30th Anniversary of Gimme Shelter

Written by Godfrey Cheshire on . Posted in Arts & Film, Posts.

Gimme Shelter
Directed by Albert
and David Maysles and Charlotte Zwerin

A couple of months ago I
saw it for the first time, probably, since 1972. Given my history with the film,
I suppose I expected it to seem somehow different or lesser, a relic of faded
enthusiasms. But it didn’t. It seemed exactly as it did back then, and
for 90 minutes I found myself obsessed all over again. When I took the tape
back to Kim’s on Bleecker St., the girl at the counter said, "What
is it with this film? It’s just flying off the shelf these days.
We can barely keep it in the store."

What is it with Gimme
? I gave up trying to answer that question a long time ago. When
a friend surprised me with it recently, I said something about demonic charisma
and then spent the rest of the evening trying to figure out what I’d meant.

The phrase was intended
not so much for Mick Jagger, the strutting pseudo-Satan at the center of Gimme
, as for the film and what it shows us of rock ’n’ roll.
I didn’t return to the movie all those times because I was insane about
the Rolling Stones, after all; I was only a big fan. What got me was the way
Gimme Shelter took two obsessions, film and rock, and turned them into
mirror images that could not begin to contain all the meanings–a helix
of delight and guilt, identification and dismay–thus conjured. Some of
Orson Welles’ films have a similar sense of blurring artistic compulsions.
But it wasn’t until I ran across Abbas Kiarostami’s Close-Up,
which uses film to mirror film and poses its own daunting ethical questions,
that I found a movie that truly equaled Gimme Shelter in its strange
fascinations and self-enclosing revelations.

Made by the team of David
and Albert Maysles and Charlotte Zwerin, Gimme Shelter documents the
Stones’ 1969 U.S. concert tour that ended at the disastrous free concert
at California’s Altamont Speedway, where a "security" force of
Hells Angels wreaked general havoc and killed one young man only feet from the
stage as the Stones performed. The film kicks off, though, earlier in the tour
with Jagger cracking, "Welcome to the breakfast show," to a Madison
Square Garden crowd, after which the Stones launch into a blistering "Jumping
Jack Flash"–one of several numbers that show the band and its taunting,
kinetic frontman at their late-60s best, thunderous and glazed in an almost
princely self-confidence.

From the first, it’s
clear this can be no mere concert film, and even the term "documentary"
is problematic, because events have already transformed the Stones tour into
drama, tragedy, myth. Or are those words too noble for the tawdry, deadly debacle
at Altamont? Recognizing what the audience already knows, Gimme Shelter
follows a double course throughout: even as the tour grinds heedlessly toward
its calamitous end, the Maysles team shows us the Stones–mainly Mick and
Charlie Watts–months later, looking at and reacting to the footage on a
Movieola, as if reliving a crime in which they turned out to be unknowing participants.
Though their expressions are suitably grim and appalled, the chance to display
them can seem an easy, empty expiation. Still, however you judge that, the film
takes as its subject not only the events it covers but the experience of watching
those events on film, and thereby implicates the viewer in its tight mesh of
art, crime and evasion.

Even leaving aside that
cumulatively crucial self-reflexive aspect, Gimme Shelter stands as the
best rock film, if you take that to mean the one in which the musical event
is most closely shadowed by cinema. It had that title practically from the outset.
The Maysleses were brought in, after the tour had already started, when Haskell
Wexler, maker of the radical Medium Cool, bowed out; the Stones apparently
found that his approach reminded them too much of Godard and Sympathy for
the Devil
(One Plus One), which they had disliked making. Godard,
however, had previously worked with Albert Maysles and declared him America’s
best cameraman.

Godard’s Weekend
was evoked when the Altamont disaster was reported the following month by Rolling
, which even found reason to cite Brando’s Viva Zapata.
Of course "Felliniesque" was a ubiquitous tag; when the film came
out Esquire dubbed it "our own Satyricon." But the most
immediately important movie shadowing Gimme Shelter hadn’t yet opened.
The Stones had missed Woodstock and word was already circulating that the film
about it was terrific. Altamont was to be the band’s retort to both the
peace ’n’ love concert and its cinematic record; there was even talk
of getting the Stones’ film into theaters before its competition appeared.
(From the standpoint of the "film generation," that competition now
looks almost absurdly epochal. Scorsese worked on Woodstock. George Lucas
ran a camera on Gimme Shelter.)

The Maysleses’ film,
though, had a bad rap before its shooting stopped. Charges were leveled that
Altamont happened solely as a backdrop for the movie the Stones wanted to make:
"Woodstock West," Rolling Stone dubbed it. The reality
behind that is surely more complex–the Stones had been approached in England
about staging a free concert in San Francisco–but there was no doubt that
the concert’s location had been moved from Golden Gate Park to Sears Point
and then, only a day ahead of time, moved again due to a dispute over the film
rights. If the Maysleses are vulnerable to any charges made against them, it’s
that Gimme Shelter includes several scenes of Stones lawyer Melvin Belli
(who had defended Jack Ruby for the murder of Lee Harvey Oswald) and various
management types negotiating the site of the concert, yet never mentions its
own influence on the events it chronicles.

Such withholding had its
consequences. Pauline Kael’s 1970 review of the film begins: "[How]
does one review this picture? It’s like reviewing the footage of President
Kennedy’s assassination or Lee Harvey Oswald’s murder. This movie
is into complications and sleight-of-hand beyond Pirandello, since the filmed
death at Altamont–although, of course, unexpected–was part of a cinema-verite
spectacular. The free concert was staged and lighted to be photographed, and
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-verite jackpot.

"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? The Nazi rally of Nuremberg in 1934 was architecturally designed
so that Leni Riefenstahl could get the great footage that resulted in Triumph
of the Will

Kael’s venomous tirade
might be attributed in part to the fact that she didn’t have a rock ’n’
roll bone in her body. Yet the film offered grounds for her arguments, which
indeed stung. The Maysleses and Zwerin wrote a reply to the review, but The
New Yorker
at the time didn’t print letters, so it wasn’t published
until 1998 when it appeared in Imagining Reality: The Faber Book of Documentary.
Answering Kael’s silly assertion that the chaotically thrown-together Altamont
show was designed and lit for their cameras, they repeat what they say they
told the critic on the phone: "In fact, the film-makers were not consulted
and had no control over the staging and lighting at Altamont. All the cameramen
will verify that the lighting was very poor and totally unpredictable."

Even more to the point of
the critic’s main argument is this: "Miss Kael calls the film a whitewash
of the Stones and a cinema-verite sham. If that is the case, how then
can it also be a film which provides the grounds for Miss Kael’s discussion
of the deeply ambiguous nature of the Stones’ appeal? All the evidence
she uses in her analysis of their disturbing relationship with their audience
is evidence supplied by the film, by the structure of the film which tries to
render in its maximum complexity the very problems of Jagger’s double self,
of his insolent appeal and the fury it can and in fact does provoke, and even
the pathos of his final powerlessness. These are the film-makers’ insights
and Miss Kael serves them up as if they were her own discovery."

In fact, Gimme Shelter
cannot contain all the moral quandaries it evokes–including its own
impact on events–and that, like it or not, is part of its brilliance and
fascination. It reminds us of the ever-unsteady relationship between art and
morality, and that our wish to find a strict correlation between the two may
ultimately be necessary but illusory. The climactic scenes at Altamont have
a beauty that’s all the more alluring for being so dammed and damning.
The scene, lit by fires and hazy with smoke, looks like some medieval village
of the godforsaken, yet the 16-mm images–much of the camerawork is extraordinary–also
make it appear as heroic and ruggedly elegant as a disaster painting by Delacroix.

We hesitate to let a primarily
esthetic response gain the upper hand here, but, at least for this rock ’n’
roll fan, it always does. The film refuses to be indicted as a bad documentary
because it has made itself into real, undeniable art, which owes part of its
harrowing greatness to its circular proof of art’s limitations. After Altamont,
there was a long and acrimonious barrage of blame-laying, and surely the Stones
deserved much of that. Both supremely egotistical and sublimely naive, they
had handed the concert’s security to the Hells Angels thinking they were
like the Angels in England, or Peter Fonda and Dennis Hopper in Easy Rider.
Altamont was supposed to be like Woodstock, only groovier, and their movie would
be groovier still. Instead, the Stones got what no one had bargained for: a
terrifying snapshot of the sudden collapse of the 60s.