Albert Maysles, who with his brother, David, helped redefine documentary filmmaking with such stark, slice-of-life movies as “Gimme Shelter,” about the Rolling Stones, and “Grey Gardens,” about an eccentric mother and daughter, died March 5 at his home in New York City. He was 88.
The death was confirmed by filmmaker Barbara Kopple, a close friend. The cause was pancreatic cancer.
Mr. Maysles (pronounced MAY-zuls) and his brother formed a partnership in the 1960s and produced dozens of films that were rigorous in their emotional detachment, yet often powerful in depicting real-life drama. They were considered masters of the cinema verité style, in which stories unfold without interference from the filmmakers.
Before David Maysles’s death in 1987, the brothers made films on musicians, social issues, celebrities and Bible salesmen. Albert Maysles was the cinematographer, carrying a lightweight camera on his shoulder, and his brother recorded the sound.
They were nominated for an Academy Award for best documentary for their 1973 film, “Christo’s Valley Curtain,” about the artist Christo, which New Yorker critic Calvin Tomkins called “by far the finest film I have seen about an artist and his work.”
Regardless of subject, all of the brothers’ films were made without scripts, interviews and predetermined plots. They derived their dramatic strength from the intimate presence of the handheld camera and the revelations of unguarded dialogue. The films have left a lasting influence on other cinema verité documentarians and on directors of feature films in Hollywood.
Perhaps the brothers’ most memorable work was “Grey Gardens” (1976), which explored the lives of 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, was in her late 50s. They were cousins of Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis.
The women lived amid squalor, with dozens of cats, half-eaten meals and stacks of paper 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 Maysles brothers were exploiting the women, who clearly 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,” Mr. Maysles told the Boston Globe in 2001.
Entertainment Weekly magazine ranked “Grey Gardens” as the No. 33 cult film of all time. (The women’s decrepit house was later purchased and restored by the late Washington Post executive editor Benjamin C. Bradlee and his wife, Sally Quinn.)
The Maysles brothers had stirred critical dissent earlier with their 1970 documentary about the Rolling Stones, “Gimme Shelter.” The film captured the killing of a spectator near the stage at the Stones’ 1969 concert in Altamont, Calif.
“How does one review this picture?” critic 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 went on to liken the film to propaganda movies of Nazi rallies in the 1930s.
“We were vilified for filming what we saw,” Albert Maysles told the Wall Street Journal in 2010. “There was no manipulation on our part and no hidden message. Our only point of view was to have no point of view.”
Albert Harry Maysles was born Nov. 26, 1926, in Boston. His father was a postal clerk, his mother a teacher.
After serving in the Army during World War II, Mr. Maysles graduated in 1949 from Syracuse University in New York state, then received a master’s degree in psychology from Boston University in the early 1950s.
He taught psychology at Boston University for three years and worked as a research assistant at a mental hospital before spending a year in Europe, traveling on motorcycle.
He received a visa to visit the Soviet Union and thought he would 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 made a film about young people in Poland in 1957, and three years later Albert Maysles was a cinematographer for Robert Drew’s influential documentary “Primary,” which made pioneering use of lightweight, battery-powered cameras.
Mr. Maysles and his brother teamed in 1962 and made commercials and industrial films to finance their documentaries about Marlon Brando, Orson Welles and Truman Capote. Their artistic breakthrough came in 1968 with “Salesman,” a drab, unsparing look inside the lives of Bible salesmen.
Mr. Maysles won Emmy Awards for films about classical music: “Vladimir Horowitz: The Last Romantic” (1985) and “Soldiers of Music” (1991) about cellist and former National Symphony Orchestra conductor Mstislav Rostropovich and his return to his native Russia.
After David Maysles’s death at 54 in 1987, from a stroke, Albert Maysles continued to make films on his own, often with younger collaborators. He received the National Medal of Arts from President Obama last year.
Survivors include his wife of 38 years, Gillian Walker of New York, and their four children.
Mr. Maysles completed two films shortly before his death, one about 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,” Mr. Maysles said in 1987. “It’s trying to capture life as it is, so the audience can say, ‘Oh, my God, I’m right there.’ ”