Take One: A Personal Take

by twhalliii
August 7, 2006 7:10 AM
7 Comments
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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.

hells-angels-knife.jpg
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.

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7 Comments

  • None of your busieness! | September 18, 2008 2:46 AMReply

    to Dennis: you're stupid, he stabbed hunter 5 times, yeah you really need to show bravery for that! it was murder! i mean yeah, he pulled out the gun first, but he didn't need to stab him 5 FREAKIN' TIMES! i mean, 1 might of been sufficient! he was probably drunk! and yeah hunter was on meth at the time i give you that, but passaro was drunk!

  • red | July 4, 2008 3:49 AMReply

    it's never mentioned by anyone that i have heard, but do you see a white male with his arms around the h.a. with the knife, and trying to restrain him? who is this man who is braver than either the man with the gun or the knife? has his story ever been told?

  • sten | June 16, 2008 12:55 PMReply

    henry jopp your a idiot, someone who brings a gun to a concert deserves everything they get death included

  • henry Jopp | May 6, 2008 8:14 AMReply

    He was murdered. The footage from gimme shelter only showed the gun. which he pulled after already being stabbed. 2 other films showing the entire incident were never shown. One was taken in a house ransacking and the other never shown for fear of death. The Hell's Angels kill witnesses. which is why there were none at the trial. Anyone ever wonder why the HA tried to kill Mick Jagger afterwards? He most likely saw the entire incident. Meredith Hunter was black and died because he was with a white woman. The Hell's Angels generally get away with murder. No witnesses, no conviction.

  • Dennis | April 11, 2008 7:42 AMReply

    Get it right it was not murder. Hunter pulled a gun. The angel showed extreme bravery in going against a guy with a gun when he only had a knife.

  • Tejan | December 19, 2007 11:41 AMReply

    Just read a book called "I was Keith Richards Drug-dealer" by Tony Sanchez - a friend/confidante of Keith Richards & the Stones during that period. He covers the Altamont concert well - try to read this chapter at least - conveys how hardcore that day really was, an how all the tension (caused by waitin for the Stones, waiting for food/drinks/services due to pathetic event planning) and all the drugs an the violence of the out of control Angels led to the apathy and mayhem that night.. He covers the Hunter incident too. From his records, Hunter had arrived with a beautiful white girlfriend. And the Angels' (who he quoted as "whose political views are slightly to the right of Hitler") didn't take too kindly to this. One massive Angel walked up to him and started provoking him. Hunter, wanting to impress his girlfriend, stood his ground and spoke back. The Angel accosted him and Hunter turned to run away. Then another Angel stabbed him in the back with a knife (but it didn't penetrate deep). Apparently Hunter realised it was now a life/death situation and this is when he pulled out the gun in self-defense. But another Angel parried it, and yet others stabbed him and kicked him to death. Sanchez even mentions that when others tried to help after the incident, and the rest of the Angels had stalked off, another Angel stopped them and growled to leave him alone, since he was going to die anyway, he might as well die.

    Have no idea if any of this is fact or waxing lyrical - but it's worth following up..

  • J | December 4, 2007 1:10 AMReply

    I find it interesting that you say Mr. Hunter was Murdered. He was killed in self defense, after he pull a gun pointed it at the stage and than shot a Hells Angel trying to stop him.
    There is plenty of video and pictures of Mr. Hunter with a large revolver just before he was killed.