Friday, August 18, 2006

Gimme Shelter, American Dream, Grey Gardens

Over the last two nights, I watched these three documentaries. Grey Gardens and Gimme Shelter are both directed by the Maysles brothers. Both, as you may already know, are quite excellent. Out of the two, Gimme Shelter is definitely my favorite. That film, about The Rolling Stones and their Altamont debacle of a concert, is a nightmare - an oft cited analogy of the end of the sixties, of the problems with that era's (perhaps naive) idealism.

This movie, though the first of the three watched, is the one that is still occupying my thoughts, that still has a grip on me. I have been contrasting it against another Stones doc from that time period, Godard's Sympathy for the Devil, which, though unbearable at points in its Godardness, probably was a more true document of the artistic process. The tedium of that movie comes from watching them record take after take of the titular song, and in this movie, Gimme Shelter, we do not see that; rather, we just see them listening to the finished product of "Wild Horses," pleased as butter, aware that they are geniuses and had just recorded something timeless. I can't remember who it was that talked about this scene before I had ever seen this film, perhaps it was Jamie, or perhaps it was one of you LJers, but whoever this person was, this was essentially what they said - that in that scene, you could just see it on the faces of The Rolling Stones, that they knew they had just recorded something amazing and that they should be proud. Of course, that is the prettier (and nicer to believe) story about art-making, that there are end results apparently easily produced that you can then be proud of. This contrasts so much with Godard's depiction of the process. Perhaps this is the Maysles' Americanness and Godard's Frenchness making their differences clear.

Regardless, I love this movie so much. I am determined to watch more Stones documentaries from this era - Cocksucker Blues and Rock and Roll Circus.

American Dream, Barbara Kopple's documentary about the Hormel strike in Minnesota in the mid-80s, is another tale of defeat, of American social forces crushing one's idealism. This movie is so good, Kopple having followed this story for the couple of years that if unfolded and having nice footage from so many points in the story, but for these reasons, it was also so sad - that this happened, that this is the story of labor in America now. They fought so nobly and so valiantly, and you want to believe that if you do that, then you will win, but that is not the case and who has the power becomes decisively clear. This movie also inspired me, sort of recharged whatever radical tendencies are in me, making me more frustrated about my current life and what I am doing with it, made me again ask the seemingly unanswerable question of what I could do in my own life to meaningfully effect change.

Grey Gardens was unreal, a hallucinatory dream of a crumbling house and a co-dependent aging mother and daughter living there, living in the past, and the fact that it is a documentary seems almost preposterous. That if it were a fiction, I would have brushed it aside as too contrived. I would say more, but my job, which I am becoming increasingly eager to change, calls.

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