Friday, December 04, 2009

Gimme Al Maysles


"Hey, you're dressed perfectly for the movie," said a young woman as I burst into the lobby of the Maysles Cinema in Harlem, ten minutes into the screening of Gimme Shelter, the iconic documentary of the Rolling Stones' 1969 US tour, directed by Albert and David Maysles and Charlotte Zwerin.

Having shivered my way through the day in my black mini-dress and over-the-knee socks, I had to admit that I was, indeed, channeling some of the spirit of the era. The compliment lifted a bit of my dismay at arriving late, rain-soaked and chilled.

"It literally just started," the woman added, soothingly, reading my thoughts. I smiled gratefully, stepping inside the screening room.

I had seen Gimme Shelter two and a half decades earlier, nevertheless, the image of a stunningly young Mick Jagger on the screen startled me. Slumped down in his seat as lawyer Melvin Belli negotiated over the phone with the management of the Altamont Speedway near San Francisco in advance of the band's performance, Jagger is boyish, barely out of adolescence, the same age as my oldest child, Big Babe.

Though it was conceived as love 'n peace Woodstock West -- with other performers on hand, such as Jefferson Airplane, The Grateful Dead, Crosby Stills, Nash and Young -- the Altamont concert turned into a complete disaster, with security provided by the local Hell's Angels, members of the audience repeatedly rushing the stage, kids climbing the scaffolding, stoned people dancing naked, women giving birth and violent confrontations.

The most infamous of these confrontations resulted in the stabbing death of a young black man named Meredith Hunter by a member of the Hell's Angels as the Stones performed "Under My Thumb." The filmmakers accidentally captured footage of the killing, revealing that Hunter had a gun. The fact of the killing -- often erroneously referred to a murder -- overshadows the film, providing an extreme if accurate depiction of the lawlessness that was the flipside to the social, sexual and cultural revolution of the times.

Gimme Shelter is a revolution of its own in terms of filmmaking, documenting in an utterly unscripted way, interacting with the unfolding drama, revealing by telling detail, asking the audience to engage in a personal way, capturing the zeitgeist unlike any other film of the time.

But it wasn't just the prospect of revisiting Gimme Shelter that drew me out of my house on a rainy Wednesday night; it was the post-screening talkback with Albert Maysles and cameraman Kevin Keating.

Having met Al the previous year at a party held at the Cathedral of St. John the Divine (and subsequently having been invited to a Christmas party in his Harlem brownstone) I was utterly charmed by him... as is everyone he meets. For the first ten minutes we spoke, I had no idea that I was talking to the most renowned documentary filmmaker of the day (though I knew he was someone extraordinary) and then Big Babe whispered to me that we were in the presence of Al Maysles. Entirely without pretense or self-importance, Mr. Maysles is remarkable on many levels. His warm candor -- coupled with his menschlichkeit -- is not a small part of his legend.

And then there are the glasses, spoken of by many, fetishized, elevated to celebrity status recently by Barneys New York, which started an Al Maysles Eyewear line.

I was greatly looking forward to the post-film talkback this past Wednesday evening, having not seen Al for an entire year. While I knew that I could expect memorable stories and valuable behind-the-scenes glimpses into the making of Gimme Shelter, what I did not anticipate is that I would leave the event feeling as if I had just sat at the feet of a master who imparted valuable life lessons.

Over the course of a generous hour and change, Al Maysles and Kevin Keating provided the longed-for glimpses into the making of the film (including ample insights in Grey Gardens, Salesman and other film projects), but what left me nearly breathless -- every cell in my body standing at attention -- are what I call Pirke Albert or the Ethics of Albert. In other words, his teaching. His Torah. Herewith, I have reproduced some of them:

Turn on your camera and let it capture life, unscripted, as it unfolds. Let it record spontaneous conversation, unseen moments...the parent weeping against the bedroom wall, the banter of six-year-olds, the spoken last will and testament.

To pay attention is to honor, not to exploit. To film is to immortalize.

Much of contemporary culture is entertainment, which is merely distraction.

Greet life with curiosity...and compassion.

Seek to understand people.

The human face is not the only canvas of expression. Sometimes hands tell the story better.

Form relationships...and nurture them.

Learn to recognize genius.

Identify what is authentic...and focus on it.

Challenge misinterpretation of your work. Take arms against the judgment of critics.

Remember important insights handed to you by others.

Heroes are often found where they are least expected.

Serendipity and coincidence have a connection to the Divine.

Be there.

Be unafraid.

Embrace life.