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Out of Control: Albert Maysles on Gimme Shelter and the Art of the Documentary

by Jesse Shanks

In 1969, filmmaker Haskell Wexler invited the Maysles brothers, David and Albert, to film the Rolling Stones in concert. At a cost of only $650,000, Gimme Shelter documents their free concert at a racetrack in Altamont, California, which drew over 300,000 fans. At first a sort of "Woodstock West," the atmosphere quickly grew ominous as difficulties in staging the huge event—combined with the notorious efforts of the Hellıs Angels, hired for crowd control—caused general pandemonium. The concert, and therefore the film, culminated in the killing of a man who pulled his gun during the performance of the song, Under My Thumb.

Maysles Films has produced an astonishing range of documentary work. Their highly regarded Grey Gardens tells the story of Mrs. Edith Bouvier Beale and her daughter Edie (the aunt and first cousin of Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis). Salesman, an award-winning documentary, follows four door-to-door Bible salesmen as they walk the line between hype and despair. One of several films featuring the art of Christo, Islands shows the surrounding of eleven scrub-pine islands off Biscayne Bay, Florida with 6.5 million square feet of bright pink fabric. And an extraordinary concert by Vladmir Horowitz was documented in Horowitz Plays Mozart, including behind-the-scenes views of Horowitz preparing for recording, reviewing the tapes, and giving an impromptu press conference.

Already available on DVD is The Beatles: First U.S. Visit in 1964, depicting the revolutionary arrival of the Fab Four in the US, including their debuts on the Ed Sullivan Show and their first concert tour.

Gimme Shelter is a truly haunting documentary that has come to symbolize the end of an era. On the eve of its 30th anniversary release to theaters and its restored transfer to DVD, Albert Maysles speaks about the film, and documentary filmmakingıs place in the New Media.

dOc: Many have referred to your earlier film, The Beatles: First U.S. Visit in 1964 and Gimme Shelter in 1970 as "bookends" of the Sixties.

Albert Maysles: The Beatles represented an age of innocence. We hadnıt, in 1964, gotten fully into the Viet Nam war yet, I believe. The Beatles were fun. There were wonderful poetic moments in their lyrics. The events that took place at Altamont, with the Hellıs Angels there—if it had happened with the Beatles instead of the Stones—it just would have seemed out of place. The Stones—just by accident, because they did not cause the events, perhaps fortuitous because of the drama of the film—with their lyrics, Sympathy for the Devil and Under My Thumb, were a near perfect match for what was taking place.

dOc: With the release of the DVD, do you have higher hopes for wider distribution of your films and a larger audience?

AM: Itıs much more accessible because you can see it anytime once you have purchased it; much more accessible than the random showings in movie theaters. Right now, Gimme Shelter is showing around the country; in several months from now it will be gone again. But, starting in November, theyıll be able to see it on the DVD. The quality of the reproduction is excellent, much better than what you get with VHS. Great sound, beautiful picture. So from this time on, they can see it anytime they want. And, itıs one of those rare films in which you are enticed once you have seen it the first time, to see it again and again and again.

dOc: I agree.

AM: There are scenes that you see as new, each time. I donıt know how, maybe you can explain it better than me. Critics have noted this film is so re-viewable, but I have not really caught on to an explanation of why this is so.

dOc: My own impression of Gimme Shelter is that I feel that I am in such a comfortable environment on one hand, the rock concert or the concert film, and on the other hand there is just a pervading sense of impending disaster. It has a drama that only a document capturing real life can achieve.

AM: By todayıs standards itıs an abnormal—but much better—form of entertainment. Because itıs not a diversion, an escape from reality or from lifeŠitıs an engagement WITH life, which is, believe it or not, a form of entertainment. Not all entertainment has to be a diversion. If you look it up in the dictionary you can see there are two definitions, diversion and engagement. And this one is an engagement and the engagement is so strong that it remains in your mind forever.

dOc: Is the answer to an interesting trivia question that George Lucas was a cameraman on Gimme Shelter?

AM: We were in quite a state of hysteria at the last moment, trying to find camera people who knew how to shoot documentaries. We had only 24 hours notice about the concert and I couldnıt handle all the shooting myself with 300,000 people there. There were several camera people that we knew were very good at it. One of the people working with us got the idea maybe George Lucas could come, and he agreed to it. He came with a tripod and telephoto lenses and a lot of that kind of stuff, but that was not our way of shooting. Perfectly okay, but we liked to film in a much more intimate fashion. So I am not sure how much of his material was actually used. In addition—probably because of that last-minute nature of things—he was provided with equipment that turned out to fail! We had a number of rolls of films that had no images on them except maybe a little spot here and there; defects in the processing perhaps. We had a joke amongst ourselves that maybe thatıs where George got the idea for Star Wars. But it was no criticism of him, of course, it was not his equipment and it could have happened to anybody.

dOc: Is this your first experience with transferring one of your films to DVD?

AM: It is the first DVD that weıll be [participating in]. Weıre going to go on and make two more: Salesman and Grey Gardens. From now on, one must always think there will be a DVD version of whatever you do. Whether your main market is cinema or television or both, thereıs the third thing that you have to keep in mindŠthe DVD.

dOc: What special features will be added to the upcoming release of Gimme Shelter on DVD?

AM: Well, one of the thing weıve done is a commentary with Charlotte Zwerin (who edited the film), Stanley Goldstein (who recorded the sound and knew a lot about the rockınıroll scene) and myself as we individually watched the film. So we have that. Then we also have a number of songs that we filmed that did not make it into the film itself. Those are some of the elements that we added to the DVD.

dOc: Your filmography shows a dichotomy between documenting real life and the documentation of grand artistic visions—what is it that draws you to those two particular elements as the two sides of your filmmaking?

AM: Whereas one could make a film of any artist, what interested us especially in the Christo projects is that Christo, as an artist, has something in common with us as documentary filmmakers. That is, his art is not only in the form of a drawing, hanging in a museum, but the projects themselves are interwoven with social, political and economic events, and psychological events that he has no control over—and yet, they are very much a part of his artistic project. That kind of similarity to the process of making a documentary where things are uncontrolled; where the film like the work of art, in this case, will become what it will be from social interaction. That similarity of the process drew us to make a number of films of his projects.

dOc: What is your take on the current fad of "Reality TV?"

AM: It has almost nothing to do with documentary, as it has almost nothing to do with reality! It is a fake medium. The essential quality of a documentary, as I see it, is again, the uncontrolled nature of itŠa direct confrontation with reality through the eye of the cameraman, of course, and the selection process of the editor. In a really good documentary everything is spontaneous and uncontrolled. Sticking to the factual nature of what took place. In this new stuff, this so-called "reality" stuff, reality is made up.

dOc: And the current trend of using documentary-style techniques to recreate scenes, as in fictional dramas, to add a level of realism?

AM: There is this kind of belief in our culture that reality is not quite enough. The imagination of the photographer is what really makes it art—in fact all the way back to the first photographs that were taken in the last century. People didnıt really know how to understand the photographic process. They thought the print they got was a perfect reflection of reality that the photographer played no part in capturing. Later, it became art in the minds of critics and viewers. They realized that if a "snapshot" taker and a true photographer both had cameras and stood at the same distance, in basically the same position in respect to their subject, the former would just get a snapshot, while the latter would capture an artistic photo. So thereıs a process going on in the mind of a photographer making a photograph. The same thing with a documentary—the documentary filmmaker notices details that other people donıt pay attention to.

dOc: What is your standard for managing the interaction between the filmmaker and his subject?

AM: I think there are various things that come into play. Whether you like it or not, there is some consciousness on the part of the subject that he or she is being filmed. Some people go so far as to say, "Well, the cameraıs there and that is going to effect what is taking place—everything is going to be different than what it would have been." That is not necessarily the case. It depends on how the camera is used and the kind of look—what I would call "the gaze"—that the camera person gives or doesnıt give to the person being filmedŠwhether they establish a relationship of trust or not. If you gain their trust, if you use your eyes correctly, then you get that kind of acceptance where people continue to just be themselves. They donıt get nervous when the cameraıs there, nor pay so much attention to the filming process that it throws them off their normal way of thinking or behaving. At the same time, the cameraperson would not be better off, actually—they would be worse off just standing in a corner or behind a wall, trying to hide him or herself. That puts you in a worse position. You need to get close; you need to have the person accept you, in order to get the best stuff.

dOc: There are those who say that artistic expression requires conscious manipulation of the reality we see on the screen.

AM: Itıs not that easy to describe the role of the filmmaker as an artist in documentary. I keep coming back to the notion that everything has to be factually correct. And the notion that when the film is finished and youıre looking at it—whether you made the film or youıre in the audience—it should be that anyone viewing it can say, "Yeah, thatıs how it must have been." And in fact, the film ends up being very much like what the experience really was. So, if itıs that close to reality then there is something, in between, that allows for the artistic expression of the filmmaker. And whatıs in between is his ability to get that much closer to the vital, soulful, important parts of the "real".

dOc: What do you hope future generations will take from your portraits of our times?

AM: In Hollywood there is—I suppose there is—a kind of low-grade aesthetic; I would say where the aesthetic is based on price. A hundred million dollar film earns respect just because it is so expensive. Shooting one scene can cost $50,000. In Hollywood, everybody is eager to do that. In documentary, truth is what is beautiful and beauty is truth. Whether itıs Horowitz or Grey Gardens, you are really right smack up with the person. In the case of Horowitz performing; in the case of the Beales delivering on their true character. Thatıs beautiful.

dOc: What are your impressions of the explosion of possibilities available on the Internet?

AM: In the past, the book has been the way to transmit artistic and written information. You write a book, you go to a publisher and if itıs good you can get it published. You make a movie and itıs good—whoıs going to show it? The better the movie, the less likely you are going to get it shown on television. To this day, TV, especially commercial television, wonıt accept the work of an independent filmmaker. This is something that hasnıt really been pointed out thoroughly to the public. But as every independent knows that thereıs nothing we can do to get our work shown on CBS, CNN or whatever, without their editorial control. Even if they are truly interested in showing your work, they are going to put their own stamp on it before they do. The Internet will circumvent all of that stuff. Can you imagine if Truman Capote wrote a book and the publisher says, "Well, we canıt use it because youıre not on our staff. Youıll have to work on salary for us and maybe we can publish something that you have written under OUR direction."

dOc: What do you think this will mean for filmmakers?

AM: Itıs going to make for a smaller world but a bigger experience for everyone. Anyone who has a word to say in the art of the audio-visual medium will have a worldwide audience to deliver it to. And thatıs mind-boggling. Itıs such a big concept that we canıt, at this time—till it happens—describe what its affect will be. But itıll be for the good. Of course, like book publishing, there will be trash but there will be the opportunity for good stuff to be seen.