Maysles' Magical Mystery Movie Theater
Feature in New York Press. June 10, 2009
A multiracial group mills about, sipping Haitian rum from plastic cups inside a four-story building on Lenox Avenue. The humid spring night marks the first evening of the second run of the “Haiti in Harlem” film series at the Maysles Cinema and Film Institute, and the eclectic gathering includes Harlemites, Haitians, cinephiles young and old and Aboudja, a voodoo priest and drummer who’s been tapped to lead a concert after the film in the downstairs lounge of the pint-sized theater.
The rapt crowd packed into the 60-seat screening room watches The Revelations of Madame Nerval, Charles Naiman’s 1999 documentary about an enigmatic Haitian voodoo priestess who oversees elaborate ceremonies across the island and trains young aspirants for the voodoo priesthood. Midway through the film, during a scene where a group of young men and women are writhing around in a pile of leaves believed to hold special powers, a middle-aged woman faints and slumps off of her chair to the floor.
The film is suspended, the lights are turned on and the door is opened to let in air. As people around her fan her face, the woman slowly revives, and she’s helped out to the lobby. After it’s clear that she’s going to be just fine, the lights are dimmed again, a bottle of Barbancourt rum is passed around, and the film picks up where it was interrupted: voodoo initiates dance, clap and sing in Creole. It’s unclear if the spirits who visited the fainting filmgoer were more impish than evil—or if she just had a touch too much rum. The visitation, however, doesn’t feel too out of place at this little Harlem movie house, which is book-ended by a fried-chicken joint and a dance studio.
“It’s definitely a little unpredictable here, that’s the fun thing about it,” says Jessica Green, film producer and co-director of cinema programming at the Maysles Cinema. “A few weeks ago, we screened a documentary about pigeon breeders, and a bunch of pigeon breeders came out to watch it. When the pigeons appeared on screen, some of the audience started making pigeon noises; they were cooing.”
If this is all a little too verité, get thee to the AMC megaplex. But for doc enthusiasts who like their non-fiction films served up with an extra dose of reality, the year-old theater space and brainchild of 82-year-old documentary filmmaker Albert Maysles is fast becoming a nerve center and H.Q. for documentarians and their fans.
Downtown art houses may be getting first dibs on new releases, but the Maysles Cinema has a collaborative and open approach that feels novel. Located near Sylvia’s, the legendary soul-food restaurant, the theater and event space is remixing the auteur spirit and dedication to craft that put Maysles and his late brother David on the map with seminal documentary films like Salesman, Gimme Shelter and Grey Gardens.
The random quirkiness of the films can be traced to the fast-talking Green, as well as Albert’s son Philip Maysles, the bearded film buff and painter. Earlier this year the theater ran a series called “Tibet in Harlem,” co-sponsored by New York–area Tibetan community organizations, to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the Tibetan uprising. This past May, they hosted “Kings of the City,” a graffiti film festival, the premiere of which was mobbed by old-school writers such as Lava One and Shadow, who came out to watch Manfred Kirchheimer’s 1980 cult classic, Stations of the Elevated, and stuck around afterwards to sip from cans of PBR and reminisce about walls they tagged.
“It’s kind of like a pie, we’re working on trying to cut out slices for a lot of different audiences,” explains Green, also a Harlem resident. “I’ve heard people say, ‘If I wanted this I’d go Downtown,’ and other people saying, ‘Wow, this is great, it’s Uptown meets Downtown.’ It’s complicated, but that’s what makes it exciting. And that’s what cosmopolitanism really is; it’s high and low.”
It also doesn’t hurt that with the price of admission at the only art-house theater north of 96th Street is a suggested donation of $7. The not-for-profit cinema is a perfect fit for the recession zeitgeist.
This week, the cinema hosts a Grey Gardens festival, celebrating the East Hampton eccentrics whose story seems to never go out of style, having morphed from the original documentary into a Broadway musical, followed by a documentary about the making of the musical, then HBO’s recent feature film starring Drew Barrymore and Jessica Lange, and now a new book by Albert’s daughter, Rebekah.
That will be followed by the “Homo Harlem” film retrospective, curated by historian, activist and Harlem gadfly Michael Henry Adams. He had been researching a book on famous gay and lesbian Harlem residents of the 20th century, which he mentioned to Philip one day. A few months later, the informal conversation morphed into a film series with nearly 20 films documenting the experience of gay and lesbian Harlemites—the first of its kind in the city.
“It’s really through TV and through movies that people, particularly Americans, learn how to be who we are,” says Adams. “The idea is to show how such extraordinary or remarkable people associated with Harlem and the Harlem Renaissance happened to be gay or lesbian, which a lot of people are unaware of, especially in the African-American community.”
This kind of collaborative and open approach to programming is what Green and Philip both thrive on. Looking toward the summer, Green is putting the finishing touches on a series called “The Six Degrees of PFunk,” which kicks off with a free screening at Morningside Park and includes mid-’70s concert footage of the legendary P-Funk All Stars matched up with a P-Funk inspired DJ set.
“Often people will come in with a movie they’d like to screen, and we’ll think about where to plug it in,” says Philip. “This woman from the dance studio nearby came over recently with a bunch of footage but wasn’t sure it was a real movie. My response was, ‘Well I’m not sure this is a real movie theater either, so let’s try it.’”
At about 10:30 on another recent evening, a station wagon painted in the rainbow-colored Haitian folk style of the island’s “tap tap” vans pulls up to the curb in front of the cinema.
Albert Maysles, his daughter Rebekah, filmmaker and Miami restaurateur Katherine Kean and a Haitian musician named Rah Rah, wearing a big Rasta hat, spill out of the car, just back from a screening at the Alliance Franaise in Midtown.
“Hey Albie,” says Philip, walking out to greet everybody and planting a kiss on Albert’s cheek. The gang mills around for a little while in front of the cinema.
“Family dynamics are different than any other relationship, and it can definitely be a little bit of a challenge working with your sisters and your parents,” muses Philip, who left an artist residency in Houston to come back to New York. He now works on his paintings and installation pieces in a shared studio space two floors above the cinema, coordinating staffing and programming three or four days a week with Green. “But I’d been on my own for a while, and my parents are getting older so it felt like the right time to come back. Somewhere down the road, we’ll probably all wander off again and do our own thing. But for now it feels really good.”
It truly is a family affair. Rebekah works the box office on another evening, while Philip and his mother Gillian keep the bar stocked downstairs. She frets a bit about how running the place keeps Philip away from his painting, and how the endeavor’s non-profit nature is not great for her own nerves either. “I’m always worried about money and funding, but we like doing things like this, just letting people come here and speak their mind. It’s very…documentary.”
Like the earlier visit by capricious voodoo spirits, tonight’s confessional monologue by a female Haitian filmmaker—which might have elicited more than a few raised eyebrows at a multiplex—doesn’t feel too out of place in this space dedicated to truth telling.
Maybe that’s why it also feels like a spot particularly well suited for 2009, the year everything got that much realer for a whole lot of people, as an era of imaginary money and fake promises of never-ending consumption came to a grinding halt.
“This recession has been going on for a while with culture anyway, record stores and theaters have been closing down for years,” says Philip, reflecting on the arguably unfortunate timing of launching a new film center just as the economy came crashing down. “But one of the cool things about being here has been seeing people get used to watching films with other people. It seems like it’s a place where people feel invited.”
Al Maysles: the octogenarian documentarian continues to build his legacy--one truth at a time
While Jessica Green and Philip Maysles orchestrate the busy schedule of screenings, director Q&As, parties and film trainings at the Maysles Cinema, the gentleman widely considered one of America’s foremost non-fiction filmmakers is spending an inordinate amount lot of time with toddlers and preschoolers. Seated at his desk in the third floor production office, Albert Maysles sports a thick head of snow-white hair and his signature black-rimmed glasses. He lights up while describing a recent project that has him booked for an important meeting this afternoon—with a 4-year-old and a 6-year-old.
“The idea is to just sit and watch and listen to their conversations,” he explains. “What first got me excited about the idea was, a friend of mine overheard a 2-and-a-half-year-old asking a baby of 2 months, ‘What’s it like in heaven?’ And I thought, ‘That’s amazing!’ What excites me about this is that at long last, we’ll hear directly from these people.”
Later this month Maysles is being honored by SilverDocs, the largest documentary film festival in the country, as a filmmaker who has “mastered the power of documentary and inspires audiences with powerful explorations of the human experience.” Besides his virtuoso camera work, Maysles’ ability to get just about anybody to talk to him is a persistent refrain of his fans and contemporaries.
“Al’s approach to everything is just to be fully present, and to be in conversation with everybody he meets,” says Maureen Ryan, a film producer who’s worked with Maysles on a number of projects, most recently The Gates, the Peabody-award winning documentary about French artists Christo and Jeanne-Claude’s whimsical project to adorn the length of Central Park with orange fabric.
While the chatty antics of Big Edie and Little Edie, the fallen Wasp protagonists of Grey Gardens, are by now legendary, any number of other stories dotting the career and travels of Al Maysles speaks to this knack for listening.
There’s the one about a woman he found crying on a park bench in Boston, a complete stranger, whom he sat down next to and just started to listen. In short order she told him about her unrequited love for one of her best friend’s husband. Another time he struck up a conversation with a woman on Amtrak, who shared with him the story of how she was given away for adoption at birth. She then allowed him to follow her, with camera rolling, as she stepped out of the train in Philadelphia for her first meeting with her birth mother. Just a few months ago Maysles popped up in South America with Oliver Stone, shadowing Hugo Chavez for Stone’s upcoming documentary about the fiery Venezuelan president. At one point Chavez asked Mr. Maysles which one of his films he should watch. “I told him he has to see Salesman,” says Maysles, with a smile. “It’s my best.”