Truth or Vérité?
Celia Maysles is a woman with a camera, in the shadow of two icons
A few backstory "program notes" for Celia Maysles' Wild Blue Yonder: Until he died suddenly 21 years ago at the age of 54, when she was only 7, Celia's dad, David Maysles, was one-half of the estimable Maysles Brothers, who made iconic nonfiction features like Grey Gardens and Gimme Shelter, to name just a few. They coined their much-emulated, signature unnarrated, unscripted storytelling style "direct cinema," and it was, at the time, a seismic spin on vérité. At the time of David's death, the Maysles Brothers' families were apparently as close as the two brothers. When David died, things changed, as they often do, particularly when there's property to be split. Here, it was the rights to the considerable Maysles Brothers' body of work. There was a lawsuit, a protracted one, over how exactly the brothers had agreed to divide their films. By the time they settled and Albert Maysles paid David's family a tidy sum – reputedly much higher than the amount the brothers themselves had previously agreed on – for the rights to the films, the intra-family relationship had predictably soured. Al, now 81 and on anyone's short list for a place in the pantheon of doc-makers, is still known for and sought after for his legendary camerawork.
Enter Celia, in her late 20s and working as a social worker. She decides to pick up a camera and follow in the footsteps of the filmmaking children of other famous dads – most recently, the sons of architect Louis Kahn and cinematographer Haskell Wexler – who attempt to connect, after the fact, with the fathers they hardly knew. Obviously, as Celia would need access to some of the old footage then in Al's possession, her first stop would of necessity be a visit to the offices of Maysles Films and its gatekeeper, Uncle Al. While Celia clearly did not set out to settle a score with Al and says that having a relationship with her uncle was an important part of the healing process that drove her to undertake this project in the first place, her film does include a number of on-camera encounters with Al that start out cautiously cordial but then go south. Those unfamiliar with Al or his films will probably find themselves rooting for Celia (who was driven back to the therapy couch as a result of this) and booing Al as the villain. Al's fans may be less quick to judge him and will certainly feel the onscreen pain of the "man with the camera" who gamely agreed to sit for these no-win conversations with his niece.
Internecine conflict aside, Celia's Wild Blue Yonder, named for the autobiographical film-in-progress that her dad was making before he died, takes us down the path that David trod as he and Al shot their famous oeuvre. We're privy to the recollections and reminiscences of colleagues like Charlotte Zwerin, Susan Frömke, and D.A. Pennebaker; film subjects like installation artists Christo and Jeanne-Claude and a like-minded friend of the Grey Gardens' Edies; and even David himself, in recorded therapy sessions and in film footage that Celia discovers on a lark at the Larry Rivers Foundation.
Austin Chronicle: Why did you want to make this film?
Celia Maysles: I never got to heal from the loss of my dad because we never talked about it in my family – it was so painful. I thought that making this film about him would be the ultimate way to get close to him; I figured the best way to get to know him would be going through the creative process of making a film. And it was. I'd, for example, find myself in the editing room feeling frustrated and realize, "So this is how my dad must have felt."
AC: Do you worry that because the film is about the well-known Maysles Brothers, your personal intentions for it may be eclipsed?
CM: At the film's premiere in Amsterdam, people related to it as a family story, which is what I wanted. One sort of disappointment is that those who were very close to the Maysles Brothers – in the U.S. they are mythic figures – those who idolized them have a hard time with the film at first. Not all of them but those who haven't gotten the film on the family level and don't want to believe that Al would do that. So, inadvertently, I sort of slashed their mentor or their idol, and those people have a hard time with the film. ... But to me, the film is about so much more than just Al – he's just one little piece of it for me. And everyone who isn't a worshiper of the Maysles Brothers gets that – that this is a film about a daughter's search for her father, about grief and love and mourning, about memory, all these bigger, more profound issues. A few people have said it's too much about Al, and I say wait a few months and watch it again, I think you'll feel differently.
Wild Blue YonderDocumentary Feature, Spotlight Premieres, North American Premiere
Sunday, March 9, 11am, Paramount
Tuesday, March 11, 2:30pm, Alamo South Lamar
Friday, March 14, 7:30pm, Alamo South Lamar