sports in the age of terrorism
#36: his girl friday (howard hawks, 1940)

what i watched last week

Bridesmaids (Paul Feig, 2011). It came highly recommended by my daughter. It was popular with critics, and it was a big hit at the box office. It features talented actresses kicking butt in a genre usually reserved for men. And there are several set pieces that are sure to be long remembered when people think back on classic comedy scenes. All of which is my way of saying you probably liked this movie quite a bit. Me, I don’t get these comedies. I laughed once in awhile, and enjoyed the acting. But it went on too long, it turned mushy at the end, and … well, really, the only thing that matters is that I don’t get these kinds of movies. So YMMV, but 6/10.

Gimme Shelter (Albert Maysles, David Maysles, and Charlotte Zwerin, 1970). One of those movies I manage to watch every few years; each viewing is accompanied by a change of mind about the film. The first time I saw it, back when it was released, I played music, and I remember thinking I never wanted to play rock and roll again, because the music was clearly evil. A few years later, I went through a phase where I loved cinéma vérité, perhaps a bit too uncritically, and while I can’t remember specifically, I think I liked Gimme Shelter a lot during that period. Since then, my opinion changes depending how I feel at the time about 1) cinéma vérité and 2) Altamont. Watching it a few days ago, I found the film to be as expertly constructed as Top Gun. The conclusion, which we all know is coming, seems inevitable from the start of the movie, and everything that follows is designed to lead us to that inevitability, which lends a feeling of dread to the film. The film makers have an advantage that Top Gun’s auteurs did not: what they show us “really happened”, so it’s harder to accuse them of manipulation. It’s there, though, in an extreme form. Whatever their intentions before the movie was made, in the editing room they clearly decided this was a film about The End of the Sixties, and they chose footage to augment that theme.

I obsess about this movie so much that it gets a second paragraph! I was taken this time around with the ferocity of “Sympathy for the Devil” once the Stones restart it after yet another violent fracas. All during the Altamont footage, we see musicians trying to call on the power of their charisma to direct the crowd in a more peaceful direction (Marty Balin excepted … he puts his body where his mouth is, and ends up being knocked cold). Jagger and the Stones do the same thing, but it’s not working. They start “Sympathy” and everything goes to shit in the crowd. They stop, and Mick notes that every time they play that song, weird stuff happens. Then, they start the song all over again! It’s a terrifyingly audacious move. The version that follows is as good as any you’ll ever hear. Jagger seems to be trying to draw all of the crowd’s energy into himself, which is impossible by itself … that he attempts this by casting himself as Lucifer just makes it all the more remarkable. It doesn’t work, of course, and soon afterwards, during “Under My Thumb”, one of the Angels kills a man with a gun who is perilously close to the stage when he pulls the weapon out. There are multiple ironies in the song selection. For one, it was (is?) a longtime myth that the Stones were playing “Sympathy” when the murder happened … folks seemed to like that story. “Under My Thumb”, meanwhile, is another of the many examples of rock musicians using domination of women as a metaphor for class struggle. The irony lies in the presence of the Angels, who drip contempt for the pansy rock stars on the stage, and who have an us vs. them feel to them. In the context of the song, the Stones and the audience are the high class women, and the Angels are the men who put those women in their place.

Third paragraph! (I sometimes worry that these weekly movie posts keep me from writing longer pieces about films.) Gimme Shelter demonstrates the silliness of a rating system. The last time I saw it, I gave it 7/10. On Netflix, I’ve given it 5/5. While I was watching it this time, I was thinking 10/10. But when I made the connection to Top Gun (3/10), I wondered why I hated that movie so much for being manipulative, yet was about to reward Gimme Shelter even as I saw through it’s very different method of manipulation. So … 9/10. #706 on the They Shoot Pictures, Don’t They list of the Top 1000 Movies of All Time.

Moneyball (Bennett Miller, 2011). I really wondered how they could make that book into a movie, but it works out just fine. It may get some details wrong, but it presents the basic paradigm shift in baseball to a more statistically-minded form of analytics while still being entertaining, even for a non-fan. Brad Pitt has a lot to do with that … he is effortless in his movie-star mode. The film is too cruel to the old school (represented here by scouts and A’s manager Art Howe), never acknowledging that the best success comes not from replacing the old with the new, but by taking the best parts of the old and blending them with the best parts of the new. In Moneyball-the-movie, stats rool and scouts drool. It’s not that simple. Still, as a validation of a particular way of looking at the world of baseball, Moneyball works. And it has a gratuitous joke played at Brian Sabean’s expense. 7/10.


Charlie Bertsch

I agree with pretty much everything you say about both Gimme Shelter and Moneyball, Steven. I try to avoid giving numerical rankings on principle, but if I had a 10 out of 10, I'd give it to the former. And I'd probably give the latter 8 instead of your 7.

A few extra thoughts on the two. I actually think that the message being communicated about the 60s in Gimme Shelter is more complicated than it initially seems. The Maysles aren't just chronicling the end of the 60s in the obvious Altamont way. They are also showing what a big business rock and roll had become, making it clear how lawyers are behind so much of what goes on in the entertainment industry, turning Mick and Charlie into stand-ins for the audience, and, with the help of a denouement that hasn't attracted much attention, thematizing the problem of traffic, in every sense. For my money, the Muscle Shoals sequence with the band listening to the play-back of "Wild Horses" is the greatest music video ever filmed.

As far as Moneyball goes, I really liked the way the details about Beane's relationship with his daughter and ex-wife were integrated into the story. There's no obvious one-to-one correspondence between the feelings stirred up in that arena and how he acts as an executive. But it's hard not see his interest in finding ways to redeem players who don't fit the stereotype of top performers as connected with his self-evaluation, not only as a failed baseball player, but as a failed husband.

Steven Rubio

You avoid numerical rankings on principle, yet you are the one who convinced me I needed to add letter grades to posts about TV shows -).

I think Gimme Shelter is trying to convince us that rock and roll is a bad thing. It comes across as very suspicious of masses of people following a charismatic leader. At least, that's what I tell myself when I wonder why the movie has such an emotional effect on me.

Charlie Bertsch

I like it when YOU give grades, Steven!

As far as Gimme Shelter goes, I don't think it's that simple. What about the Muscle Shoals sequence I referenced? There's nothing negative there. The problem of Altamont is a problem of scale, as the traffic jams at the end indicate.


Interesting discussion. I sign on as a card-carrying Maysles hater. Those guys were manipulative pricks since "Salesman"--BIBLE salemen, right, that doesn't skew the fly-on-the-wall direct cinema detachment, does it? "Grey Gardens"--now that's manipulative shit, picking on people without defenses, thanks to their narcissism. That this was remade as a "fiction" film (which it already was) with Drew Barrymore (that I'll never, ever watch) is amazing.

Okay, so I come to this biased against a film I've seen several times, and have used in classes. The best part for me is when they show the footage to Mick--that's the nod to Jean Rouch, a much more generous and genuinely humanist filmmaker.

But both Charlie and Steven's allegations of nuance make sense, so god damn it, I'm going to have to watch it again.

Frankly, though, "Gimme Shelter" (the song) makes up for all kinds of sins, real or imagined. I can forgive the Stones less for touring after 1975 than I can for their all-too-human what-the-fuck response in this film.

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