Festival coverage sponsored by IndiePix.
When legendary documentarian David Maysles died in 1987, he left behind catalogue of some of the most important nonfiction films of the century - GREY GARDENS, SALESMAN and GIMME SHELTER among them, all products of his lifelong collaboration with brother Albert - and a single, unfinished solo project, the autobiographical BLUE YONDER.
It is the footage from this film - and the question of who should control it - that lies near the heart of WILD BLUE YONDER, a controversial film from David's daughter Celia Maysles that had its world premiere at IDFA in November (where indieWIRE reported on it) and screened here in Toronto this week.
WILD BLUE YONDER would seem to be almost essential viewing for nonfiction aficionados, pulling back the curtain on the most successful partnership in nonfiction filmmaking history. But the film is ultimately less interested in showing what made that partnership work than in declaring that ultimately the partnership matters less than the father-daughter bond. It's a contentious argument, one presented in the film with a plethora of tears.
At the film's start, Celia Maysles - who often films herself with camcorder held at arm's length - greets her Uncle Albert with camera already rolling. An apparently bitter legal struggle after David's death (wherein Celia's mother Judy pursued a legal interest in Maysles Films that violated a verbal agreement between David and Al) had led to estrangement and this meeting appears to be the first time that uncle and niece have connected in some time. At their reunion, Al Maysles expresses pride in the fact that his niece is pursuing a film about his father and, at least in the beginning, seems willing to help Celia with her endeavor.
But when Celia starts pushing to use footage from David's unfinished BLUE YONDER as well as outtakes from the Maysles Films archives, Albert resists, saying that he's working on his own autobiographical film and wants to save the footage for that project. This leads Celia into a spiral of emotion, a swirl of self-shot therapy sessions, scenes from the mental home that she checked herself into as a teenager, and confrontational meetings and phone calls with Albert. It all climaxes with a tearful, screaming phone rant wherein she bellows to her uncle, "What better context is there than a daughter's search for her father?"
That question betrays the fact that Celia, who perhaps one day will come into her own as an artist, is on shaky ground both legally and as a filmmaker. Although much is made about that fact that Judy Maysles "meant" to retain the rights to BLUE YONDER from her settlement with Albert, the fact is that she didn't. So Celia hopes the audience will ignore the legal standing and side with her on moral grounds, but one would be hard pressed to think of any kind of business situation where a child would have the rights that Celia presupposes.
For while Celia presumes the best context, it's nearly an unfathomable argument that Albert - an artist whose creative output spans not only his partnership with David but, as Hot Docs' tribute to Richard Leacock makes clear, a talented cinematographer for Bob Drew, DA Pennebaker and Martin Scorsese (a fact that WILD BLUE YONDER omits) - shouldn't own the rights to the material, both legally and morally. How could one say to an artist that the output of the most important creative partnership of their life is due, first and foremost, to their partner's kin?
This is not to say that Albert has not been a somewhat controversial figure in his lifetime. There have been accusations regarding credits. Others have been bothered by Al's outspoken criticism of other filmmakers, including his appearance in two films highly critical of Michael Moore. And no doubt some who have a beef with Al will use WILD BLUE YONDER to further their claim.
But ultimately, WILD BLUE YONDER is a view that one may wish one never had of David Maysles. Did we really need to know about the deep depressions, destructive legal dramas and inferences that Judy may have looked the other way when David took a lethal drug-and-alcohol combo? Albert's control of the archives may grant Celia's film a certain must-see cache (she uses footage from the films anyway, claiming fair use), but stripping away that conflict leaves viewers with a sadly voyeuristic and self-centered personal journey that would otherwise seem to pale in comparison to epic portraits like Jennifer Fox' FLYING: CONFESSIONS OF A FREE WOMAN, from which Celia seems to draw inspiration.
While WILD BLUE YONDER cloaks itself in family history, much of its inner-familial dynamics remain hidden. There are claims that no one talked about David after his death, a strange assertion that fails to lead to any particular revelations about Celia's mother (although even this, the film seems to assert, is the cause of the bitter court case). Meanwhile, Celia's brother - while mentioned - is invisible from the film.
That dissonance is made all the more stark when one looks at MY MOTHER'S GARDEN, the raw and largely successful debut film from Cynthia Lester. The film, which premiered at Slamdance and screened at True/False, also deals with parent-child dynamics and mental health issues, but succeeds on a number of levels where, for me at least, WILD BLUE YONDER fails to deliver.
In MY MOTHER'S GARDEN, Cynthia and her two brothers must step in to deal with their mother, who suffers from hoarding disorder and whose home may soon be bulldozed by the city if someone doesn't clean up the layers of accumulated trinkets, trash, rotting food and rat carcasses that pile up several feet high inside the family home.
Cynthia, who was literally forced out of her home as a teenager by the rising layers of garbage/treasure, and her brothers seem, at the start of the film, to be your classic, attractive Southern California family. But where Celia Maysles glosses over her own mental health issues, Cynthia is straightforward about how her broken family dynamic led her and her brothers to crime, prostitution and alcoholism.
Despite this history and the fact that their mother's behavior continues to worry and occasionally outrage them, the siblings bond together to make the house livable again, although their version of livable (which conforms to the societal norm) certainly will not agree with their mother's.
The camera work is lo-fi - appropriately so for a film that requries us to crawl through windows because all the doors are blocked - and the film is more than content to concentrate on its personal story rather than become some larger statement about mental health or hoarding disorder. But it's no small feat that despite all, we come to care for each of these characters and we root for each to find a kind of satisfaction. The fact that success for these characters may be at odds doesn't deter. The film is unblinking - looking in at this family, unafraid to engage in black humor when necessary.
To view one's self and one's family with such detachment and such conciseness is no small feat and it is in this arena that MY MOTHER'S GARDEN prevails. It's a fine example of a film where picking up a camera and shooting because the situation called for it may not lead to the finest cinematography, but where a filmmaker's choices create a special vision of an American family coming together in crisis.