Boldly signifying the cultural issues of the 1960s and 1970s in groundbreaking pieces such as Gimme Shelter, Showman, and Grey Gardens, filmmakers and brothers David and Albert Maysles utilized an approach to documentary film that involved spontaneous observation of naturally occurring events. With no rehearsed footage and no preconceived plots, their revolutionary work eschewed the authoritative voice-over narrator, didactic scripts, and traditional problem-and-solution format used by the majority of their predecessors in the genre and duly influenced subsequent directors in both fiction and nonfiction film. Their collaboration from 1962 until David’s death in 1987 wrought thirteen major works in which the brothers critiqued the concept of celebrity with unglamorous footage of iconic figures, explored how commercialism hinders communication, and questioned the possibility of seeing anything clearly in a world abounding with both real and constructed images.
The Maysles brothers’ particular style, which they called direct cinema,” helped usher in a new, more probing and realistic form of documentary. They are mentioned in many historical surveys of documentary film, but The Direct Cinema of David and Albert Maysles is the first full-length treatment of their career. Despite the legacy the brothers left for filmmakers of all genres, film scholars and historians have generally considered the films monolithically and failed to look at the subtle shifts in their approaches over time. Jonathan B. Vogels remedies that oversight with this critical assessment of the complete Maysles catalog.
Vogels outlines how the Maysles brothers blended a unique amalgam of direct cinema characteristics, a modern humanist aesthetic, and a collaborative working process that included other directors and editors. Looking at the films as both shapers and reflections of American culture, he points out that the works offer insights into a wide range of contemporary topics including materialism, celebrity, modern art, and the American family. In addition to describing the changes in technology that made direct cinema possible, Vogels provides careful, scene-by-scene analyses that allow for a consideration of the Maysles brothers’ films as films, a tactic not frequently employed in nonfiction film studies.