I spent the weekend in New York City. After taking a 6 a.m. flight from New Orleans, I landed at LaGuardia and went straight to Queens, where my NYU students were shooting the last segment of their collaborative film based on the poet Stephen Dobyns' 1984 collection, Black Dog, Red Dog. The segment was based on a poem called "The Gun," about two unsupervised boys who read comic books and smoke cigarettes, until one holds the other at gunpoint and tells him to take his pants off. The room next to the set was occupied by one of the household's daughters, and it was filled with neatly hung posters of a boy band I'd never heard of, called something like Really Big Rush. While the students were setting up a new shot, I took a book from the daughter's shelf. There were two to choose from, and you'd think I would have pulled the book that said The Clash -- incongruous in a room otherwise filled with teen pop -- but instead I opted for "Burning Up: On Tour With the Jonas Bothers". It was a bunch of photos of the curly-headed boys on tour. They certainly have fans, albeit teen ones.
Their legions of teen fans make me wonder about the Beatles' fans. We remember the Beatles for their immortal classics beloved by audiences of all ages, but think about the screaming teenagers in the Ed Sullivan crowd -- aren't those kids the same age as the rabid Bieber fans nowadays? Aren't teens and kids the driving force behind most chart-topping albums and blockbuster films? But what happens is, the teen fandom is transformed into sales, and all the world appreciates is the money. When something sells, it is automatically considered good, regardless of who does the buying. This kind of critical judgment based on commercial success happens in film, music, and in the art world. Who knows if Marvel's The Avengers, The Hunger Games, or the Harry Potter series are good films? They have become more than just films. They are cultural phenomena, due to their record-breaking sales; they are cultural beacons. The same can be said for the work of Justin Bieber, Lady Gaga and Damien Hirst, as well as anything to do with Twilight. I'm not saying that these are bad products -- just that it's impossible to judge their merits without looking through the lenses of their incredible financial success.
In N.Y.C., I participated in the filming of the Sundance Channel show "Iconoclasts" with Marina Abromavic. We shot at her place, she turned me into a gold statue (Strange? Fitting? Ridiculous? Beautiful?) and then we went to the Met Ball together. We both wore tuxes. The following day, I flew back to New Orleans with my close friend Nana, who happens to do my hair for film, and landed around 10 p.m. Nana had noticed a few Maysles brothers DVDs from the Criterion Collection in my bag (Grey Gardens, Salesman and Gimme Shelter), which had been returned to me by one of my NYU students. In New Orleans, Nana and I have two units in a little complex in the French Quarter; she said she wanted to watch the Stones documentary, "Gimme Shelter", and even though I'd seen it five times, I lay on her couch and told her to pop it in. Nana thought it would be a concert film -- "Oh, is this the one by Scorsese?" -- but I told her it was not what she expected. It was not what the Maysles had expected either. What had started as a concert film about the Rolling Stones, a follow-up of sorts to the Maysles' The Beatles: The First U.S. Visit, turned into a Zapruder-like document that sounded the death knell for the flower power of the 1960s. Much of the energy of this film comes from the lack of commentary. All the pieces are put in place to tell the story, but the information isn't hand-fed to you. The audience must engage to appreciate the building tensions at the Altamont Speedway Free Concert, in 1969, where a man was eventually stabbed to death within eyesight of the stage.
Considering the lateness of the hour, my long days, my proneness to falling asleep absolutely anywhere -- Nana and I fell asleep on each other at a midnight screening of The Avengers opening night; don't worry, we'll return this week to soak up the pop-culture explosion -- I was surprised that I stayed awake through the film. But what a document it is, what a piece of art. The characters are ten times as strange as fictional characters; the tensions are ten times as intense as any reality show, because none of it is coerced into being by the filmmakers. The Maysles were the largest proponents of the Direct Cinema movement, which used an observational approach and eschewed "voice of god"-style narration. The film has multiple levels. The Maysles didn't just film the horrific events at the concert; they also had the Stones watch the resulting footage, and filmed their reactions to it. Mick Jagger is stone-faced -- as you might expect anyone to be while being filmed watching a murder. Without commentary, the confrontations between the Hell's Angels and the crowd escalate, as the bikers go from hitting hippies with broken pool cues to punching out members of Jefferson Airplane, to brandishing guns and knives, to murder. This is not sensationalism -- the Maysles were not looking for any of this material -- but it does have a heinous act at its center.
For my money, this material is 20 times as moving as 1,000 computer-generated deaths. Here is a view of celebrity, fans, mass culture and the violence underneath it all. As I watched, I wondered who was in the right, who was the coolest, who was the toughest. The Hell's Angels are depicted in all their terrible leather-clad glory, the Stones are young and at their peak, the fans are free and beautiful, but it's the Maysles, the eyes and ears taking it all in, who are the rulers of them all.