The Direct Cinema approach and the works of Albert and David Maysles

The Glasgow School of Art  2016/17

Albert and David Maysles are considered to be key figures in the Direct Cinema movement. Focusing on the works Salesman (1969), Gimme Shelter (1970) and Grey Gardens (1975) I will explore the roles of the filmmaker and subjects in an observational approach, exploring notions of subjectivity, re-representation and voyeurism. I will also consider participation on the part of the filmmaker and performativity, and ethical concerns on the part of the subjects in these works.

The roots of Direct Cinema lie in the technological developments of lightweight shoulder-mounted film cameras and portable sound recorders pioneered by Robert Drew in ‘Primary’ (1960) and Jean Rouch and Edgar Morin in ‘Chronicle of a Summer’ (1961). By picking up the camera and following the subject or events as they unfolded filmmakers were able to “achieve a physical intimacy with the subject, and even an emotional relationship with it.”(Barsam, 1974), this sympathetic gaze allowed the viewer to feel close in proximity to the subject, enabling them to make their own emotional connection with the subjects that is far stronger than previously in films where a camera on a tripod gave the viewpoint of a distant observer.

After working with Drew in ‘Primary’, Albert Maysles began making films with his brother David. In the observational approach that they employed they aimed to produce more “authentic… truthful renditions of what [was] going on in the world” (Maysles, 2016) In ‘Salesman’ the Maysles use this spontaneous observational mode, free from staging, acting and interviews; without titles, narration or soundtrack. By presenting the world’s events as they unfold to the viewer as observed by the eye of the camera without manipulation of the subject and scene, and an interest in ensuring post-production stayed true to the aims of the observational mode, Bill Nichols argues that this “calls the viewer to take a more active role in determining the significance of what is said and done.” (Nichols, 2010) While this may be considered true when compared with the highly manipulative, targeted documentaries, that used narration and narrative techniques to convey a specific message or educate the viewer, such as in the works of Grierson, the portable camera is far from being an objective, all-seeing “kino eye”.

The very action of placing a camera on a human’s shoulder ties the footage to the gaze of that person, their choice of angles, lens, what to film and what not to film are entirely unique.

The movements of the subjects will be seen through the movements of the cameraman, subjectifying the visual material. Any viewer will only experience the filmmaker’s representation of the scene, which will be an entirely different experience to the filmmaker’s. Although Barsam says that “Art presupposes the presence of the artist, but in direct cinema, the artist submerges himself into his material.” (Barsam, 1974) This may be true, for the role of the filmmaker is in communicating their lived experience to the viewer through many specific choices, of both a conscious and subconscious nature, while allowing the viewer to feel as if these were their own choices. The shots taken in automobiles in ‘Salesman’ are a representation of a lived experience. Would a person sitting in the passenger seat stare at the driver with as intimate a gaze, would they look quite so closely and for so long? The camera is unapologetically watching the subject, meaning that in turn the viewer will also gaze unapologetically at the subject, unable to adjust their gaze to a more comfortable one.

Viewing ‘Grey Gardens’ raises questions of whether Direct Cinema is purely observational or relies on filmmaker participation. Like in ‘Salesman’, the viewer is reminded of the cameraman’s presence with shots where the cameraman and his camera are visible in reflective surfaces, however in ‘Grey Gardens’ there is also clear interaction between Edie and Albert, such as when Edie tears a photo from her mother’s hand, declaring “I want to show it to Al!”. The subjects within the film, make pure observation difficult, as they are lonely and Edith is housebound, the tone of the documentary clearly reflects that an emotional relationship is growing between the filmmakers and the mother and daughter.  Macdougal claims that “The image is affected as much by the body behind the camera as those before it.”, this can be said to be true for both verbal interactions between the subjects and filmmaker, as well as the body language portrayed by the filmmaker to the subjects and relayed to the viewer through the movements of the camera. These same movements can be said to make the Maysles’ camera eye seem emotional, insightful and sympathetic, and invites the gaze of the subjects in both “Grey Gardens’ and in “Gimme Shelter”, where there are several shots of subjects staring directly into the camera, most noticeably in “Gimme Shelter” when the band are listening to a recording of “Wild Horses” in the studio, and the emotion behind Charlie Watts’ eyes penetrates through the camera to the viewer, as if he were acknowledging the camera itself as a person or a presence.

Through the Direct Cinema approach the audience build intimate relationships with the subjects, and trust their spoken words “Direct Cinema marks the first time in the history of cinema that aural language reaches the communicative power of visual language” (Barsam, 1974). It can be said that the medium of film allows the filmmakers to “stretch the boundaries of our consciousness and create affinities with bodies other than our own.” (MacDougal, 2006) I believe that their relationships can be directly attributed to the humanisation of the camera, borne from its eye-level position next to a friendly face. This human positioning invites interaction from the subject, resulting in footage where it is as if the subject is including the future viewer in the experience.  In ‘Grey Gardens’ Edie provides a story-like dialogue throughout the documentary, often interjected by her mother, this emotional appeal to the human behind the camera is also emulated by Iris Apfel in Albert Maysles’ recent non-fiction film ‘Iris’ (2014), where we hear Iris introducing Albert to her friends, as an active effort by the subject to blur the lines between observation and participation in the role of the filmmaker.

Performativity must also be considered in ‘Grey Gardens’, as we ask ourselves whether the lonely, reclusive women would have still been singing and dancing without the presence of the male filmmakers. As well as the interested gaze of the filmmakers, it can be said that the Beale’s enthusiastic performance of the documentary was for the viewer, as in their impoverished circumstance they had invested interest in the success of the film. Where some would say that this is a dishonest representation of the womens’ characters, Erving Goffman believes there are elements of performance for all people in everyday life, providing the example that “sympathetic patients in mental wards will sometimes feign bizarre symptoms” (Goffman, 1990) so as not to disappoint student nurses, this can be said to ring true in the bizarre mannerisms of Edie and Edith in the presence of men from whom they seek approval. The real ethical question is whether the action of watching the performance of the women the filmmakers and audience are committing an act of voyeurism. Where the performance of the subjects is an aspect that Direct Cinema filmmakers deny influencing, the filmmakers make key decisions in the selection of the subject and editing process that directly influence how the film will be perceived by the viewer.

The choice of subjects in Maysles’ documentaries are often ethically controversial. In ‘Salesman’ we see poor families pressured and manipulated into buying expensive bibles by the film’s primary subjects, while in ‘Grey Gardens’ there were concerns that the main subjects themselves were not of sound mind and were exploited by the Maysles. 

Frederick Wiseman’s ‘Titicut Follies’ (1967) is another observational documentary with controversial subjects. The effect of the observational mode in this film is perhaps more shocking than in others, due to the nature of the subject matter, and the harsh editing style. Moving images of inhumanity are conveyed to the viewer without the comfort of a narrative voice. When speaking of the horror cinema genre, Macdougal said that

“Viewing other people’s experiences in films is not simply a matter of sharing them but of discovering autonomous bodily responses in ourselves that may differ from those we witness.” (MacDougal, 2006)

This can be seen to be true in the mode of direct cinema, as our proximity to the real subject, who is not acting out the scene produces a visceral reaction. This is most noticeably felt in ‘Titicut Follies’ force feeding scene, where the use of a zoom lens brings the observer uncomfortably close to the subject during a deeply intimate dehumanising experience. This, tied with the editing of the scene, which cuts between shots from the man being force fed to shots of the embalming of the body at a later date can be said to uncomfortably force opinions on the viewer. This scene has been criticised for moving from a chronological order of footage, and can be said to manipulate the viewer’s perceptions of the events, and is therefore not a good example of Direct Cinema.  Wiseman’s nonfiction film ‘Meat’ (1976) is said to better reflect the truth as “consumers, workers, and managers all react differently to the film, yet all, including the filmmaker, agree that it faithfully represents reality” (Barsam, 1974). Direct Cinema shouldn’t aim to control the viewer’s perceptions, since “Nonfiction film [is] rooted in a cultural context that should be studied along with the film.” (Barsam, 1974) reactions should be led by the convergence of prior knowledge, experiences, the cultural context and the film material, so that the viewer can form their own opinions, which is true for ‘Meat’.

The subjects in ‘Gimme Shelter’ are far less controversial. The film can be considered a good example of Direct Cinema, since the spontaneous, unscripted observational filming captured both mundane and extraordinary events, and is edited with the highest sensitivity to reflect the importance of the footage collected. The Altamont disaster provides a narrative challenge, which is tackled by a scene shot during editing, where the film team shows Mick Jagger the footage. Clips from the scene are used very effectively at the beginning and end of the film to frame the story, with the discussion of the events and Mick’s comments and facial expressions acting as the narrative for the viewer. Direct Cinema stumbles upon a “conflict between the lived experience and the process of reconstructing that lived experience.” (Nichols, 2010)  Film will always be a re-representation of events, which can never be objective. Although there are many ethical concerns with the Direct Cinema approach, the films produced by Albert and David Maysles are engaging and thought provoking, as they strive to convey the truth. The pursuit of representing truth through film is a relentless one. The Maysles brothers present the audience with a sensitive view of the world, from a sympathetic, human-like viewpoint, and although they have the power to manipulate the audiences thoughts, they continually strive to allow the viewer to formulate their own individual reading of the work based on their prior knowledge and experience.




Enright, Robert, “Directing The Truth: An Interview With Albert Maysles”, Border Crossings, 2012, 68-78

Goffman, Erving, The Presentation Of Self In Everyday Life, 1st edn (London: Penguin, 1990)

Hill, John and Pamela Church Gibson, Film Studies: Critical Approaches, 1st edn (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2000)

Krasner, James, “Cat Food In Camelot: Animal Hoarding, Reality Media, And Grey Gardens”, Journal Of Film And Video, 69.1 (2017), 44-53

MacDougal, David, The Corporeal Image: Film, Ethnography And The Senses, 1st edn (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2006)

Mast, Gerald, Marshall Cohen, and Richard Meran Barsam, Film Theory And Criticism: Introductory Readings, 1st edn (New York: Oxford University Press, 1974)

Nelmes, Jill, Introduction To Film Studies, 1st edn (London: Routledge, 2007)

Nichols, Bill, Introduction To Documentary, 2nd edn (Indiana: Indiana University Press, 2010)

Object, object and Frank Verano, ““Direct Cinema Is Anything But A Fly On The Wall”: A Conversation With Albert Maysles”, DOC Online – Revista Digital De Cinema Documentário, 20 (2016), 153-161 <;

Chronicle Of A Summer (Jean Rouch and Edgar Morin, 1960)

F For Fake (Orson Welles, 1971)

Gimme Shelter (Albert and David Maysles, Charlotte Zerwin, 1970)

Grey Gardens (Albert and David Maysles, 1975)

Iris (Albert Maysles, 2014)

Listen To Britain (Humphrey Jennings, 1942)

Louisiana Story (Robert Flaherty, 1948)

Man With A Movie Camera (Dziga Vertov, 1929)

Meat (Frederick Wiseman, 1976)

Nanook Of The North (Robert Flaherty, 1922)

Paris Is Burning (Jennie Livingston, 1991)

Portrait Of Jason (Shirley Clarke, 1967)

Primary (Robert Drew, 1960)

Salesman (Albert and David Maysles, Charlotte Zerwin, 1969)

Titicut Follies (Frederick Wiseman, 1967)

Winter Soldier (Winterfilm Collective, 1972)

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