Pauline Kael vs. Gimme Shelter

This past weekend I was flipping through the book ‘Imagining Reality: The Faber Book of Documentary’ by Kevin Macdonald and Mark Cousins, and I came across an interesting Pauline Kael review of the Maysles film ‘Gimme Shelter’. I guess she wasn’t a big fan of the film, even going as far as to suggest that David & Albert Maysles and co-director/editor Charlotte Zwerin are indirectly responsible for the death of the young black man at the infamous Altamont concert. Below is the original review as written by Kael, and following it is the written response by the filmmakers, which ultimately was never published in the New York Times. It’s a pretty interesting read and good fodder for discussion on the elements of fact and fiction in documentary filmmaking. To bad some of the ‘facts’ within her own article turned out to be fiction.

Gimme Shelter
Pauline Kael

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 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-verite jackpot.

gimmeshelter.jpgIf 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 at Nuremberg in 1934 was architecturally designed so that Leni Riefenstahl could get the great footage that resulted in Triumph of the Will; in order to shoot A Time for Burning, William C. Jersey instigated a racial confrontation that split an Omaha church; the Maysles brothers recruited Paul Brennan, who was in the roofing and siding business, to play a bible salesman for the ‘direct cinema’ Salesman. It is said to be a ‘law’ that the fact of observation alters the phenomenon that is observed – but how can one prove it? More likely, observation sometimes alters the phenomenon and sometimes doesn’t…there is no reason to believe that the freaked-out people in Gimme Shelter paid much attention to the camera crews, but would the even itself have taken place without those crews? With modern documentarians, as with many TV news cameramen, it’s impossible to draw a clear line between catching actual evens and arranging events to be caught; a documentarian may ask people to re-enact events, while a TV journalist may argue that it was only by precipitating events that he was able to clarify issues for the public – that is, that he needed to fake a little, but for justifiable reasons. There are no simple ethical standards to apply, and, because the situations are so fluid and variable, one has to be fairly knowledgeable not to get suckered into reacting to motion-picture footage that appears to be documentary as if it were the simple truth.

A cinema-verite sham that appeals to an audience by showing it what it wants to believe may be taken as corroboration of its beliefs, and as an illumination. Would audiences react to the Arthur Miller-Eugene O’Neill overtones of Salesman the same way if they understood how much of it was set up and that the principals are play acting? One should be alert to the questionable ethics in Gimme Shelter, to what is designed not to reveal the situation but to conceal certain elements of that situation. Gimme Shelter plays the game of trying to mythologize the event (Altamont) and to clear the participants (The Rolling Stones and the filmmakers) of any cognizance of how it came about.

When Mick Jagger is seen in Gimme Shelter pensively looking at the Altamont footage – run for him by the Maysles brothers – and wondering how it all happened, this is disingenuous movie-making. One wants to say: Drop the Miss Innocence act and tell us the straight story of the background to the events. What isn’t explained is that, four months after Woodstock, Stone Promotions asked the Maysles brothers to shoot the Stones at Madison Square Gardens. The Maysles brothers had done a film on an American tour by The Beatles, and Albert Maysles had shot part of Monterey Pop. When, as a climax to their American tour, the Stones decided on a filmed free concert in the San Francisco area, the Maysles brothers made a deal with them to film it and rounded up a large crew. Melvin Belli’s bordello-style law office and his negotiations for a concert site are in the film, but it isn’t explained that Porter Bibb, the producer of Salesman, was the person who brought in Belli, or that Bibb became involved in producing the concert in Altamont in order to produce the Maysles film. The sequence in Belli’s office omits the detail that the concert had to be hurriedly moved to Altamont because the owners of the previously scheduled site wanted distribution rights of the film. Gimme Shelter has been shaped so as to whitewash the Rolling Stones and the film-makers for the thoughtless, careless way the concert was arranged, and especially for the cut-rate approach to keeping order. The Hell’s Angels, known for their violence, but cheap and photogenic, were hired as guards for five hundred dollar’s worth of beer. This took less time and trouble than arranging for unarmed marshals, and the Hell’s Angels must have seemed the appropriate guards for Their Satanic Majesties, the Stones. In the film, the primary concern of the Angles appears to be to keep the stage clear and guard the Stones.

When the self-centered, mercenary movie queen of Singin’ in the Rain talked bout bringing joy into the humdrum lives of the public, we laughed. Should we also laugh at Melvin Belli’s talk in Gimme Shelter about a ‘free concert’ for ‘the people’ and at the talk about the Stone’s not wanting money when the concert is being shot for Gimme Shelter and The Rolling Stones and the Maysles brothers divide the profits from the picture? One of the jokes of cinema verite is that practically the only way to attract an audience is to use big stars, but since big stars cooperate only if they get financial – and generally, artistic – control of the film, the cinema-verite techniques are used to give the look of ‘caught’ footage to the image the stars are selling.

mickonstagealtamont.jpgThis film has caught (Mick Jagger’s) feral intensity as a performer (which, oddly, Godard never captured in One Plus One, maybe because he dealt with a rehearsal-recording session, without an audience). It has also captured his teasing, taunting relationship to the audience: he can finish a frenzied number and say to the audience, ‘You don’t want my trousers to fall down now, do you?’ His toughness is itself provocative, and since rock performers are accepted by the young as their own spokesmen, the conventional barriers between performers and audience have been pushed over. From the star of Gimme Shelter, our knowledge of the horror to come makes us see The Rolling Stones’ numbers not as we might in an ordinary festival film but as the preparations for, and the possible cause of, disaster. We begin to suspect that Mick Jagger’s musical style leads to violence, as he himself suggests in a naïve and dissociated way when he complains – somewhat pettishly, but with a flicker of pride – to the crowd that there seems to be some trouble every time he starts to sing ‘Sympathy for the Devil’. He may not fully understand the response he works for and gets.

The film has a very disturbing pathos, because everybody seems so helpless. Many of the people at Altamont are blank or frightened but are in thrall to the music, or perhaps just to being there; some twitch and jerk to the beat in an apocalyptic parody of dancing; others strip, or crawl on the heads of the crowd; and we can see tormented tripper’s faces, close to the stage, near the angry Angels. When Grace Slick and then Mick Jagger appeal to the audience to cool it, to ‘keep your bodies off each other unless you intend to love,’ and to ‘get yourselves together’, they are saying all they know how to say, but the situation is way past that. They don’t seem to connect what they’re into with the results. Mick Jagger symbolizes the rejection of the values that he then appeals to. Asking stoned an freaked out people to control themselves is pathetic, and since the most dangerous violence is obviously from the Hell’s Angles, who are trying to keep their idea of order by stomping dazed, bewildered kids, Jagger’s saying ‘Brothers and sisters, why are we fighting?’ is pitifully beside the point. Musically Jagger has no way to cool it because his orgiastic kind of music has only one way to go – higher, until everyone is knocked out.

Mick Jagger’s performing style is a form of aggression not just against the straight world but against his own young audience, and this appeals to them, because it proves to them that he hasn’t sold out and gone soft. But when all this aggression is released, who can handle it? The violence he provokes is well known: fans have pulled him off a platform, thrown a chair at him. He’s greeted with a punch in the face when he arrives at Altamont. What the film doesn’t deal with is the fact that Jagger attracts this volatile audience, that he magnetizes disintegrating people. This is, of course, an ingredient of the whole rock scene, but it is seen at its most extreme in the San Francisco-Berkeley audience that gathers for The Rolling Stones at Altamont. Everyone – the people who came and the people who planned it – must have wanted a big Dionysian freak-out. The movie includes smiling talk about San Francisco as the place for the concert, and we all understand that it’s the place for the concert because it’s the farthest out place; it’s the mother city of the drug culture. It’s where things are already wildly out of control. The film shows part of what happened when Marty Balin, of the Jefferson Airplane, jumped off the stage to stop the Angles from beating a black man and was himself punched unconscious. After that, according to reporters, no one tried to stop the Angels from beating the crazed girls and boys who climbed onstage or didn’t follow instructions; they were hit with leaded pool cues and with fists while the show went on and the three dozen cameramen and soundmen went on working. There were four deaths at Altamont, and a cameraman caught one. You see the Angel’s knife flashing high in the air before he stabs a black boy, who has a gun in his hand. You see it at normal speed, see it again slowed down, and then in a frozen frame.

It’s impossible to say how much movie-making itself is responsible for those consequences, but it is a factor, and with the commercial success of this kind of film it’s going to be a bigger factor. Antonioni dickered with black groups to find out what actions they were planning, so that he could include some confrontations in Zabriskie Point. MGM’s lawyers must have taken a dim view of this. A smaller company, with much more to gain and little to lose, might have encouraged him. Movie studios are closing, but, increasingly, public events are designed to take place on what are essentially movie stages. And with movie-production money getting tight, provoked events can be a cheap source of spectacles. The accidents that happen may be more acceptable to audiences than the choreographed battles of older directors, since for those who grew up with TV careful staging can look arch and stale. It doesn’t look so fraudulent if a director excites people to commit violent acts on camera, and the even becomes free publicity for the film. The public will want to see the result, so there is big money to deodorize everyone concerned. What we’re getting in the movies is ‘total theatre’. Altamont, in Gimme Shelter, is like a Roman circus, with a difference: the audience and the victims are indistinguishable.

Source: New Yorker, 19 December 1970 (via: Imagining Reality: The Faber Book of Documentary)

A Response to Pauline Kael
by Albert and David Maysles and Charlotte Zwerin

David&AlMaysles.jpgThe directors would like to point out the following errors in Pauline Kael’s review of Gimme Shelter, a film about the Rolling Stones tour of the United States which ended with a free concert at Altamont, where a young, black man was stabbed to death by a member of the Hell’s Angels.

Miss Kael seems to be implying that we, as filmmakers, are responsible for the events we film by suggesting that we set them up or helped to stage them. In referring to our previous film, Salesman, Miss Kael says “the Maysles brothers recruited Paul Brennan, who was in the roof-and-siding business, to play a Bible salesman.” Paul Brennan had been selling Bibles for eight years prior to the making of our film and was selling Bibles when we met him. No actors were used in Salesman. The men were asked to simply go on doing what they normally did while we filmed.

This misstatement of fact is used in a paragraph which associates us with a number of other filmmakers who Miss Kael implies filmed staged events in such a way that they would appear to be a documentary. At the top of the list is Leni Riefenstahl, who was hired by Hitler to film the Nazi Party Rally at Nuremberg in 1934. These filmmakers may or may not have manufactured events for the cinema. We did not.

Miss Kael further implies that the makers of Gimme Shelter are responsible for what happened at Altamont (presumably the killing). She does not make the direct statement that the filmmakers arranged the events at Altamont, but she discusses the film in the following ways: “when facts are manufactured for the cinema,” “if events are created to be photographed,” “arranging events to be caught,” “it doesn’t look so fraudulent if a director excites people to commit violent acts on camera.” She goes on to suggest that the filmmakers were involved in producing the concert and consequently involved in hiring the Hell’s Angels as security guards.

The facts are: We were involved in producing a film of the Rolling Stones’ tour of the United States, not in producing concerts. To the best of our knowledge, the free concert was produced by Rock Scully, Sam Cutler and Mike Lang with the help of the people from the Grateful Dead organization and many volunteers from the San Francisco area.

We did not produce the event. It’s our understanding that the Rolling Stones agreed to play for nothing and to pay some of the costs of production. The above mentioned producers of the concert said they did not hire the Angels. The Angels told the filmmakers that they were not hired. Since we could not establish that they were hired, we did not say so in the film.

Miss Kael calls the film a whitewash of the Stones and a cinema verit? sham. If that is the case, then how can it also be the 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 to 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 filmmakers’ insights and Miss Kael serves them up as if they were her own discovery. Rather than giving the audience what it wants to believe, the film forces the audience to see things as they are.

We don’t know where Miss Kael got her facts. We do know that her researcher phoned Paul Brennan, one of the Bible salesmen, and told him that The New Yorker was interested in doing an article about him. He made it quite clear to her that he was a Bible salesman and not a roof-and-siding salesman when we made the film about him. Aside from his own statement, this could easily have been checked out by contacting his employers, the Mid-American Bible Company. Miss Kael’s researcher also contacted Porter Bibb (who is identified in the review as the producer of Salesman when in fact he had nothing to do with producing Salesman) and asked him how much the Maysles had made on Gimme Shelter. When Mr. Bibb suggested that she call the Maysles, she replied that she didn’t think the Maysles would want to talk to her.

We don’t know why she would feel that way since she had called and we had talked to her. She asked us if the free concert had been staged and lighted to be photographed and we told her that it had not. In her review, Miss Kael states that “the free concert was staged and lighted to be photographed.”

In fact, the filmmakers were not consulted and had no control over the staging or the lighting at Altamont. All of the cameramen will verify that the lighting was poor and totally unpredictable.

These errors are crucial to her argument that Gimme Shelter is a cinema verit? sham and a whitewash of the Rolling Stones. Miss Kael’s argument is not supported by the facts. It can only be supported by her errors.

David Maysles
Albert Maysles
Charlotte Zwerin