Monday, November 01, 2010

#102: The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie

The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie, 1972, directed by Luis Buñuel, written by Luis Buñuel and Jean-Claude Carrière.

It's a truism that the 1970's were a golden age for mainstream recognition of difficult films. But if you want to really demonstrate to someone exactly what that means, don't sit them down in front of Mean Streets or The Conversation. Put in The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie and tell them that the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences—the same stodgy, conservative voters who chose Ordinary People over Raging Bull just a few years later—named The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie Best Foreign Language Film of 1972. It's impossible to imagine it even getting distribution today.

If you had to, maybe you could sell it with a clever bait-and-switch trailer, because stripped of tone and context, the onscreen events don't seem that far from, say, The Secret in Their Eyes. Consider the following plot points. The minister of a corrupt South American country uses his diplomatic pouch to smuggle cocaine. One revolutionary is dragged off by the secret police; another is tortured with an electrified piano. A young boy poisons his stepfather's nightly glass of milk. A priest gives a dying man absolution and then shoots him in the head with a shotgun. One dinner party ends with a duel, the next with the guests lined up against the wall and machine gunned. And there are more dreams-within-dreams than Inception. But because this is Buñuel, the only thing anyone wants to talk about are their dinner plans.

It's hard to imagine for a film with so many events, but The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie doesn't have much of a plot—or to be more precise, there isn't any causal relationship between one event and the next. To be clear, Buñuel does have something on his mind here: no matter how loosely connected and absurd the film's sequences may be, they are all thematically linked. Each section of the film is built around a failed attempt by the main characters to eat dinner together, and each meal is interrupted by something good members of the striving classes don't discuss at the table: death, sex, religion, crime, the military. And, of course, South American death squads.

Strivers denying their animal natures—that's the kind of thematic material that could quickly become boring and pretentious, especially in a film as uninterested in Hollywood narrative conventions as this one. But Buñuel manages to avoid this with a remarkably deft comic touch and precise control of the film's tone, which is never strident or humorless (nor, on the other hand, too forgiving). Consider the scene where Don Rafael Acosta—representative of South American kleptocracy Miranda—pulls out a sniper rifle and starts taking potshots at a young woman out his office window.

Fernando Rey plays Acosta; the other bourgeoisie in that shot are Jean-Pierre Cassel (Vincent's father) as Henri Sénéchal and Paul Frankeur as M. Thevenot. In a pretentious version of Discreet Charm, Sénéchal and Thevenot would be unmoved, or would enthusiastically help Acosta out. In Buñuel's version, they're a little put out and concerned, but only a little—they're certainly not going to make a fuss about it. That's the tightrope Buñuel successfully walks in scene after scene: as horrible as his characters are, he's not unsympathetic. After all, how can you hate people who make such wonderful Martinis?1

A little sympathy is the difference between an effective satirist and a strident bore, and the film as a whole is a useful reminder that the opposite of "funny" is not "serious." Between failures, social humiliations, duels, murders, gardening, and garden variety adultery, Buñuel repeatedly cuts to shots of the principal cast walking down the road through open countryside.

The film's Wikipedia article says that in these shots, the characters are lost and wandering, but I don't see it. They're always moving at a good clip, lapping the miles, never moving backward, devouring the future like locusts. No one in The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie would ever see The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie. Guess who's running the studios?


  • I'm going to be much less wordy going forward, at the cost of being less thorough. The whole point of this project, for me, was to see a lot of great movies, and one a month isn't going to cut it. So I'm certain there will be many things I leave out (nothing here about the film's women, all of whom are marvelous—especially Stéphane Audran's steely hostess? For shame!) Perhaps we can discuss things in more detail in the comments.

  • The DVD features an excellent documentary about Buñuel's life and work, including his early years bumming around with Dalí and Garcia Lorca. Most interestingly, there's a short film called El náufrago de la calle de Providencia, which has footage of him enthusiastically explaining how to make various cocktails. Apparently he appreciated a good Martini just as much as Thevenot.

  • It seems that Cooper Black was the Trajan of 1972 (or at least the Futura). It's in the opening credits of The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie, and also John Huston's marvelous Fat City. Which is kind of strange if you're used to seeing it on iron-on t-shirts. Here's the strangely inappropriate title screen:

1Or claim to make wonderful Martinis, anyway; I didn't notice him shaking it to waltz time.

Tuesday, October 05, 2010

#101: Cries and Whispers

Cries and Whispers, 1972, written and directed by Ingmar Bergman.

In Harold Pinter's marvelous play Moonlight, a woman tells her terminally ill husband, "Death will be your new horizon." It's the most quietly chilling sentence I know, and it would have made the perfect epigraph for Cries and Whispers. The film is concerned with the business of dying, and not in an abstract way. Harriet Andersson plays Agnes, a woman who is rapidly losing a battle with cancer, and for the first forty-five minutes Bergman mostly makes us watch her die. Her performance reminds you just how much the movies have always lied to us about death: Agnes doesn't have one of those terminal disease where you have a touching final conversation, then drift off to sleep as flights of angels sing you to your rest. She's clearly aware that her body is destroying itself from the inside, and her performance lets you know exactly what that must feel like.

Her battle has nothing in common with a chess game. Agnes is attended by her two sisters, Maria (Liv Ullmann) and Karin (Ingrid Thulin), as well as her live-in maid, Anna. Here they all are, in one of Sven Nykvist's typically soothing compositions:

Nykvist uses that jarring, intestinal red throughout the film, starting with the opening titles.

Never underestimate the cumulative effect of an unsettling palette that unsettling. Even without the colors, and even if you got rid of Agnes entirely, Cries and Whispers wouldn't exactly be a cakewalk, because Maria and Karin are so miserable to watch. What, you thought this was going to be a Bergman film where familial relations weren't a swamp of guilt and sorrow? Maria's flagrant affair with a man who despises her drives her husband to attempt suicide, Karin mutilates herself to avoid sex with her husband. And they don't much like each other either. As in Autumn Sonata, their conversations range from landmined to openly hostile. And neither one is willing or able to deal with the exigencies of Agnes's dying. The only person who is at all capable of comforting Agnes is her maid, Anna. It's possible they were lovers; at the very least, their relationship is deeper than is typical for an employer and employee. Kari Sylwan plays Anna as the milky-skinned embodiment of selfless, maternal love.

So it's completely appropriate that when Agnes asks for one last act of affection, Bergman quotes the most famous image of maternal love in Western civilization.

You can see in that shot just how painterly Sven Nykvist's cinematography is throughout. The formal, staged, quality of the film's compositions is the only thing that makes the intense on-screen suffering at all watchable; along with the period costumes, it distances the viewers a little from Agnes's pain. A little, not a lot. There's a lengthy shot of Agnes laboring to breathe that is the stuff of nightmares. Speaking of nightmares, Cries and Whispers has a nightmare sequence that, once again, establishes Bergman as the best horror director never to direct a horror film. Sometimes shallow focus can be terrifying.

The film's structure is intensely formalized: between scenes of Agnes's death and its aftermath, we get a flashback or dream sequence focused on each of the four main characters. Except for Agnes's flashback, each begins with a closeup of the character's face, strongly lit on one side.

And each ends with a similar closeup, lit from the other side.

Bergman and Nykvist abstract the actors' faces into something lunar and alien, but by the end of each flashback, we know some of the damage behind their eyes. But only some of it. There's an emblematic scene shortly before Anna's death where, in obvious pain, she tries again and again to throw up into a basin.

No matter how hard she hacks, spits, and heaves, she can't get anything to come up. That's part of what Cries and Whispers is about, something we all know to be true but don't like to think about. The thing that will kill us is the thing we can't get out, the poison in the wound. All we can do is tire ourselves out. And yet that's not everything Cries and Whispers tells us. For all the film's relentless interiority, Bergman ends with a passage from Agnes's diary about a day she was feeling well enough to venture outside with Anna and her sisters.

She writes:

I wanted to hold the moment fast, and thought: "Come what may, this is happiness. I cannot wish for anything better. Now, for a few minutes, I can experience perfection."

Our glory is that we can experience perfection, if only for a few minutes. Our tragedy is that we recognize—even as it's happening—that it's only for a few minutes. The poison is in the wound.


  • The film ends with an untranslated intertitle:

    From what I can tell from googling, it means, "So the cries and whispers become silent." Is that more or less correct, hive mind? Any idea why it wasn't subtitled?

  • The DVD features an interview that Bergman gave along with actor Erland Josephson, which makes him seem like he must have been rather horrible to know in his personal life. Both he and Josephson are remarkably blithe about having mistreated women and been awful fathers, although they're certainly charming in an "incorrigible grandpa" sort of way. I did like one of Bergman's stories: unhappy with the negative reviews a particular critic was giving his work, he apparently cold-cocked him because he knew the critic's newspaper could no longer allow him to review Bergman's work after a public altercation. Diabolical.

Saturday, August 21, 2010

#100: Beastie Boys Video Anthology

Beastie Boys Video Anthology, 1981–2000, videos directed by Evan Bernard, Adam Bernstein, Tamra Davis, Nathanial Hörnblowér, Spike Jonze, Ari Marcopoulos, and David Perez.

The only type of film that gets less critical attention than music videos are commercials, and that's a shame on both counts. For one thing, the consumerist dystopia in The Flowbee Home Haircutting Show is crying out for exegesis. But since Criterion stubbornly refuses to release their long-rumored Popeil Infomercial Anthology, let's talk about music videos.

They were kind of a surprise success. No one would have thought in 1980 that there was about to be an insatiable market for what are essentially short films, but that's what MTV created. In fact, if you wanted to make a short film that had a chance of attracting an audience, they were the only game in town: from "Video Killed the Radio Star" until the creation of YouTube, music videos were the only short films most people saw. (For that matter, since musicals were pretty much an abandoned form during the same period, they were the only place you were likely to see singing and dancing). The low budgets and relatively low stakes meant little interference from the record companies who funded them, so music video directors had freedom to take risks (something that was wholly absent for, say, commercial directors). All that added up to a great training ground for feature directors: three of the directors represented on this DVD went on to work in features, and one of them went on to be a genius. And they all worked with the Beastie Boys.

Full disclosure: I'm a fan. I was squarely in the target audience to appreciate "License To Ill" when it was released, which is to say I was a ten-year-old boy. However puerile their beginnings, by 2000 their sample-heavy music had moved the state of the art forward by leaps and bounds. And with a twenty-year back catalog, Criterion had plenty of music to choose from.

So what did they pick? Let's get the bad news out of the way first. The Beastie Boys Video Anthology does not include Ric Menello & Adam C. Dubin's video for "(You Gotta) Fight For Your Right (To Party!)," the only song that uses as many parenthetical phrases as I do (apparently, they left Def Jam on bad terms). So if you're looking for the most inexplicable pie fight in the history of music videos, you're going to want to head over here. If you can live without the Def Jam stuff, however, every other period of their career is well-represented here (even their punk beginnings).

As essential as the Beastie Boys were to the music of the 90's, they're kind of an odd choice for a music video anthology, because the nature of their music makes for strange videos. Any attempt to film them performing vocals means that all three band members be on screen simultaneously, because they all yell certain words in unison. And it should take nothing away from their considerable contributions to music to point out that the Beastie Boys are not the world's greatest dancers, so elaborate choreography is out. The result is that some of the videos on these DVDs seem like entries in a Lars Von Trier experiment: how do you maintain visual interest while filming, basically, the same shot of three people singing into the camera?

Some directors use a fisheye lens, as in "Shake Your Rump:"

When a fisheye lens isn't enough to keep things interesting on its own, you can add bizarre costumes, as in "Intergalactic":

Better yet, use bright colors (and, of course, a fisheye lens), as in this still from "Alive" (2000):

When brightly colored costumes are not available, video effects can be applied to the background, as in "So What'cha Want":

In an emergency, should anything happen to your fisheye lens, you can improvise by filming into a hubcap, as seen in "Pass The Mic":

Okay, I'm cheating a little bit: those are all examples from videos directed by "Nathanial Hörnblowér," a mysterious director who looks like David Cross but sounds exactly like Adam Yauch. Hörnblowér loves fisheye lenses. But to be fair, it's not as though Spike Jonze could do much better: this is from "Sure Shot":

There just aren't that many directions to take this shot, and it's obligatory, at least if you're going to follow the traditional conventions of music videos. Which is why the best examples of music video work in this collection are the ones that don't focus on performance footage. "Intergalactic," despite its fisheye sequences, also features a Japanese-style fight between a giant robot:

And a hapless octopus-creature:

It's not exactly Raging Bull but it beats the fisheye lenses. Better still is "Hey Ladies," an homage to the '70s complete with eight-tracks.

Unless I'm mistaken, "Hey Ladies" also wins the medal for "Most Unexpected Allusion to The Blood of a Poet." Check out the Lee Miller lookalike:

Speaking of homage to the 70's, David Perez's video for "Gratitude" is not just inspired by Pink Floyd: Live At Pompeii, some sequences are a shot-for-shot remake. So if you're wondering why a two-note riff is being treated like the greatest guitar work in human history, remember that the camera shenanigans you're seeing were designed with David Gilmour in mind. To be fair to Perez, he doesn't exactly hide his influence:

Amid all the other music video tropes (the stock military footage video, the skateboarding/surfing/snowboarding footage, the just-wandering-around-Echo-Park-with-a-video-camera video), one video stands head and shoulders above the rest. I bet you know where I'm going with this.

But you're wrong. It's true that Spike Jonze's video for "Sabotage" is hilarious and charming and everything you'd expect from Jonze. Anyone could cut together a faux-1970's cop show, but it takes a bit more to come up with a shot like this one:

So that's great. But the one masterpiece of the music video form on these DVDs is is "Body Movin'," Nathanial Hörnblowér's magnum opus. There's not a fisheye lens in sight. While watching Mario Bava's 1968 schlock epic Danger: Diabolik, Yauch noticed that its filmmaking conventions presented a unique opportunity. Bava managed the film's stunts by intercutting closeups of the cast with long shots of stuntmen: what Yauch realized, and capitalized on, is that the closeups could be easily and cheaply replaced. Here's how you make it look like Adam Yauch and Mike D are chasing Ad-Rock around in a helicopter:

It doesn't hurt that all the videos action-movie-calisthenics are caused by the heist of a top secret fondue recipe.

It looks like it was worth it. I don't want to knock the special effects in "Sabotage," because I'm kind of in love with the sequence where they throw a dummy off a Los Angeles bridge.

But you might have noticed Adam Yauch is wearing a neck brace in the helicopter shot above. Here's an earlier shot that explains why:

Spike Jonze, I'm sorry, but Nathanial Hörnblowér just took your music videos and sprayed fake blood all over them.

As you can see, even the best videos on the Beastie Boys Video Anthology are not exactly masterworks of Western cinema. Nevertheless, the Beastie Boys Video Anthology is a masterwork of DVD, a format with a great deal of untapped potential. Ask yourself this: when was the last time you used the "angle" button on your remote? Now consider the following menu from "Intergalactic":

That's nine separate video tracks and six audio tracks. The remixes were done with the constraint that the vocals are still in sync with the original, and although the video tracks must include most of the footage shot during the video's production, the lips are still synched to the sound. So you can cut together your own version of the video on the fly, switching around between different remixes and camera angles with a touch of your remote. That's the theory, anyway. In practice, there's enough of a lag between pressing the "angle" button and picking up the new video track that this isn't as much fun as you might imagine. Still, it's interesting to see how the final cut stitches together the raw footage. Some of the different angles are interesting in their own right: "Shadrach" lets you switch between the original video footage:

And the rotoscoped version that appears in the video:

Most of the videos get similarly extensive treatment. By my calculations there's about nine and a half hours of content on this two-DVD set. Even if you're a Beastie Boys fan, that's an exhausting amount of material, but you've got to admire their thoroughness. But here's the thing: all that content is still on a DVD. You can't (legally) pull the raw video or audio from the disc and make your own version. So this marks the Beastie Boys Video Anthology as a product from a specific historical window, after DVDs were ubiquitous, but before most of the audience had access to video editing software and YouTube. That said, this is the only DVD I know of that uses every conceivable feature the medium makes available, even if it didn't usher in a golden age of DVD authoring. I look forward to a Criterion Blu-Ray that advances the medium further. Come to think of it, now that we are in the YouTube era, there's a whole lot of great filmmaking in desperate need of curation, preservation, and critical assessment. I eagerly await the twenty-angle, 30-audio track Blu-Ray release of "Dramatic Chipmunk."


  • The director's commentary tracks on these DVDs feature someone (Spike Jonze? Adam Yauch?) prank calling the other directors, pretending to be an employee of Criterion named Ralph Spaulding, and asking them inane questions. Most of the calls end when Ralph asks the director what they're wearing; in one of them he starts talking about how lonely he is and starts crying. Needless to say, this is one of the greatest commentary tracks of all time.

  • Remember when people thought it was really cool to wear overalls with one strap undone?

    Mike D does!

  • Unless I'm mistaken, Chloë Sevigny makes a one-frame appearance in the "Sure Shot" video:

    Sassy magazine's most successful intern, at least a year before appearing in Kids.

  • Remember when people thought it was really cool to dress like Captain Marvel?

    Mike D does!

Friday, July 16, 2010

#99: Gimme Shelter

Gimme Shelter, 1970, directed by David Maysles, Albert Maysles, and Charlotte Zwerin.

Some films enter the canon the minute their last frame clears the projector at a critics' screening. Other films need time and context before their greatness becomes apparent. Gimme Shelter, David Maysles, Albert Maysles, and Charlotte Zwerin's magnificent film about the Rolling Stones' 1969 tour of the States, is a sterling example of the latter group. But not for the usual reasons.

In most scenarios where a film slowly becomes a classic, public taste has to catch up with the filmmakers—The King Of Comedy, for example, benefits greatly from more mainstream comedies of humiliation like "The Office." Gimme Shelter is something different, and as far as I know, unique: it needed time so that people could forget all about it. The Maysles originally planned something more like a traditional concert film, and the footage they shot at the Stones' Madison Square Garden concerts in November of 1969 pretty clearly fits that description. But the camera crews followed the band west on tour, which meant they were shooting at the Altamont Free Concert. And that's where the film's uncredited star made his appearance:

The man in the green suit is Meredith Hunter, eighteen years old. Not long after this picture was taken, he pulled a gun and was promptly stabbed to death by Alan Passaro, one of the Hell's Angels keeping people off the stage. The cameras captured the whole thing, from the stabbing to Hunter's girlfriend Patty Bredahoff weeping as his body is loaded into a helicopter. And the catastrophe at Altamont was enough of a scandal that everyone involved in its planning shared some of the blame in the national media, including the film crews.

It was pretty apparent that the Maysles couldn't just ignore Meredith Hunter's death and make a film like Woodstock or Monterey Pop. So they sort of made the best of it; with Charlotte Zwerin's help, they turned it into a film about Altamont, shooting the aftermath and reshaping the footage leading up to the concert so that Hunter's death becomes the inevitable climax to a slow-motion trainwreck that begins in Madison Square Garden. Regardless of whether or not they blamed the filmmakers for the concert's poor planning, critics found this in poor taste: Vincent Canby's review (original headline: "Making Murder Pay") charged the filmmakers of "epic opportunism," and Pauline Kael all but accused them of staging Hunter's death for the good of the movie. It must be said that their reactions were understandable: any film that is restructured at the eleventh hour to feature a real live death at its climax is going to carry a whiff of snuff about it. If someone gets killed at Lilith Fair this summer and Sarah McLachlan releases a film about it, I might go so far as to accuse her of exploiting a tragedy. But in the forty-odd years since Hunter's stabbing, Gimme Shelter stopped being "that failed concert film with a murder" and became "that film about Altamont." The question of who profits from Gimme Shelter seems much less interesting than the film itself.

It's also undeniable that historical context has been kind to Gimme Shelter: something that couldn't have been knowable at the time. Forget, for now, about the "death of the sixties" if that kind of thing makes you feel like you've been cornered at a party by someone your parent's age who isn't aging gracefully. Let's just talk about the Rolling Stones. In 1968, they released "Beggar's Banquet." "Let It Bleed" hit store shelves on December 5, 1969, the day before Altamont. On deck: "Sticky Fingers" in 1971 and "Exile on Main St." in 1972. So within the five years around the film's release, four of the greatest records of all time. After that, the long, slow descent into self-parody: but no one could have known, in 1970, that Gimme Shelter captured the band at the absolute apex of their power as musicians and entertainers. The 1969 tour was the debut of the band's best lineup, thanks to the contributions of this man:

Taylor left the band in 1974; it's not a coincidence that they did their best work while he was playing guitar for them. You know the rest of the group, although I'd wager you haven't seen them looking this young in a while:

And of course, Mr. "Richard" and Sir Michael Jagger.

It's not just that this is the middle of the band's greatest period: it's that the Stones are still around, and have spent the last 30 years or so systematically sucking every last dime from their past glories. Watching Gimme Shelter, you almost wish someone at the mastering sessions for Exile on Main St. had slipped them a hot shot and a copy of Housman. But in 1970, no one could have predicted Zombie Keith Richards or Charming Old Pensioner Watts, and no audience or critic could have known how affecting it would be to see the band at their prime again.

And all right, let's get into the death of the sixties stuff. To me, if there was a signature event that brought on all the horrors of the 1970s, it was in 1972 with Nixon's victory over McGovern. But a lot of people would disagree with me on that: specifically the people who wrote the booklet essays for Criterion. For them, Altamont was the moment they were finally clobbered over the head with the fact that peace, love, and understanding wasn't going to be enough to save the world: this was a historical moment that resonated for years to come. Whether or not you agree with them, Gimme Shelter meticulously documents a lot of really naïve people running headfirst into atavistic tribalism and violence.1 And no matter where exactly in your timeline you jab the pushpin, that's how the sixties died.

That's the context, but what about the movie? The fact is, whether or not it was in poor taste, Zwerin and the Maysles brothers did an amazing job of building a film around the Altamont catastrophe. Those stills of the band are all after Altamont, after the filmmakers knew they had footage of Hunter's stabbing, from a session where they invited the filmmakers to view rough sequences from the film, and caught them on camera reacting to themselves. And that's from the beginning of the movie: the first time we see the film's title, it's on an editing rig.

Just as in the editing sequence in Man With A Movie Camera (and oddly for what's ostensibly cinéma vérité), we're forcibly made aware that we're watching a manipulated reality, in which events happen out of sequence, circling Hunter's death like blood down a drain. This is brilliant (and essential) structurally, but it's also crucial for tone and theme. One of the film's great questions is the extent to which the Stones' manufactured stage personae contributed to the disaster at Altamont. By having the Stones watch themselves, the filmmakers create one of the most succinct critiques of celebrity on film. We see Mick Jagger clowning around at a press conference at the beginning of the tour:

When asked by a female reporter if he and the band are "more satisfied" now than they were in the past, he asks if she means sexually, financially, or philosophically and then replies that they are "Financially dissatisfied, sexually satisfied, philosophically trying." It's a bullshit answer to a bullshit question, and the reporters eat it up. Months later, Jagger watches his response, hangs his head, and pronounces it "Rubbish."

It's not clear whether he's critiquing his answer or his performance, although in either case he's right. It seems clear that he's drawing a line between Michael Jagger and "Mick Jagger," until you remember that he's just taken a drubbing in the press over Altamont and knows he's on camera. It's a question that comes back again and again: cinéma vérité promises authenticity, but do these guys ever stop performing?

Jagger, at least, seems to be able to turn it on and off like a faucet. We see the band walk into a Holiday Inn: Keith looks a little crazy, but Mick looks like the London School of Economics student he once was:

In the very next shot, the band is leaving the hotel. The rest of the band looks the same, but now they're accompanied by Mick Fucking Jagger, Rock Star.

So this is an act. But it isn't all an act, because these guys really were the greatest rock and roll band in the world, and Gimme Shelter makes sure you know it. Before the first mention of Meredith Hunter, the film gives us an absolute barnburner performance of "Jumpin' Jack Flash," and let me just say that if you have never seen Mick Jagger command a stage in his prime, you don't know anything about the Rolling Stones.2 He's too kinetic to be captured in a still; you're gonna have to watch the movie.

Of course, Mick's command of the stage was part of the problem. His entire stage presence was built around taunts and provocation (sample patter: "You wouldn't want my trousers to fall down, now, would you?") and the Stones' music is not what you would call peaceful. So they were exceptionally great at riling people up; not so great at calming them down. By the time we see them perform "Honkey Tonk Blues," later in the film, we know Altamont is on the way. Which makes it ominous to see Jagger deal with fans who rush the stage; he just gets out of their way, lets the bouncers carry them off, and keeps singing. Ignoring the chaos around him is not going to be a great long-term strategy.

At about the same time, the filmmakers give the audience a different model of stage presence: Ike and Tina Turner performing Otis Redding's "I've Been Loving You Too Long."

The Stones' show is built around promising release, then denying it; Ike and Tina end the song with what appears to be an onstage orgasm and a whole lot of inappropriate microphone fondling.

It's just as provocative, but it's not built around chaos, and the audience is mesmerised, not rioting. Jagger's sullen response, watching footage of the opening act blowing him out of the water? "It's nice to have a chick occasionally.

Not in complete control of his emotions there.

Adding to the sense of unease by this point is footage of Melvin Belli frantically negotiating with Dick Carter for the use of the Altamont Speedway. The original location for the concert had fallen apart, as had the backup location, and the Stones organization brought in the King of Torts, who you might recall from Brian Cox's portrayal of him in Zodiac.

Belli was by all accounts a brilliant lawyer, but his office is decorated like an Applebee's managed by Miss Havisham, and doesn't exactly give the impression of a man for whom organization came easily.

He's pretty cavalier about the whole thing: they have hundreds of thousands of would-be-concertgoers descending on San Francisco for a concert, no toilets, no parking, no doctors, nothing, but everyone seems to think everything will just sort of work out somehow. Someone in the room says it's like "lemmings to the sea," and they're not far off.

By the time the concert starts, disaster seems inevitable. This:

Is not a man who is culturally prepared to deal with this:

That's one of the Hell's Angels. Depending who you ask, they were either hired or decided on their own to provide "security" with weighted pool cues. They weren't exactly what you'd call Stones fans, judging by the look one of them gives Mick Jagger:

Over the course of the afternoon, they got drunk and out of control: they punched out Marty Balin during the Jefferson Airplane's set, they beat the crap out of any number of concertgoers, and when Meredith Hunter pulled a gun, they stabbed him to death.

Despite their rough edges, the Stones were about as well prepared for real violence as that guy with the magic wand. Arriving at the concert, Mick gets immediately punched in the face; when fights break out, all Jagger can muster up is, "If we are all one, let's show we're all one." That sentiment is exactly as effective as you'd imagine. Sonny Barger and company weren't interested in being "one" with a bunch of hippies. Especially not hippies who were—as Sonny pointed out in a radio interview after the concert—messing with their bikes: they "got got." And unfortunately for the Stones, being able to work a crowd into a frenzy does not mean you can get that same crowd to chill the fuck out. It's a different skill set.

So that was Altamont: a slow-moving catastrophe where none of the people who could have stopped things were paying enough attention. But the cameras were rolling. Albert Maysles, David Maysles, and Charlotte Zwerin couldn't see what they had until they got into the editing room and shaped it into something coherent. Most critics couldn't see what they'd created until decades later, when the film's origin had faded and the Rolling Stones had gone on to Super Bowls and president's birthday parties. What are we left with? Gimme Shelter is an undeniably great concert film, and if not for Altamont, that's exactly what it would have been. It's also a process documentary about a very badly planned concert, but it's more than that, too. I hesitate to pronounce it the obituary for sixties, although at times it certainly wants to be. For me, the film's most interesting moments have to do with Jagger's control of his public persona: the moments when you see his façade slip and immediately get put back in place. Watch Gimme Shelter carefully, and you will see the Rolling Stones become the greatest rock and roll band in the world through sheer force of will. Even if people have to die.


  • Gimme Shelter has one of my favorite Keith Richards moments, a shot of him explaining that he's taking a box top from Minnie Pearl's Fried Chicken home as a souvenir.

    Cousin Minnie says, "How dee-licious!"

    Minnie Pearl's Fried Chicken is no longer with us: it flamed out in a political scandal as big as Altamont. If you ask me, that's when the sixties really died.

  • If you want to see the Rolling Stones a little later in their career, track down Robert Frank's unreleased, unreleasable documentary of their 1972 tour, Cocksucker Blues. It's pornographic, has a lot of dull conversations with junkies, and the performances aren't as great, but it's worth it for the scene where Keith Richards attempts to order a bowl of fruit from room service. You can find it on YouTube.

  • The DVD and Blu-Ray feature galleries of Altamont photos by Bill Owens and Beth Sunflower. I like this one, by Bill Owens:

    It looks like something Robert Capa might have shot.

  • Please feel free to argue in the comment section that the Rolling Stones were not the greatest rock and roll band in the world. You are wrong about this. Thank you.

  • Update: As the very well-informed commenter R-Man points out, I neglected to mention that one of the cameramen at Altamont was a young George Lucas.(And apparently Spielberg Scorsese (thanks, anonymous commenter—don't know what I was thinking) was one of the cameramen at Woodstock).

1Which is pretty much what happened to the McGovern campaign, come to think of it.

2I didn't: Gimme Shelter was how I got into the Stones, after Oldies Radio and the Steel Wheels tour poisoned them for me.