Celia Maysles apparently began documenting the life of her Father, influential filmmaker David Maysles, with the simple intention of preserving his memory for herself and her family. It seems only appropriate that this casual dabbling in non-fiction filmmaking drew her closer to her Dad, as though the best way to get to know him was to do what he did best.
It’s safe to say it was the Maysles connection that initially piqued my interest in this film. As a fan of Albert and David’s work (Salesman, Gimme Shelter, Grey Gardens), I was hoping to get an exclusive behind the scenes look at the professional lives of two of non-fiction film’s most influential contributors. In this sense, Wild Blue Yonder doesn’t disappoint. There’s a great selection of photos and archival footage to chew on, accompanied by some wonderful story telling thanks to the many friends and collaborator’s the brothers had met and worked with over the years. Celia manages to secure some great interviews with D.A. Pennebaker, Susan Froemke, Christo and Jeanne Claude and Charlotte Zwerin among others. With all of this collective support, who would’ve thought Celia’s own uncle would prove to be her toughest interview subject? Upon hearing about the controversy surrounding Albert Maysles hesitance towards his niece’s production, I was curious as to how much screen time would be dedicated to this personal drama. It does seem to elevate the film somewhat, taking it beyond a simple family portrait. However, there is the risk of alienating an audience of documentary fans by negatively portraying one of their most respected filmmakers. Luckily, Celia manages to find a perfect balance, giving documentary enthusiasts an interesting look at the Maysles filmography while simultaneously crafting an engaging family drama.
I think I’m sort of a tough sell on personal films like this. I remember sitting down with Jonathan Caouette’s ‘Tarnation’ and cringing at the gratuitous exploitation of both himself and his family. Caouette was too self-aware and seemed to be performing in front of the camera. I felt I never caught a glimpse of any real emotion. Initially, I feared Wild Blue Yonder would fall into the same trap. Thankfully, Celia Maysles is such an endearing, sincere person that I simply couldn’t help but want to know about her and her story. There wasn’t a moment I didn’t feel she was completely honest in her feelings towards her father and her uncle, and I never felt as though she was exploiting her stand off with Albert Maysles. It was simply a piece of the story. And even though he may come across somewhat harsh in the film, I really don’t see him as having been vilified. This is how family drama works. Conflicts like this aren’t a gauge of one’s love for their daughter, niece or Mother. It’s just natural. You can choose your friends, but not your family and so on.
There’s a tough balance to be met when making a film as personal as Celia Maysles ‘Wild Blue Yonder’. You really must consider your audience. It’s the unusual task of deciding what elements of your life are worth telling, and which are best left on the cutting room floor; straddling a fine line between the universality of family drama and the banality of vacation slide shows. For Celia, it’s the risk of exposing some family issues that at some point, were deemed worthy to be shown to an audience. I’m not sure what criteria one uses when deciding to expose such personal elements to strangers, but I acknowledge and applaud the choice that easily could’ve relegated this story to a home movie.