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Ray Pride

By Ray Pride

Sympathy for the Documentarian: A 2000 Interview With Al Maysles


Thirty years after its coming as a bookend to both the optimism of the 1960s and the school of American cinema verite, David Maysles, Albert Maysles and Charlotte Zwerin’s 1970 Gimme Shelter has been restored and reissued, both on screen as a Criterion Collection DVD.

Gimme Shelter. Gee, whiz. What can be said about this movie? The Stones are on tour, and a free concert in the San Francisco area is shifted to the Altamont Speedway at the last hour; crowds crowd, Hells Angels cause as prevent as much ruckus, a man dies before the camera’s lens. The Stones, notably a taciturn Mick Jagger, observe the footage at some point in the future/present. We return to the past/present: figures scurry into the night, across smoky backlit hillsides as if escaping the primitive past. “Gimme Shelter” is an exemplar of documentary opening its eyes to life, succinctly and tellingly ordered, as the stuff of drama. But it does not tell you what you should think, pronouncing what the material you are regarding means. It’s all a matter of  letting the mix of music, Jagger charisma and terrible menace speak quietly, yet stereophonically, for itself. Godard called Maysles the best American cameraman, and there are moments in this brilliantly edited masterpiece that takes the breath away: an amoral eye, greedy only for a picture of life.

This is rock, this is dread, this is sex and longing, and Gimme Shelter is an exquisite microcosm of ambiguity in an observer’s art. I dare you to put half a dozen people in a room and get them to agree on any aspect of Gimme Shelter but its essential excellence.  Here are a few words from surviving Maysles brother, Albert. At 73, he has multiple projects in play, including a portraits of contemporary filmmakers for the Independent Film Channel. We talked to him over dinner, then a formal interview the day after the he revisited the picture at the Chicago International Film Festival.

“Did I tell you the story of my experience with Fidel?” the generous, avuncular raconteur begins. Yes, but tell us again.  “In 1960, I spent a lot of time with Fidel and with Che, also. I was making a film that ended up being called Yanqui No! One day, Fidel mentioned that he was going to the Chinese Embassy for a party, did I want to come along? I said, ‘Sure.’ So I’m with him at the Chinese Embassy, standing shoulder to shoulder, I don’t have my camera because I couldn’t just walk in with it on my shoulder, I would need someone to do sound. A messenger comes rushing in, hands a telegram. He opens it. As he’s opening it, reading it, knowing that I don’t speak or read Spanish, he turns to me, and says, ‘Shall I translate it for you.’ I say, ‘Please do.’ Just inches away from me, he tells me, ‘The State Department has just broken off relations with Cuba!'”

Maysles smiles. “I have some plans to go back to Cuba. This time, I’ll have my little video camera.” He holds up his palm to show the camera’s scale. “If I’m at the Chinese Embassy, the Romanian embassy, wherever it is, I’ll have that little camera ready when he reads the telegram which he’ll translate, saying, ‘The American State Department has restored relations with Cuba’! I missed the first one because of the movie camera. I’ll get the second one because of my video camera!”

As with the myriad details of the Altamont Speedway crowd in Gimme Shelter, Maysles loves discerning details afterward in the miles of footage video allows you to burn through. “There are things you noticed at the time, but later, things you didn’t think were that important then, are on tape, you can use it.”

Maysles also esteems video’s portability. “There’s no reason not to shoot with today’s equipment. For an hour of tape, it costs only about ten dollars, but on film, on 16mm, not even 35mm, it would be thousands of dollars. Thousands of dollars for an hour, ten dollars for a tape. A little cassette. For a day’s shooting, you can carry the tapes in your pocket.”

Maysles says that video’s affordability as a recording medium leaves the documentary maker no excuse not to shoot, and to shoot promiscuously, with today’s equipment. “The tape for an hour run only ten dollars. A little cassette. For a day’s shooting, you can carry the tapes in your pocket.”

So you can find the authentic moment accidentally? Let God offer you the world? “Y’know, actually, in the case of the documentary filmmaker, God is reality,” he says. “Or as the word that was used most often a couple hundred years ago, Providence. Reality is the great provider of subjects, of events, of drama, of insight. If it’s a brief moment that’s very telling, you’ve got it on tape. I joke with my kids, when we have a dinner party, I make a toast to Providence and they roll their eyes. ‘Oh, Providence again!'” A pause. A big smile.

This interview was conducted in 2000 with the invaluable participation of documentarian Amy Cargill. 

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