Gimme Shelter and Salesman
(American, 1970, 90 minutes, color, 35 mm)
James Blue once said of Albert Maysles that his "avowed purpose is to catch a kind of ‘objective-subjective’ truth, his cinema is one in which ethics and aesthetics are interdependent, where beauty starts with honesty, where a cut or a change in camera angle can become not only a possible aesthetic error, but also a ‘sin’ against Truth. In things cinematic, Al Maysles is a religious zealot."
Perhaps none of Maysles’ films is more obsessed with the ethics of the image than GIMME SHELTER. If WOODSTOCK forwards to us a picture of the late 1960s that is happily anarchic, a joyful acid dream of community, then GIMME SHELTER is about the devolution of that community, in a vision nightmarish and tragic, squalid and fearful. First released in 1970, GIMME SHELTER is a two-part film. The first segment concerns itself with documenting the Rolling Stones 1969 tour of the U.S., and the plans for a free concert to be held in San Francisco. It is the Stones’ shining moment as street-fightin’ men, the bastard sons of American Delta blues and British post-war austerity. The band’s sinister lyrics and hedonistic ways let their fans glimpse a dark and unsettling world behind Aquarius’ sunshine. Through concert footage and frenetic backstage sequences, all of it presented in the Maysles brothers’ trademarked Direct Cinema style, we are inexorably drawn toward Altamont Speedway, the run-down racetrack outside of San Francisco. The Stones’ dream of a sort of parody of Woodstock degenerates into a deadly brawl, with the Stones’ idea of an appropriate security force (the Hell Angels) exploding into totalitarian fury. The fear and loathing of Altamont is focused on one shattering instant, captured by the Maysles’ clinical camera eye.
It is in the second segment, that of the Stones at a movieola, watching the events they cannot seem to take ownership of, that truly justifies James Blue’s high opinion of Albert Maysles. Here, we get one of the most ethical moments in all of cinema, as the instigators of a mass movement gone haywire are forced to confront (if not understand) the outcome of their actions. But in the end, it is not the Stones who are being shown these images, and it is not the Stones who are being judged. It is we who are being arraigned here, we the audience for the spectacle that was Altamont, but also the audience for the strange spectacle that is modern media culture. The Maysles’s difficulty in getting the Stones to show affect presages our own listlessness in the years to come, as the spectacle of American public life, now almost always mediated through television, becomes ever more absurd, and even occasionally gladiatorial.
GIMME SHELTER uses the unobtrusive devices of Direct Cinema — the insistent, handheld camera, the crowded, ‘rough’ soundtrack, the refusal of a comforting voice-over narrator — to present a dramatic lesson in the responsibilities of the moving image. This is a film that looks inward, uncompromisingly, at the creature whose mind has been shaped by the media. The view hurts, but it is as cathartic as it is sobering. Albert Maysles’ colleagues agree. They have long seen him as their quiet conscience; in 1994 the International Documentary Association presented him with their Career Achievement Award , and since 1997, he has recieved the John Grierson Award for Documentary from the Society of Motion Picture and Television Engineers, and the President’s Award from the American Society of Cimematographers. For people in the film and television industry, Albert Maysles continues to remind them of their power. To artists as diverse as Christo, the Beatles, and Leonard Bernstein, Albert Maysles remains devoted to an aesthetic of involvement and an audience that is willing to become truly engaged in art, not as passive spectators, but as partners in a creative conversation.
In 1994, Albert Maysles returned to the Rolling Stones, in one of a number of award-winning films he has made on popular and classical music. In these films, he has made it clear that art can be the catalyst for social change, a space for personal epiphany, or a dodge, an opportunity for disconnection with the world of experience and mutual responsibilities. GIMME SHELTER wonders if Altamont itself might have been a kind of artwork, the muddy speedway infield a canvas for a painting by Goya or Dali, the outline of a musical composition by Messiaen or Penderecki, the text of a drama by Genet or Beckett, a novel by Pynchon or DeLillo. In the end, it is we, not the Stones, who must bear Altamont’s truth.
(American, 1968, 90 minutes, black & white, 35 mm)
This is the Mid-America Bible Company, where they peddle salvation door-to-door on a skinny commission. Salesman Paul Brennan slogs through snowy Boston, where they’re not buying Bibles in a big way. Paul and three colleagues find their way to Chicago, where the company’s motivational speaker, one Melbourne I. Feltman, bucks them up by reminding them that their real sales manager is the Almighty Himself. Still, the North seems a lost territory for the Bible game. Soon, they flee to the South for the easier pickings of Florida, where religion’s hold on the suckers guarantees a better return on their investment of hope and shoe leather.
The world of SALESMAN seems incredibly harsh at first, a place at the end of some peculiar Manichean road map. But the Maysles brothers’ fascination with the way subjects seem to want to lay themselves bare for their cameras provides us with a thoughtful path into that world. In 1969, the Maysles’ cameras and microphones, although newly-portable, were anything but "unobtrusive" in comparison with today’s miniaturized camcorders. SALESMAN’s subjects constantly express themselves in very private ways during public moments. During a poker game, SALESMAN’s camera finds a careworn face suddenly becoming transparent, revealing the uncertainty engraved on the psychology beneath it. Here, the Maysles brothers show us much more than the prosaic word "documentary" implies; instead, they show us what the casual eye could never see, an inner sense of something very much like ‘character,’ so real that it is sometimes fearful.
When SALESMAN was released in 1969, it was criticized for its apparently argumentative stance. It seemed to have gone beyond the non-interventionist tenets of Direct Cinema, into the realm of the editorial, even the muckraking. Certainly, the filmmakers’ choice of product for their salesmen was not a random one. But Albert Maysles protested against reading the film only as an essay on religious hypocrisy: "The essential thing about our work is not making believe, but finding out." One of the most important things we find out about Paul Brennan is how much he is like us, however reluctant we are to admit it. As Albert Maysles once said, ". . .the essence of tyranny is the denial of complexity." The small, scrupulous Auricon camera of SALESMAN restores the sense of complexity in every human being through the unlikely lens of Paul "The Badger" Brennan.
The world of SALESMAN is gone now, its long road ended. Now, they sell everything — carpets, aluminum siding, insurance, cemetery plots, baseball cards, maybe even brushes and Bibles — over the phone, and on television. My door no longer opens to the ready smiles and outstretched hands of men like Paul Brennan and his fellows, "The Gipper" and "The Bull," and only the Jehovah’s Witnesses seem to think of religion as a commodity that can be successfully sold at the curb. But the shadowy infrastructure of SALESMAN, in which Paul Brennan labored 30 years ago, still lives. It lives in the smirking "hosts" and faux living rooms of home shopping networks. It lives in the synthetic, unctuous TV preachers and their remarkable con, and it lives on talk shows, where disinterested greed is masked as heartfelt concern. In 1969, SALESMAN’s critique was a burlesque, and a warning. Today, it could be a cable station.
— Kevin Hagopian, Penn State University
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