The Maysles Brothers’ Gimme Shelter, which accompanies the Rolling Stones as they work to put on a free concert in Altamont, California, becomes much more than a mere concert film as the concert implodes in on itself by the end of the film. Primarily a film in the observational mode of the direct cinema flavor, the film uses no fancy cinematic techniques to stylize the events that take place. The camera extracts and presents an increasingly harsh reality to the audience. By manipulating chronology and the footage presented, the Maysles Brothers present not just a story of a failed free concert, but a story signifying the fracturing and destruction of the counter-culture movement.
As Gimme Shelter reveals quickly, the observational mode avoids interviews in favor of behind the scenes footage. Rather than putting the Stones in front of the camera and answering questions, the camera persists with the members as they travel. Even during reflexive moments when they view footage, the camera retains its fly on the wall approach. This element conveys a sense of truly being with the Stones, chronicling their lives as if the viewer is truly with them. At the concert, the viewer becomes part of the faceless crowd, and part of the chaos that ensues.
When the camera observes, there is less cutting in favor of extracting reality by continuously filming. At the beginning of the film the camera concentrates on Jagger’s face for an almost excessive amount of time, conveying the nature of his power over audiences. When the band is together, listening to music or talking, the camera tends to linger on faces or body parts: we see Jagger’s inflated ego, but we also see the faces of other band members, and the doubt that lurks in their faces. This same method becomes oppressive at the concert. We watch as the crowd threatens to swallow the stage, as Hell’s Angels members fight men and women attempting to take the stage. Before the continuous footage emphasized Jagger’s power, but at the concert the seconds tick by as he struggles to reign in the crowd and we see how powerless he has become.
The synchronized sound and lighter 16mm cameras allow us to move around the concert, experiencing not only the Stones but the people that have come to see them. These cameras become embedded in the middle of a crisis structure, faithfully recording the truth as people are too distracted to notice cameras due to the chaos surrounding them. Ethically, a question arises of when and if the filmmakers should intervene, if the filmmaker should prevent the abuses by the bikers rather than film them. Additionally, these “unnoticed” cameras capture potentially embarrassing image, yet the filmmakers filmed without permission from the majority of the people. At what point do they cease to function as people and instead serve as aesthetic objects furthering the destructive argument of the film?
Mick Jagger’s persona is edited into a tragic character arc. Since there is no voice of God narration in observational mode, or even explanation that events are edited out of order, we watch Jagger speak foolishly to the audience. His ignorant hope is contrasted with the melt down at the concert, his musing comments become insensitive because they are edited out of context. This in itself falls into ethically questionable territory, but it serves the structure of the film by positing Jagger as a victim of the destruction of the counter-culture movement.
While not wholly observational-sometimes borrowing on reflexive to observe how the Stones are affected by their experience-Gimme Shelter is a film that asserts the Altamont concert in the last of a trio of films chronicling the counter culture movement. Woodstock, signaling the birth and growth of the counter-culture movement was when optimism for the movement was at its highest. Monterey Pop, another concert film, detailed the increasing violence and commercialism of the movement that allowed it to grow and encompass hundreds of thousands. Now Gimme Shelter placing the concert as the movement’s death knell. The movement’s mass consumerism devours itself and is consumed by violence, which is all told by the observational eye of the camera.