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Sympathy for the Documentarian: A 2000 Interview With Al Maysles

YOU CAN’T ALWAYS SEE WHAT YOU GOT. 

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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The Oscars, Without Dialogue (3:37)

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Bruce Sinofsky Was 58 (three images from Thessaloniki 2008)

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© 2015 Ray Pride, All Rights Reserved.

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Graeme Clifford On Editing Don’t Look Now (3’18”)

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David Carr at Sundance the week of Obama’s inauguration

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That day, I tried to tell David Carr what he meant to me. He rolled his eyes and smiled so slightly. Wagged his forefinger, turned away and sloped up Main Street.

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Photos © Ray Pride 2015, All Rights Reserved.

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Sundance Seen Part 1

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Three girl ghosts at dusk.

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Infernal. Everyday sight if you get around town, or if you just like sitting in traffic. (Or don’t take a taxi, or don’t like to say, “We’ll Uber it” or “That your Uber,” two of the more common phrases this year.

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Never an empty rack: is no one picking up the Reporter?

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Up the hill on Main Street, wildposting is done in the proper place for Slamdance in front of the Treasure Mountain Inn. (Chicago filmmaker Michael Olenick, left.)

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A promotion at the International Documentary Association’s fete for the fine, compassionate screengrab-of-our-moment doc by Jill Bauer and Ronna Gradus.

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Don’t ask what happened here. It can’t be unseen.

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The Pulitzer Prize-winning Jonathan Gold, food critic of the Los Angeles Times and subject of Land Of Gold, has a moment with Film Quarterly editor Ruby B. Rich in the Mariott headquarters hallway.

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Breezing past the nineteenth century children’s cemetery.

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And in between movies, slices of the Utah sky.

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Pop-ups everywhere in Park City for the ten days of Sundance. Not all of them connected to Evel Knievel.

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On Main Street, Kevin Smith is smodded by fans outside a popup Tim Horton’s somehow in support of his later-in-the year Yoga Hosers. “I never saw myself making a kid’s movie,” he told me, “but I think it came out kinda good.”

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Trailering Assayas’ CLOUDS OF SILS MARIA (2’23”)

In theaters April 10.

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Scorsese Directs De Niro And DiCaprio In Two Casino Commercials (2 x 1’00”)

… with more on the way.

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Aloha is the movie equivalent of a man in a donkey suit with a tree branch growing out of his forehead. I don’t know what the fuck this movie is. It feels like Cameron Crowe tried to make some Pynchonesque contemporary riff on Casablanca, then either or he or the studio chickened out halfway through and tried to turn it back into Jerry Maguire. But don’t confuse Aloha with hackwork. It’s more like a mad scientist had 10 beakers bubbling, and instead of unlocking cold fusion, he blew up his lab and melted an ear. I swear, this movie is like some bastard offspring of Casablanca, Inherent Vice, ‘Goosebumps,’ and ‘Baywatch Hawaii.’ My takeaway? Making movies is hard, yo.”
~ Vince Mancini

“We don’t defy the laws of physics: There are no flying men or cars in this movie. So it made sense to do it old-school: real vehicles and real human beings in the desert. We shot the movie more or less in continuity, because the cars and the characters get really banged up along the way. The biggest benefit of digital technology for me was that the cameras were smaller and much more agile, so you could put them anywhere. We also spent a huge amount of time on spatial awareness—making sure the viewer could follow the action and understand what was happening. There has to be a strong causal connection from one shot to the next, just the same way that in music, there has to be a connection from one note to the next. Otherwise it’s just noise. Too often, if you just cram a lot of stuff into the frame, you get the illusion of a fast pace. But there’s no coherence. It doesn’t flow. It comes off as headbanging music, and it can be exhausting. We storyboarded the movie before we had a script: We had 3,500 boards, which helps the cast and crew understand how everything is going to fit together. Movies are getting faster and faster. The Road Warrior had 1,200 cuts. This one has 2,700 cuts. You have to treat it like a symphony.”
~ George Miller

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