Written by Guest Blogger Matthew Thrasher of Cinematic Windsor
Gimme Shelter is a documentary by Albert and David Maysles about the Rolling Stones’ 1969 U.S. concert tour that ended with a free concert at San Francisco’s Altamont Speedway. At the concert, Meredith Hunter, an African-American man was stabbed to death by a member of the Hells Angels, who were oddly hired to handle security at the show. The incident sparked all kinds of concert regulations that today are commonplace, and the documentaries ‘Direct Cinema’ approach captured a generation of free love and expression coming to an end.
How does a documentary capture the truth of its subject? Documentaries are those movies that depict life as it is; they aim to teach us truth. They are not rehearsed scenes, not staged moments of crafted perfection, rather documentaries have the power to truly be that mirror held up to society, reflecting back to us our innermost truths. The New York Film Academy states, “Today, the two most common methods used in the genre however, are ‘direct cinema’ (the more commonly recognized, ‘standard’ method, if you will) and ‘cinema vérité.’”
The NYFA describes direct cinema as follows: “The Maysles brothers, Albert and David Maysles of the United States were most well-known for developing direct cinema. Three of their most popular works in the genre were Salesman (1969), Gimme Shelter (1970), and Grey Gardens (1975). Rather than planning a scene they wanted to shoot, the brothers would let the story unfold organically as the camera rolled. They believed the documentarian was an objective observer, a completely invisible passivist as opposed to a director or participant—a noteworthy sentiment that sets the genre apart from cinema vérité.”
The footage of Altamont is not staged, it’s observational, it unabashedly depicts what was seen right there in front of the cameras. We see images of a crowd that is pushing those boundaries of freedom and expression: fans foolishly climbing the rigging, and the workers on stage telling them to stop, fans dancing in the nude, and trying to rush the stage to push themselves further into the moment, all the while drinking and doing drugs. We also see Hells Angels fighting back the crowd, some being beaten with pool cues.
Prior to the Altamont footage, look for an ominously fore-shadowing scene of crazed fans rushing the stage and Mick Jagger’s annoyed reaction. It seems fans rushing the stage was a problem on the tour leading up to Altamont, so the Stones’ decision to hire Hells Angels’ as security does seem like an aggressive move on their part, or does it? Shouldn’t performers have a right to their safety while performing on stage. On the other hand, is trusting a group of people that were known to have problems with minorities in the past a wise decision for a world class rock n roll band? Should they have been paid with beer to drink while doing their jobs? This is where the free-wheelin’ 60’s becomes accountable. None of this is stated in the film directly, but the observational form of the film allows a viewer to watch events and determine what they see for themselves.
The film does not rely on a lot of interviews with people that were there, not that a lot of them would be reliable; that is the problem with interviews after the fact, people’s memories can be unreliable. Hence, the brilliance of the Brothers Maysles’ Direct Cinema approach of capturing action while it happens.
One of the more haunting moments in the film is perhaps the famous image of Jagger walking away after viewing the footage of Hunter being stabbed. It suggests that Jagger was not ready to deal with this tragedy and is still unaware of the influence of his celebrity; but viewers are free to observe for themselves, because there is no interview where he states how he feels. This moment is all the more shocking when you view it in light of an interview Jagger gives earlier in the film, where he states the concert was an excuse for people to get together, do drugs and have sex.
So, what does Gimme Shelter teach us?
The New Yorker states, ‘From that point on, concerts were the tip of the iceberg, the superstructure, the mere public face and shining aftermath of elaborate planning. The lawyers and the insurers, the politicians and the police, security consultants and fire-safety experts—the masters and mistresses of management—would be running the show.’
Sometimes, it seems as though the powers that be use these incidents of tragedy to tighten our freedoms and reign in control of the masses. It happened with the airlines after 9/11, it’s happening in school’s as people continue to debate teacher’s having guns in classrooms for their own protection, and it’s going to happen again when the next tragedy strikes us. Who is responsible? Why did this happen? And what can we do to ensure it does not happen again?
But, all of those questions point to answers outside of ourselves, which is the central problem. We need to look inside of ourselves for answers. Why does humanity push itself past limits of reasonable safety in the name of a good time? The 60’s were a time of personal freedoms, yes, but, the 60’s were also a time when minorities were still the victims of heavy prejudice and discrimination in America. Perhaps a better question is, why do we remember the 1960’s as the “peace, love and understanding” decade, when clearly, racial discrimination was such a huge part of the decade, and remains so; that is the stamp that Altamont left at the end of the decade.
The Altamont concert is remembered for it’s long lasting effects. Rigorous security standards, protecting the stage and inspecting your bags for booze and drugs – actions that are commonplace today, all stem from the Altamont concert, where a group of rowdy drunk and stoned Stones’ fans were cut back by the Hells Angels.
Come see “Gimme Shelter” for yourself of June 6, 2019 at 7pm at The Green Bean Cafe
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