Just a Shot Away: The Fortieth Anniversary of Gimme Shelter

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December 8, 2009

On the fortieth anniversary of the ill-fated concert that transformed a commercial filmmaking assignment into a much darker project, Gimme Shelter has achieved iconic status. Introducing the picture before a screening at Tucson’s Loft Cinema held to mark the occasion, co-director Albert Maysles noted that it was difficult to find something new to say about a film that most audience members had probably seen many times over. Confident in the controversial feature’s greatness, he instead directed attention to the twenty-seven minute short film Get Your Ya-Ya’s Out that he recently compiled from footage that didn’t make it into Gimme Shelter.

For fans of the Rolling Stones or the late 1960s more generally, Get Your Ya-Ya’s Out is a fabulous document. The Madison Square Garden concerts showcased in the beginning of Gimme Shelter are shown, both literally and figuratively, from a different angle, with more emphasis on the band’s slowed-down, bluesy side. Particularly stunning are the two numbers that Mick Jagger sings to the accompaniment of only Keith Richard’s slide guitar, the two friends sitting side by side on stools set up in front of the band’s regular equipment. And the footage of Jimi Hendrix talking guitar with Mick Taylor backstage and Janis Joplin dancing cheerfully to “Satisfaction” remind us of the sense of community that rock and roll still generated in that era.

But the presence of those two performers, both of whom would die the next year, also gives the short a poignant before-the-fall quality that complements the pre-Altamont footage in Gimme Shelter. Get Your Ya-Ya’s Out gives us a taste of the sort of cinematic experience that the Maysles brothers would probably have given us if the free concert at the San Francisco Bay Area’s Altamont Speedway hadn’t come to pass, a picture of a band divided by personalities – Mick Jagger is a consummate showman while Keith Richard can barely be bothered to look up from his guitar – but united by a love of music. But because the short film is inextricably bound up with Gimme Shelter, it projects an aura of innocence foreclosed. Shown before the feature film, as it was in the Loft’s program, the moments of lightheartedness are almost unbearable to watch.

That’s because Gimme Shelter, even if you have seen it twenty times, remains the sort of film capable of inducing panic and despair. Seen on the big screen, without the benefit of a pause button, it conveys a sense of inevitable doom that imparts gravity even to the shot of Mick trying to keep his scarf from getting caught in a car door. It was that portentous quality that inspired early objections to the film. In her harsh review for The New Yorker, one of many Gimme Shelter received from leading critics, Pauline Kael famously charged the filmmakers with responsibility for the spectacle they documented: “The free concert was staged and lighted to be photographed, and the three hundred thousand people who attended it were the unpaid cast of thousands. The violence and murder weren’t scheduled, but the Maysles brothers hit the cinema-verité jackpot.”

The implication of that last sentence is that practitioners of what the Maysles preferred to call “direct cinema” keep the cameras rolling in the hopes that something bad will happen. In other words, they don’t simply set out to record a neutral reality, but to shape it in the direction of their desire for a compelling story. It’s an accusation with which we are intimately familiar in the age of reality television, when the presence of a camera crew practically feels like a prediction of misfortune. We understand that the financial investment required for such an endeavor is made in the hope that something scandalous or tragic will happen, because pain sells better than pleasure.

Forty years ago, however, when the portable technology to document both sound and image on location was less than a decade old, coming to terms with the documentary impulse felt like a more urgent task. The tendency of audiences back then to regard recordings made with camera and microphone as objective drove critics like Kael to emphasize the manipulative possibilities in filmmaking. Wary of the ways in which the distinction between reality and fiction could be exploited for political ends, they railed against what they imagined to be the pretense of documentarists like the Maysles to record what is instead of what could or should be.

While that justifiable motive helps to place the attacks directed against Gimme Shelter in context, it’s difficult to excuse their one-sidedness. In retrospect, the furor surrounding the film seems to have been a classic case of failing to distinguish the message from the messenger. Kael’s review is particularly egregious in this regard, as it contains several accusations in the piece that were demonstrably false, such as the damning statement that Albert and David Maysles had hired someone to play the part of a traveling Bible peddler for their first feature film Salesman.

In a response to Kael’s review that The New Yorker declined to publish, the Maysles noted that even though she had called them to ask “if the free concert had been staged and lighted to be photographed” and were assured that it hadn’t been, she still went on to write that “the free concert was staged and lighted to be photographed.” Not that the ever-feisty Kael seemed to have second thoughts about her hit piece. In an appreciative review for Salon of Gimme Shelter’s initial Criterion DVD release nine years ago, Michael Sragow offered the following aside: “Kael is an old friend of mine. When I told her that her original review was still, in Albert Maysles’ words, a ‘thorn in his side,’ she cheerfully remarked, ‘Tough shit!’” Apparently, the film was so troubling to her, as well as the other figures that denounced it, that treating its filmmakers’ fairly seemed beside the point.

At one point in The New Yorker review, Kael poses the questions that have repeatedly dogged practitioners of direct cinema, not to mention their adulterated successors in reality television. “If events are created to be photographed, is the movie that records them a documentary, or does it function in a twilight zone? Is it the cinema of fact when the facts are manufactured for the cinema?” Had Kael sustained her whole critique at this level of abstraction, it would have been both more equitable and more apt. Complaining about manufactured facts with the help of manufactured facts is a dubious undertaking. Indeed, now that the smog-tinged dust has finally settled on the Altamont Pass, viewers of Gimme Shelter should be able to discern that these questions arise naturally from the way the film was shot and edited.

Together with Charlotte Zwerin, who earned co-director billing for the brilliant editing she did after filming was complete, the Maysles find plenty of opportunities in Gimme Shelter to remind us that the Rolling Stones entourage was fully aware of the filmmakers’ presence. Sometimes we see David Maysles for a second or two with the portable microphone and recording equipment that was so critical for the brothers’ fluid approach to shooting footage. Although direct interaction with the filmmakers is not depicted as consistently as was the case in their celebrated next feature Gray Gardens, we still get the sense that accommodations are being made for the presence of the documentarists, whether in maneuvering around them – even the Maysles state-of-the-art equipment was considerably more cumbersome than contemporary digital video equipment – or in acknowledging the camera’s gaze.

During the remarkable scene shot in Alabama’s Muscle Shoals studio, in which the Stones listen, slightly awestruck by their own brilliance, at the recording of “Wild Horses” they have just finished, Albert holds a close-up on Charlie Watts’s face so long that we vicariously feel the drummer’s discomfort. At first, he seems to be staring into space in rapt contemplation. But when we realizes his private experience is being captured on film, his gaze seems to narrow, as if he were staring down the camera. Finally, having lost the contest, he pointedly breaks eye contact and turns away.

It’s hard to imagine anyone who watches this shot with an open mind reaching the conclusion that this exchange was scripted. Just because you consent to be filmed, doesn’t mean that you are going to exert complete control over what gets recorded. The Stones had to sign off on the finished film before it could be released. Because the Maysles show us Charlie Watts reviewing footage with them, we can make the assumption that he approved that awkward moment in the recording studio. But that approval might have come from his aesthetic instincts – the shot, as well as the whole studio sequence, are compelling precisely because they seem like an invasion of privacy – rather than his personal inclinations. In short, there’s a crucial difference between consciously constructing an encounter for an audience and permitting one that happened unexpectedly, without premeditation, to be seen by others.

This is the distinction that Kael recklessly collapses throughout her review, thereby revealing her inability to appreciate the documentary impulse that informs the Maysles’ work. In her most egregious sally, she implies that Gimme Shelter is essentially propaganda. “The Nazi rally at Nuremberg in 1934 was architecturally designed so that Leni Riefenstahl could get the great footage that resulted in Triumph of the Will.” The analogy to Altamont here explains why she ignored the result of her fact-checking with the Maysles. Imagining that the concert was set up for filming imparts a fundamentally different character to the spectacle that ensued. If the shots of barren, windswept grasslands – the Altamont Pass looks like the highland moors of Scotland might if they endured years of severe drought – snarled traffic and dust-coated revelers at the concert were not the result of a last-minute change of venue, but the product of an aesthetic decision to strip the “flower children” of their flowers, then the fact that the event culminated in acts of violence captured on film would be as morally suspect as Kael claimed.

What Kael and her fellow detractors failed to perceive, however, is that the Maysles’ approach, one that Albert continues to pursue in his eighties, demands witnessing events without knowing how they will turn out. Understandably, Sragow hesitates to dismiss his friend’s review out of hand. “Kael’s review argued against automatically accepting any film that looks as real as the truth; it’s a brilliant and potent critique of the cinima verité school of documentary filmmaking in fashion at the time.” Nonetheless, he makes it clear that, whatever the merits of her general argument, it gets the specifics wrong. “Gimme Shelter is not about manipulating events – it’s about letting events get away from you. It presents the ultimate appalling oneiric vision of ‘going with the flow.’”

Discussing the scene where the band listens to their recording of “Wild Horses,” Albert Maysles told to Sarah Rowland that he relied on his less encumbered brother to alert him where to direct his camera next. “‘My brother whispered to me, “Take a look at those snakeskin boots.” So I opened my left eye and zoomed in at just the right second.’” But he went on to confess that, though this was one of his favorite moments in the finished product, it paled before another. “‘The best one is the one I didn’t get,’ he says. ‘As we were crossing the hills early in the morning on our way to Altamont, we came to a fence. So we began pulling the fence down and at that moment Keith made the comment: “The first act of violence”…. and I missed it. I missed it. I missed it.’”

It’s a story he has repeatedly told when conversing about Gimme Shelter. Asked, in the course of a rich interview with Walter Chow, whether he was ever tempted to recreate the scene later, Maysles explained that the importance of Richard’s comment didn’t occur to him until much later. “‘So even if I would ever think of recreating something for a documentary–[and] I would never–I didn’t have the wit to worry about it at the time.’”” His follow-up comment, however, makes it clear just how far off the mark Kael’s accusation really is. “‘I couldn’t film it because there wasn’t light–it was dark. I do wish in retrospect that I had gotten it somehow.’” Not only did the idea of recreating the scene never occur to him, he didn’t even contemplate finding a better-lit shot to pair with this prophetic comment. In other words, the synchronization of image and sound made possible by the Maysles’ portable equipment didn’t just make it possible for them to capture events as they happened, it also served as an injunction against the sort of seemingly innocuous trickery to which documentary filmmakers have often resorted. “Direct cinema” means precisely that. The finished product’s success depends entirely on how the raw footage is edited together.

What makes Gimme Shelter far more complex than critics like Kael were willing to admit is that it permits the audience to see how that process actually works. In the shots we get of Jagger and Watts reviewing footage in the studio – a brilliant idea for which Charlotte Zwerin gets the credit – the overwhelming impulse to editorialize over top of an intolerable reality is made clear. The close-ups on the two Stones’ faces show them reacting to the realization of just how wrong things went at Altamont on camera. Just as the tight quarters at Muscle Shoals made it impossible to forget that they were being filmed while listening to “Wild Horses,” the claustrophobia of the even smaller room in which the footage is reviewed compels them to make a sort of public statement, in word and gesture, of their refusal to endorse the chaos that ensued at the concert.

Far from absolving the band of responsibility, Gimme Shelter lets us witness them in the act of taking it. That’s why the wonderful scene at Muscle Shoals, which have been one of the world’s greatest music videos by itself, takes on melancholy aura in retrospect. The invasion of privacy that makes it so powerful, that sense of having the band members’ innermost thoughts externalized, becomes the template for the new reality that Altamont helped to usher in. When the violence that for so long had transpired off stage, outside of the frame, is recorded for posterity, the act of witnessing takes on a fundamentally different aspect.

Although the Maysles did not often discuss their Jewish heritage – Albert was born in 1926 and David in 1931 to Russian immigrants – it’s easy to see how the legacy of the Holocaust informs their investment in direct cinema. That’s why Kael’s invocation of Triumph of Will is so egregious. Whereas that film and its propagandistic imitators strives to present an idealized vision purified of any negativity, Gimme Shelter not only shows the ugly truth of what happened at Altamont, but also refuses to let the Maysles’ clients respond to it in private. Although the film, together with the new short Get Your Ya-Ya’s Out, shows us a rock band at the height of its powers, the ultimate lesson it imparts is that charismatic leadership shrinks to human size before the witness that will not look away.

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