry around the documentary thanks to a Tony-winning musical and a 2009 HBO film with Jessica Lange and Drew Barrymore.

Maysles worked with a number of different collaborators, working as a director, a cinematographer, a producer, and more, and he was still working as an active filmmaker at the time of his death. He was an example of just how vital you can be when your heart is in your work, and I can't imagine anyone covering as much ground stylistically or doing it with as consistent a sense of intelligence and perspective.

The movie I'm going to choose to watch to remember Maysles today is “Salesman,” which you can find as part of the Hulu Plus Criterion Collection. This black-and-white portrait of four different salesman traveling around America trying to sell horribly overpriced Bibles to people is amazing, not least of which because of the way it never flinches in portraying these salesmen. However he won the trust of his subjects, it is an art that made his films special.

You can find a nice assortment of his work on Hulu Plus today, and I am certain they will be studying his films as long as we are pointing cameras at real life in an effort to better understand it.

Albert Maysles was 88 years old.