Kudos to the good folks at Reverse Shot for my favorite piece of reading this summer; The Reverse Shot Take One Survey. Sure, I blew through Marshall Fine’s Accidental Genius, which is a nice companion to Cassavetes’ films if a little too reverent (and dismissive of one of my favorite Cassavetes films, The Killing Of A Chinese Bookie), and I laughed through The Man Who Heard Voices (more on this in another post) before seeing The Lady In The Water (more on this too), but The Take One Survey has been the best read so far if only because I love how it distills a love of the movies into a single, recognizable moment. My own brain works the same way; Kristi Mitsuda’s chosen moment from Before Sunset was one of my own cinematic highlights (see #9) of 2004. There is a strange absence from this list, though; not a single documentary film is mentioned.
This being the blogosphere, a giant echo chamber of ideas and opinions, I thought I would add my own ‘Take One’ to the equation by highlighting the shot that is one of the most powerful and important shots in any documentary ever made; the murder of Meredith Hunter in Albert and David Maysles’ superlative documentary, Gimme Shelter.
Meredith Hunter (in the green suit), cut down by the knife of a Hell’s Angel Alan Passaro, at the Altamont Motor Speedway on December 6th, 1969.
It is not every day you see the end of a movement, a generational sea-change, captured in a documentary, but this shot signifies the end of the 1960’s ‘Peace and Love’ ethos as well as any image possibly could. By the time we arrive at this moment, captured by the Maysles’ team on three cameras during The Rolling Stones’ notorious performance at Altamont, it feels like the culmination of not just 90 minutes worth of terrifying dramatic tension, but years of violent national tragedy.
It is not a surprise. Bad things had been happening all day, including Jefferson Airplane singer Marty Bailin being knocked unconscious by a Hells Angel during the Airplane’s performance, and by the time the Stones arrive at Altamont, the dangerous precedent has become horrible reality and things are out of control. As the Stones hit the stage, chaos ensues. A terrifying moment just before Hunter’s murder that seems to signify the impending doom; the solitary face of a bearded man, gripped by drugs and rage, clenching his fists and pulling at his hair, eyes wild with violence. More faces of young people clearly coming apart at the seams, crying, shoving one another as the chaos grows, when out of nowhere, a brief glimpse of Hunter in his green suit and black hat, standing close to the stage just minutes before his death. Into the night, as the Stones’ concert disintegrates before our very eyes, the band tear into Under My Thumb, a skirmish breaks out just off of stage left, and Hunter is murdered.
“Can you roll back on that, David?” Jagger asks.
Immediately, the Maysles’ use this shot again in the film, and we’re with Jagger as he sees the moment for the second time on a telecine. Not only does this shot show Hunter’s murder, but it proves that Hunter had brandished a gun (either in self-defense or in an act of aggression toward the Angels or Stones) just before being stabbed. The film is played backward and forward, slowly revealing the gun against the outline of Hunter’s girlfriend’s white blouse and gray sweater. The Maysles pause for a few seconds, the gun exposed, and then Passaro’s knife flashes again, mortally wounding Hunter. Jagger keeps his thoughts to himself, but it is clear the footage is devastating to him.
Hunter’s murder is the dramatic climax of the film and a startling piece of history captured on camera. It remains a pivotal moment in the history of Direct Cinema; the moment in rock-and-roll when everything changed. Clearly, there are many shots in the movies that I love more than this horribly tragic moment, but looking at documentary film since the Maysles’ released Gimme Shelter, I would argue none have been more influential. This film is a veritable master class in non-fiction storytelling, and its true-crime examination of Hunter’s murder (the escalating violence, the murder, the slow motion replay, the reaction, the freeze frame on the gun) has been central in the presentation of everything from the re-enactments in Errol Morris’ The Thin Blue Line (which, like the footage of Hunter’s murder, was used in a real-life acquittal) to the sensationalized replay of surveillance camera footage on true-crime television programs. The Altamont captured in Gimme Shelter is a slow-burning trail to inevitable tragedy; the idealism of a generation unravelling before our eyes.