Friday, March 6, 2015

The Late Great Albert Maysles

Legendary documentarian Albert Maysles died March 5 2015 at the age of 88. With his brother David Maysles he was a pioneer of  cinéma vérité who documented The Beatles' first visit to the United States and made such films as Salesman (1968), Gimme Shelter (1970), and Grey Gardens (1975).

Albert Maysles was born on November 26 1926. His brother, David, was born nearly four years later. When Albert Maysles was very young his family lived in Dorchester in Boston, Massachusetts.They later moved to the suburb of Brookline. Albert Maysles attended Syracuse University where he received a degree in psychology. He received a master’s degree from Boston University in the field and taught psychology for three years before he made his first film, the documentary short "Psychiatry in Russia" in 1955. It was followed by "Russian Close-Up" and "Youth in Poland" in 1957. "Youth in Poland" would mark the first time that Mr. Maysles worked with his brother David, who was co-director on the film. David Maysles had been working as a production assistant on Hollywood films. In 1960 Albert Maysles served as part of the film crew for Robert Drew's documentary Primary, which followed Democratic presidential candidates John F. Kennedy and Hubert Humphrey on their campaigns.

Albert Maysles directed portions of a 1961 edition of ABC Close-Up! entitled "Adventures on the New Frontier" that examined the daily work of President John F. Kennedy. It was in 1962 that Albert and David Maysles founded Maysles Films. The Maysles brothers directed the documentary Showman (1962), which followed Joseph E. Levine as he promoted the Sophia Loren film Two Women. Much of the Maysles' brothers' living at this point consisted of making commercials for such companies as IBM and Merrill Lynch.

The year 1964 brought the Maysles brothers one of their best known works. They documented The Beatles' first visit to the United States in 1964 with What's Happening! The Beatles in the U.S.A. The documentary would later be edited together with footage from The Beatles' first appearances on The Ed Sullivan Show and released as The Beatles: The First U.S. Visit in 1991. The Maysles brothers' reputations as documentary filmmakers would be further consolidated by Salesmen, in which they followed four door to door salesmen, and Gimme Shelter, which documented The Rolling Stones' ill-fated music festival in 1969 at Altamont Speedway in California. In between they directed the documentaries With Love from Truman (1966), Orson Welles in Spain (1966), and Meet Marlon Brando (1966).

In 1974 Albert Maysles directed the first of several documentaries on controversial artist Christo, Christo's Valley Curtain (1974). It was followed by what may be the Maysles brothers' most famous documentary short of What's Happening! The Beatles in the U.S.A. and Gimme Shelter. Grey Gardens chronicled the everyday lives of  Edith "Big Edie" Ewing Bouvier Beale and Edith "Little Edie" Bouvier Beale, two reclusive socialites who were the aunt and first cousin of Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis respectively. Grey Gardens received critical acclaim and went onto develop a cult following. Albert Maysles ended the decade of the Seventies with Muhammad and Larry (1980), a documentary about Muhammad Ali and Larry Holmes.

The Eighties would see Albert Maysles direct the television documentary Ozawa (1985), about the Japanese conductor Seiji Ozawa, as well as the television documentary Vladimir Horowitz: The Last Romantic (1985), about the classical pianist. He also directed  Horowitz Plays Mozart (1987)  and Jessye Norman Sings Carmen (1989). Sadly, on January 3 1987 Albert Maysles' brother David died of a stroke at the age 55. Albert Maysles would continue to work nearly three decades following his brother's death. In fact he worked up to his own.

The Nineties saw Albert Maysles direct works on a wide variety of subject matter, everything from Sports Illustrated: Swimsuit '92 to an edition of America Undercover, "Abortion: Desperate Choices". He also directed the television special Conversations with the Rolling Stones (1994) as well as the films Letting Go: A Hospice Journey (1996) and Concert of Wills: Making the Getty Center (1997). Mr. Maysles continued working through the Naughts and into the Teens. He directed the television documentary LaLee's Kin: The Legacy of Cotton (2001), about a Louisiana school district, and the films Sally Gross: The Pleasure of Stillness (2007) and Iris (2014). He also directed an editions of the TV programmes The Addiction Project, as well as the TV documentaries More Than a Paycheck: Mitchum Presents America's Hardest Workers (2010) and The Love We Make (2011). His last film, In Transit, is in post-production and due to be released this year.

Together the Maysles brothers revolutionised documentary filmmaking. Although not the first to work in  cinéma vérité, they took the form further than anyone had before them. Battery powered cameras and audio recorders had only recently been developed when the two brothers established Maysles Films, and the two of them used the new technology to get closer to their subjects than documentarians had ever been able to before. The Maysles brothers further broke with traditional documentary filmmaking in that they did not interview their subjects. Instead they simply filmed their subjects as they went about their lives, allowing their subjects' words and actions to speak for themselves. Between the closeness the Maysles brothers were able to achieve with their subjects and simply filming their subjects' lives, the Maysles' brothers were able to achieve an immediacy that was previously lacking in most documentaries.

It is for this reason that What's Happening! The Beatles in the U.S.A., Gimme Shelter, Grey Gardens, and the Maysles brothers' documentaries continue to be popular to this day, even with people who don't generally like documentaries. The Maysles brothers were able to capture subjects with an immediacy, an intimacy, and even empathy as no documentarians ever had before.

Thursday, March 5, 2015

Turner Classic Movies Fan Favorites

Those of you who watch Turner Classic Movies may remember that last November TCM started a new segment called "Fan Favorites" in which four fans were able to discuss one of their favourite films with TCM co-host Ben Mankiewicz. On April 11 TCM will air another round of Fan Favorites and among the featured fans will be yours truly. I will be talking about The Beatles' classic A Hard Day's Night (1964). I will post more details (such as the specific times we fans will be on) as they come available.

Wednesday, March 4, 2015

My Picks for the Turner Classic Movies Classic Film Festival

Sadly, I will not be attending the Turner Classic Movies Classic Film Festival this year. That having been said, like many who are not attending I like to think about the films I go see there.  Indeed, this year they are once more showing some of my favourite films of all time. Since I cannot attend the festival, then, I am posting my list of must-see movies for those of you who are. I have to tell my fellow bloggers that if I do not see long, detailed blog posts about each of these films I will be sorely disappointed!

Here, in alphabetical order, are my picks for the Turner Classic Movies Classic Film Festival.

42nd Street (1933): In my humble opinion 42nd Street is both the greatest backstage musical of all time and one the best Pre-Code movies. It is also the second best film of 1933, second only to King Kong. 42nd Street literally invented nearly every backstage musical cliche. And while many viewers who have never seen the film will nonetheless find much that is familiar about it, 42nd Street still remains fresh and exciting largely due to fast paced, witty dialogue (much of it containing double entendres); incredible Busby Berkeley dance numbers; and some truly great songs. It also benefits from a great cast, including Ruby Keeler, Warner Baxter, Dick Powell, and Ginger Rogers.

The Apartment (1960): If you know me, then you also know how much I love this film. Quite simply, The Apartment is my third favourite film of all time (after Seven Samurai and Casablanca). Billy Wilder and I.A.L. Diamond's screenplay is funny, witty, touching, and romantic by turns, and at times all at the same time. It also boasts some of the most quotable lines of any film ever made. The film benefits from a great cast, including Jack Lemmon, Shirley MacLaine, Fred MacMurray, Jack Kruschen, Ray Walston, David White, and Edie Adams. It is a true classic, movie-wise.

Gunga Din (1939): There is this myth that big budget, action blockbusters were invented in the Seventies. Gunga Din is proof that this is not the case. Indeed, short of The Adventures of Robin Hood (1938), it might well be the most famous adventure film of the Thirties. There much to recommend about Gunga Din, including a great cast (including Cary Grant, Victor McLaglen, Douglas Fairbanks, Jr., and Sam Jaffe), a sterling screenplay, and plenty of action. It also has some of the most quotable lines of any film in movie history.

The Hunchback of Notre Dame (1939): It is no secret that 1939 was a very good year for film. Indeed, there are those of us who think that it is the best year for films ever. It should then be no surprise that there are two films from that year on this list. The Hunchback of Notre Dame (1939) is the best adaptation of Victor Hugo's novel of the same name, even if it does take considerable liberties with the source material. Regardless, Charles Laughton plays the quintessential Quasimodo in what might be the greatest performance of his legendary career. The film also features some incredible performances from Maureen O'Hara, Cedric Hardwicke, Thomas Mitchell, and Edmund O'Brien. Beyond the great performances and a great screenplay, The Hunchback of Notre Dame boasts some of the best production design of a film from the Thirties. RKO recreated medieval Paris on their Encino Ranch. It was one of the most expensive and most extravagant sets built at the time.

The Loved One (1965): If you are a regular reader of this blog, you know The Loved One is one of my all time favourite films. The film takes its bare bones plot from Evelyn Waugh's classic novel The Loved One: An Anglo-American Tragedy, and from there goes in wholly unexpected directions. Quite simply along with Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb, The Loved One was one of a new breed of irreverent comedies that lampooned topics that were previously taboo for film comedies. Indeed, not only does The Loved One send up the funeral industry and Hollywood much as the original novel did, but everything from American mores to the space programme. Jessica Mitford titled her essay on the making of the film,  "Something to Offend Everyone", and that essentially became the tag line of the movie. The Loved One benefits from an incredibly funny script by Terry Southern and Christopher Isherwood, as well as a great cast. Even though Robert Morse's English accent is only a little better than Dick Van Dyke's in Mary Poppins, he still gives a great performance as the film's protagonist, while Anjanette Comer is perfect as Aimee Thanatogenous. Both Jonathan Winters and Rod Steiger very nearly steal the show. If you love the irreverent comedies of the Sixties, then this is a must see.

The Man Who Would Be King (1975):  Even though it was made in the Seventies, The Man Who Would Be King seems much more like an old fashioned, adventure film from the Thirties. Much of this might be due to the fact that the film was based on Rudyard Kipling's short story of the same name, as well as the fact that it was directed by one of the Golden Age of Hollywood's greats, John Huston. Indeed, Mr. Huston had wanted to make a film based on the short story as far back at the Fifties (at which point  Clark Gable and Humphrey Bogart would have played the leads), but was never able to get the project off the ground. There is much to recommend about The Man Who Would Be King, not the least is its subtle balance of action, comedy, and drama.

On Her Majesty's Secret Service (1969): When it comes to the James Bond films, I have always thought On Her Majesty's Secret Service is one of the most underrated. It was the only movie in which George Lanzenby played James Bond, and he does well in his only outing as the character. The film also boasts my favourite "Bond girl" of all time (if that term is even really applicable to her), Dame Diana Rigg as Countess Tracy di Vicenzo. As to the plot, it is appropriately Bondian in scope, with Bond's archenemy Blofeld played by Telly Savalas literally threatening the whole world. Perhaps the best thing about On Her Majesty's Secret Service is that it is one of the few films in which Bond is actually allowed to be human. In this film Bond actually has feelings and is all too vulnerable, quite a contrast the British superman portrayed in most 007 movies.

Pinocchio (1940):  This could well be my favourite Disney animated feature of all time. It certainly contains some of the best animation of any Disney film or any animated film, period. It also has one of the best screenplays of any Disney film, with a story that goes well beyond the simple morality play about the importance of hard work and telling the truth. The film has a great voice cast, with Dick Jones as the title character and Cliff Edwards as  Jiminy Cricket. It also benefits from one of the best soundtracks of any animated film, including the songs "When You Wish Upon a Star" (which won the Oscar for Best Music, Original Song) and "I've Got No Strings".

Rififi (1955): Although often counted as a caper film, Rififi is no light hearted romp. Instead this tale of thieves plotting a heist is a prime example of film noir. The movie is both dark and violent, and represents a world where literally no one can be trusted. At the same time, however, there is a humanity about Rififi that is lacking in many crime films and even other films noirs. The movie benefits greatly from Jules Dassin's direction, as well as a brilliant screenplay.

Roman Holiday (1953): This is the film that made Audrey Hepburn a star, and there should be little wonder it did. Not only was it her first major role in a Hollywood film, but she gave a bravura performance as Princess Ann. Indeed, she won the Academy Award for Best Actress for the role. Today it is hard to believe that anyone else could have even been considered for the role (director William Wyler considered Elizabeth Taylor and Jean Simmons, but both were unavailable). Roman Holiday not only benefited from Audrey Hepburn's performance, but also from a solid screenplay by Dalton Trumbo, Ian McLellan Hunter, and John Dighton, based on a story by Dalton Trumbo.  The rest of its cast, from Gregory Peck to Eddie Albert,  also do fine jobs.

Sunday, March 1, 2015

A Conversation with Lyndsy Spence about Her Book Mrs Guinness: The Rise and Fall of Diana Mitford

Perhaps no other set of sisters had an impact on the 20th Century as the Mitford sisters. Beautiful, intelligent, and more often than not controversial, the Mitfords may well be the most famous sisters of all time short of the Brontës. They spanned nearly the entire political spectrum, from a Nazi sympathiser to a Communist. And they achieved a good deal in a wide range of various fields, everything from best selling novels to muckracking journalism. It should be no surprise that there is a great deal of interest in them to this day.

Perhaps no one is as interested in the Mitfords as author Lyndsy Spence. She is founder of the Mitford Society, which boasts over 1700 members. She wrote the highly successful book The Mitford Girls' Guide to Life and edited the Mitford Society's two annuals. She has been published in everything from The Lady Magazine to BBC Magazine. Her latest book, Mrs Guinness: The Rise and Fall of Diana Mitford, comes out tomorrow. It details the early life of one of the most controversial of the Mitford sisters, Diana, who married brewing heir and future peer Bryan Guinness only to leave him for British Fascist leader Oswald Mosley. Following is an interview with Miss Spence regarding her latest book

A Shroud of Thoughts: Mrs Guinness: The Rise and Fall of Diana Mitford is your second book related to the Mitford Sisters. How did you become interested in the Mitfords?

Lyndsy Spence: I am drawn to the inter-war era and I am fascinated by the relationships sisters and female friends have with one another. Any female relationship is complex and with six sisters you get a variety of personalities and the complexities behind them. The Mitfords seemed to be connected to everyone both through friendship and by blood. They really did have a front row seat to the key events of the last century.

A Shroud of Thoughts: What drew you to Diana Mitford as a subject for a biography?

Lyndsy Spence: Diana always provokes conversation and debate, and people either love her or loathe her. I wanted to discover the woman behind the public profiles that have been labelled on her. The thing that I admire about Diana is that whether the choices she made were right or wrong, she committed herself entirely and she never complained or played the victim. Her attitude was very much "I wanted to do it, so I did it".

A Shroud of Thoughts:  How did you go about researching Diana's early life?

Lyndsy Spence: I wanted to take her out of the Mitford circle, if you will, and look at her without the influence of her sisters. Naturally Nancy and Unity played significant parts in her life, but as far as her growing up was concerned, I wanted to explore Diana's friendships with the men who influenced her outlook on life. I was interested in the dynamic of her relationships with the men who worshipped her and how it shaped her as a person. The letters between James Lees-Milne and Diana were very revealing, and her frame of mind as a teenager did not change as she matured. So that, to me, confirmed Diana's self-belief and her opinions on how she believed people should interact with one another was very strong. Her fundamental principles as a 14 year old did not change when she reached adulthood, and it affirmed - to me at least - that Diana knew what she wanted. It was a good foundation to build on.

A Shroud of Thoughts: The Mitfords seem to have been a diverse lot, including everything from a best selling novelist and biographer (Nancy) to a Nazi sympathiser (Unity) to a political activist and muckraking journalist (Jessica). That having been said, how do you think the sisters were alike?

Lyndsy Spence: They were alike in their freethinking ways and in their independence. Granted they all married, except for Unity, and lived in an age when men dominated society, but they knew their own minds and they lived by their own rules. I think their bond ran deeper than blood, and although Decca could not forgive Diana's fascist leanings, the passion they had for their causes and the men whom they loved were alike, albeit on opposite ends of the political spectrum.

A Shroud of Thoughts:  This next question will take a bit of speculation on your part. How do you think Diana's life would have been different had she remained married to Bryan Guinness?

Bryan and Diana Guinness
Lyndsy Spence: When I was trying to imagine what Diana's life was like with Bryan Guinness, whom everyone said was so kind and loving toward her, I wondered if it hadn't have been Mosley, would she have left him for somebody else? It's difficult to say what her life might have been like because, as we know, when the girls felt strongly about something they committed themselves one-hundred-percent. So, when Diana began to feel disenchanted around 1930 with the economic depression and how her set seemed to move through life relatively unscathed, she was kicking against the gilded world Bryan afforded her. I don't think her passion, at the time, for righting the wrongs of society would have passed and perhaps had she stayed with Bryan she would have been restless. I think, although Bryan adored her and was a good husband and father, he was also striving for something Diana could never give him. He was poetic and had a gentle nature, and the men she seemed attracted to - think Mosley - were almost clones of her father aka Farve. The woman Bryan ended up with was probably the type of wife he hoped Diana would become. His second wife was content to live a country life and give him lots of children. As Diana said, "A better wife for him than I was." Had she stayed with Bryan I think she might have been miserable, for it would have meant fooling herself into believing she was truly happy with her situation. But then again, we don't know!

A Shroud of Thoughts:  Could you tell us about any of your upcoming projects?

Lyndsy Spence: I'm writing a biography of the British film star Margaret Lockwood to mark her centenary next September (2016) and I am working on a television project that's in development. I'm also writing a fiction novel (I've been doing this in-between projects), which has been a dream of mine for so long. I'm always busy!

Mrs. Guinness: The Rise and Fall of Diana Mitford is available at Amazon UK and in Kindle format at Amazon US.