Albert Maysles: Pioneer of cinéma vérité who with his brother David was best-known for 'Grey Gardens' and 'Gimme Shelter'

Their films derived their dramatic strength from the intimate presence of the hand-held camera and the revelations of unguarded dialogue

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The Independent Online

With his brother David, Albert Maysles helped redefine documentary film-making with such stark slices of life as Gimme Shelter, about the Rolling Stones and Altamont, and Grey Gardens, about an eccentric mother and daughter. Masters of the cinema verité style, the brothers formed a partnership in the 1960s and produced dozens of films that were rigorous in their emotional detachment yet powerful in depicting real-life drama.

Until David Maysles' death in 1987, the brothers made films about musicians, various social issues, celebrities and Bible salesmen. Albert was the cinematographer, lightweight camera on his shoulder, while his brother recorded the sound. They were Oscar-nominated for best documentary for their 1973 film Christo's Valley Curtain, about the structure-wrapping artist Christo, which the New Yorker's Calvin Tomkins called "by far the finest film I have seen about an artist and his work."

Regardless of subject, all the brothers' films were made without scripts, interviews or predetermined plots. They derived their dramatic strength from the intimate presence of the hand-held camera and the revelations of unguarded dialogue. The films have left a lasting influence on other cinema verité documentarians and on Hollywood directors.

Perhaps their most memorable work was Grey Gardens (1976), which explored the lives of cousins of Jackie Kennedy, an aging mother and daughter living in a dilapidated mansion on Long Island. Edith Bouvier was in her 80s at the time and her coquettish daughter, Edith Bouvier Beale, in her late 50s. The pair lived in squalor, with dozens of cats, half-eaten meals and stacks of paper strewn throughout the ramshackle house. They led lives marked by faded dreams, vanished wealth and self-delusion, and bickered like characters in a Tennessee Williams play.

Some critics charged that the brothers were exploiting the women, who seemed to be in need of some kind of institutional help. But the mother and daughter never complained and seemed to relish the attention of the camera. "The film is a Rorschach test for people's acceptance of the unconventional and eccentric," Maysles said in 2001. Entertainment Weekly ranked Grey Gardens as the No 33 top cult film of all time. (The women's decrepit house was later purchased and restored by the late Washington Post executive editor, Ben Bradlee, and his wife, Sally Quinn.)

The Maysles brothers had stirred critical dissent earlier with their 1970 documentary about the Rolling Stones, Gimme Shelter, which captured the murder by Hells Angels of a spectator, Meredith Hunter, near the stage at the Stones' 1969 concert at the Altamont Speedway in California. "How does one review this picture?" Pauline Kael wrote in the New Yorker. "It's like reviewing the footage of President Kennedy's assassination or Lee Harvey Oswald's murder." She likened Gimme Shelter to propaganda films of Nazi rallies in the 1930s, but Albert Maysles countered, "We were vilified for filming what we saw. There was no manipulation on our part and no hidden message. Our only point of view was to have no point of view."

Albert Maysles was born in 1926 in Boston. His father was a postal clerk, his mother a teacher. After serving in the Army during the Second World War, Maysles graduated in 1949 from Syracuse University in New York state then received a master's degree in psychology from Boston University. He taught psychology there for three years and worked as a research assistant at a psychiatric hospital before spending a year motorcycling round Europe.

He received a visa to visit the Soviet Union and planned to pay for the trip by publishing photographs of his travels. When he was turned down by magazines, he came up with the idea of making a film of a visit to a Soviet psychiatric hospital, which in 1955 became his first documentary. He and his brother next made a film about young people in Poland in 1957, and three years later Albert was a cinematographer for Robert Drew's influential documentary Primary, which made pioneering use of lightweight, battery-powered cameras to film the Democratic primary election between John F Kennedy and Hubert Humphrey.

Becoming a permanent team in 1962, the brothers made ads and industrial films to finance documentaries about Marlon Brando, Orson Welles and Truman Capote. Their artistic breakthrough came in 1968 with Salesman, an unsparing look at the lives of Bible salesmen. There were Emmys for films about classical music: Vladimir Horowitz: The Last Romantic (1985) and Soldiers of Music (1991) about the cellist and conductor Mstislav Rostropovich and his return to his native Russia.

When David died at the age of 54 in 1987, from a stroke, Albert carried on working, often with younger collaborators. He received the National Medal of Arts from President Obama last year. He had completed two films shortly before his death, one about the interior designer Iris Apfel and another, In Transit, about people riding on long-distance trains across America. "Making a film isn't finding the answer to a question," he said. "It's trying to capture life as it is, so the audience can say, 'Oh, my God, I'm right there.'"

Albert Harry Maysles, film-maker: born Boston 26 November 1926; married Gillian Walker (four children); died New York 5 March 2015.

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