joel selvin, altamont: the rolling stones, the hells angels, and the inside story of rock's darkest day, and gimme shelter (albert maysles, david maysles, charlotte zwerin, 1970)
I just finished Joel Selvin's book on Altamont, and then watched Gimme Shelter again. The concluding section of the book discusses Gimme Shelter. Selvin is less interested in assigning blame than in getting to the details behind the legend ... by the time we get to the movie, we've come to know many of the people who turn up in that movie, and have a better understanding of where they were coming from.
First, a few words about Selvin’s book, since I’ve written a lot about Gimme Shelter in the past. The book is long, detailed, and seems to be well-researched. Selvin was well-placed to write the book, being a Bay Area native who has had a long career as a music critic, and is an author of several books on music. In his afterword, he notes that “I knew better than to go to Altamont”, then offers the observations of friends who did attend (“[M]y friends knew nothing about what had really gone on. They had a good time ...”). This mirrors my own experience ... I had friends who went, and they returned speaking joyfully about “Woodstock West”. (In later years, they talked about how awful it was ... the vagaries of memory.) The book works in part as a warm-up for the movie, filling in what was largely left unreported in the film. But the movie is never far from Selvin’s mind:
That movie became the accepted account of the day, the official record of history, despite the fact that the Rolling Stones themselves were partners in the film’s production.... The story needed to be told, as fully and completely as possible. The tangled threads of the movie and the concert needed to be unbraided.
Selvin may be up to more than handing out blame, but he does make himself clear. “[W]hen all the facts are presented, it’s hard to see true responsibility lying with anyone but the Rolling Stones.” And he connects this to Gimme Shelter:
[W]hy did the Rolling Stones go through with the concert? That crucial decision – and the underlying determination that went into it – made the difference in everything that happened at Altamont. There is only one plausible reason: the final scene to the concert movie. There is no other good explanation for why Jagger and company proceeded with this concert in the days before the show as it unraveled in front of their eyes.... It is simply not true that this free concert was some magnanimous, beneficent gesture. The Stones wanted something out of the deal, and what they wanted was a big finish for their epochal movie that they hoped would document their magnificent return to glory.
What the book Altamont does is place the above in context. He doesn’t absolve everyone other than the Stones, but “The Hells Angels needed to be portrayed as they were – real people with names who were placed in a treacherous, untenable situation – not cardboard cutout villains. The role of the Grateful Dead and their ultimate betrayal by the Stones needed to be detailed.... The massive use of toxic drugs was not examined.”
So, Gimme Shelter. I have huge emotional reactions to the film every time I see it. Over the years, I have a more solid appreciation for the techniques and vision of the Maysles. But maybe "appreciation" is the wrong word, as is my reference to "Maysles". For on this watching, I decided the true artist was editor Charlotte Zwerin.
My friend Charlie Bertsch wrote a strong piece on the movie a few years ago. A big portion of that essay is devoted to refuting Pauline Kael’s take. She resisted the pull of “direct cinema”, emphasizing the “manipulative possibilities of filmmaking”. Charlie responds, “[T]he Maysles’ approach ... demands witnessing events without knowing how they will turn out”, as if this precludes the possibility of manipulation.
But Charlie also points us in the direction of what is really happening in Gimme Shelter when he rightfully praises the work of editor Charlotte Zwerin, “who earned co-director billing for the brilliant editing she did after filming was complete” [emphasis added]. He singles out scenes of Mick Jagger and Charlie Watts looking at footage from the film, which he calls “a brilliant idea for which Charlotte Zwerin gets the credit”. But if the Maysles want to fall back on "we don't stage stuff", those scenes would seem to contradict that idea. Jagger and Watts were invited, and filmed, by the filmmakers to watch the footage, which didn’t happen “naturally”.
Ultimately, the truest statement in Charlie’s piece is this: "The finished product’s success depends entirely on how the raw footage is edited together." No matter what the circumstances under which the Maysles worked, the film is made when Zwerin gets her talented hands on it. And film editing is as crucial, and as vulnerable to manipulation, as the shooting of the original footage. The Maysles may not have had a preformed idea of what they wanted the events to show, but Gimme Shelter requires that someone edit the footage. Charlotte Zwerin, whether working on her own or with the direction of the Maysles, manipulates the raw footage into the movie we see today. We can argue what Gimme Shelter is saying, but we can’t argue about the role the filmmakers had in making that statement. Michael Sragow, who Charlie quotes, is half right when he says “Gimme Shelter is not about manipulating events – it’s about letting events get away from you.” The latter part is true, which is one reason I find the movie so disturbing. But the first part is false.