Tuesday, January 29, 2019

CRYING BIG GAY TEARS

     I usually hate receiving emails from students on weekends. But I loved this one: “Just finished watching Boys on the Side,” it said.  “I didn’t know you edited that!  I’m crying big gay tears.”

     Big gay tears for a big gay film, released twenty-four years ago, starring Whoopi Goldberg, Mary Louise Parker and Drew Barrymore, directed by Herbert Ross! The picture merely broke even commercially yet critics liked it and, with the same small handful of reservations I had in 1995, so do I.  All three leads are extremely affecting; Boys on the Side is a powerful tearjerker. 

     But the email reminded me more of making the movie than it did of the finished product.  AIDS was a fresh wound in the arts world and the entire cast and crew had personal connections to the film’s main theme.  I may not have realized then that it was unusual to work on a studio-financed Hollywood film from a place of deep emotional engagement.  I feel lucky, now, to have done so.

     I also feel a little old, because thinking about the picture brings to mind how difficult it was to “come out of the closet” a quarter of a century ago.  The zeitgeist was very different during the mid-1990’s.  In many straight circles, even progressive ones, homosexuality simply wasn’t viewed as commonplace. Herbert never officially came out.  And initially Robin, Mary Louise’s character (who we’re meant to like), reacts to the very idea of lesbian relationships with the word, “Ewww!”

     Yet the director and I shared many moments of levity about sexual identity.  As he reeled off names of Broadway musicals on which he’d been “choreography doctor,” I responded (without resort to my phone, which, at that time, was rotary) by naming the theatres in which they’d run. Funny Girl?  The Winter Garden.  Golden Boy?  The Majestic.  Fiddler?  The Imperial.  So he chided me, saying that I knew more about musical theatre than any straight man had a right to.  And damn if he didn’t teach me how to dance triplets during breaks in the editing!

      In fact, a lot of what I recall about making Boys on the Side is related to song and dance.  Constructing the film’s soundtrack is as memorable as any aspect of the work.  Herbert, with Warner Bros music executive Mitchell Leib, had a great idea about songs to which characters in the movie listen: they would all be performed by women.  Our music editor, Tom Kramer, selected “Dreams” by The Cranberries for a driving sequence.  Numbers by The Pretenders, Sarah McLaughlin and Stevie Nicks came from Mitchell, who impressed the hell out of me with the fact that his mother had been Phil Spector’s piano teacher.

     A set by The Voluptuous Horror of Karen Black (google them at your own risk) was deleted from the movie, Indigo Girls appeared both as characters and performers in it, and I  selected a few songs by male groups that would be re-interpreted in the finished film by women, among them Bonnie Raitt and Cheryl Crowe.  Which is how I got to meet the extraordinary record producer and musician Don Was, who arranged and supervised Ms. Raitt’s delightful cover of The Traveling Willburys’ “You Got It” for the picture.

      Indeed I have many vivid memories of Boys on the Side behind the scenes.  Lunches with production designer Ken Adam, who let me pick his brain about creating the war room for Dr. Strangelove.  Whoopi regaling me with stories of her stint as a ticket-taker at The Fillmore East.  Drew Barrymore sending me flowers after a rough ADR session when she was trying to quit smoking two packs of Marlboro reds a day by going cold turkey.

     But the event that stands out as most unusual -- perhaps in my entire career -- is screening Boys on the Side’s first assembly for Herbert Ross. 

     When we wrapped principal photography I told the director I’d need two weeks to finish putting together everything he’d shot, smooth out scene-to-scene transitions and do a rough temporary sound mix so he could watch the cut with music.  He returned to New York, I stayed in Los Angeles. 

     There, as I watched the last day’s footage, my heart sank.  All of it was murky and dim.  But thankfully, when I called DuArt Film Lab in New York and cinematographer Don Thorin, they assured me that the negative was fine -- that only the print was frighteningly dark.  The lab would correct the dailies, screen them for Herbert and ship them to me.

     Relieved, I phoned the director to tell him about the misprint and the change in his schedule.  Grumbling, he agreed there was no point in viewing bad material, and we arranged a screening for the next day.

     So I was surprised not to hear from him twenty-four hours later, and even more so when I called DuArt and learned he hadn’t been there.  But I was glad, too.  “He must have cheered up,” I thought, "and headed off for a well-deserved and much-needed vacation."

     I proceeded to edit.  Small adjustments were made as I put scenes that had been shot out of sequence in order.  I dressed my work up for presentation with temporary sound effects and music, and began to get a sense of how things would play when Herbert and I watched the cut on the big screen. 

     My trip to New York was approaching fast.  The film’s travel coordinator booked flights and reserved a hotel room.  My assistant editors lined up our temp mix and prepared the work print for shipping and screening.  Then the phone rang.  “It’s Lee Radziwill for you,” I was told.

      Now that was weird.  Of course, I’d met Lee, Herbert’s wife (and Jackie Onassis’s sister), before.  But she wasn't involved in film production at all, so it didn’t make sense that I would hear about the screening from her.  Mr. Ross, she said, wanted me to bring a VHS copy of the film instead of the 35mm. work print.  I was confused; viewing a clean print off the original negative in a state-of-the-art screening room was infinitely preferable to looking at VHS tape on a monitor.  Why hadn’t Herbert called?

      A few hours later, the mystery was solved.  Beth, the director’s personal assistant, phoned and quipped, “I’ll bet you want to know where the screening will take place.”  I said I did.  “OK,” she responded.  “On Friday at 2pm, you’ll bring the videocassette to Lenox Hill Hospital’s Coronary Care Unit.”

     That’s right.  Shortly after I told him about the misprinted dailies, Herbert Ross had a heart attack.  Years of smoking and drinking, and a hair-trigger temper had taken their toll.  But it was all hush-hush.  If word got out that the director was “incapacitated,” Warner Bros. could legally take the picture away from him.  And with a film as personal as Boys on the Side, the results might have been disastrous.  Which is why outside of a small group of people close to Herbert, no one’s known about the infarction until now.

     I recalled it when I got my student’s email. And looking back after all these years, as I said, screening my first cut of Boys on the Side in a coronary care unit might be the strangest experience I’ve had in post-production.  Herbert in bed, pale, wearing a hospital gown, hooked up to an IV, tubes in his nose, monitors beeping away.  What if he doesn’t like the cut?

     That really did cross my mind.  I mean, watching the first assembly of any movie is unpleasant.  That’s just a given.  In scene after scene, text, performances, set design, costumes and lighting all convey the same thing, transforming moments that were powerful in the script or dailies into exercises in redundancy. It’s invariable and unavoidable, as sound maestro Randy Thom points out in “Designing Film for Sound;” screenwriters, actors and filmmakers all give 100% and you don’t want less.  But the upshot is that you have to carve away at what’s been made expendable by the hard work of one artist or another.  This sculpting is essential to editing.  Unbearable first assemblies are so common, in fact, that Billy Wilder famously advised, “Never fall in love with your rushes and never slash your wrists when you see the first cut.”

     So, yes, I was nervous.  Hair-trigger temper.  Heart attack.  First cut.  VHS. 

     But Herbert was a seasoned director, to say the least.  Having helmed nearly thirty pictures -- including Funny Lady; Play it Again, Sam; The Sunshine Boys; The Turning Point; Pennies from Heaven; The Goodbye Girl; Footloose and Steel Magnolias -- and having worked with by such master cutters as Paul Hirsch and the late Richie Marks, he knew what to expect and what not to expect from a first assembly.

      So we watched my initial pass at Boys on the Side with reasonable expectations.  As it unfolded, its hospital scenes and its story about love and mortality made us feel as though we were “method viewing.”  And when the film ended, with Whoopi singing a heart-rending version of “You Got It,” I looked over and the director was crying.  So was I.  Good tears.  Cathartic tears.

     Herbert Ross recovered and we went to work in an editing suite in Los Angeles, crafting a film that remains moving and meaningful.  We mixed our sound in the Bay Area and, while he indulged in the occasional after-work martini, Herbert stayed away from steak dinners and cigarettes.  When we finished, the director took some time off, then began to develop Out to Sea, a vehicle for Jack Lemmon and Walter Matthau. 

     I was hoping to edit that for him right away.  But Herbert was meticulous about working with writers to get the screenplay ready to shoot, and many months passed.  We’d meet occasionally and once, over lunch, he told me he’d run into an anxious Mr. Matthau.  The actor, his deadpan expression tuned perfectly, growled at the director: “Herbie, hurry up with the script already!  I’m getting too old to play old.”

     Sadly, Herbert David Ross passed away before he could make Out to Sea, almost eighteen years ago.  He’d have turned 92 this coming May.  I miss him.  But I think he’d have been happy to know that Boys on the Side is enjoying a second life on Netflix.  And that it will be shown one of these weeks soon at University of North Carolina School of the Arts as part of an ongoing program called “Out at the Movies.”   

         

             

         



    


Friday, July 20, 2018

STRIKE!

     As I write, an impending strike threatens to shut down the film and television industries completely. The contract between the International Alliance of Theatrical and Stage Employees (IATSE), my union for the past several decades, and the Alliance Motion Picture and Television Producers (AMPTP) expires on July 31st.  And the two sides aren’t even close to an agreement.

     In addition to editors like myself, IATSE  (known to members as the IA) represents cinematographers, production designers and art directors, costume designers, hair and makeup artists, lighting experts and sound technicians.  AMPTP speaks for the owners and managers of television networks and motion picture studios, along with the heads of streaming entities and executives running smaller production companies.  Those of us who make movies and TV shows, represented by our union, in other words, are at odds with those who finance and/or manage our work.

      The most contentious issues – filmmakers’ demand that the workday not be so long that our health and safety are endangered and our demand that we get the same residuals from streaming services as actors, writers and directors in order to keep our pension and health insurance fund solvent – seem straightforward enough.  But in these times, when union membership is low, when monopolistic corporations behave as though they hold all the cards and when new media have disrupted normal avenues of distribution and broadcasting, nothing is simple.

      In the IA’s 124 years of existence its goals and achievements have, on the contrary, been relatively uncomplicated:  wages commensurate with the rarity of members’ skills, employer contributions to a pension fund substantial enough for members to retire comfortably, affordable high quality health coverage also paid for by employers, overtime pay for overtime work, and provisions for reasonable meal breaks and time off from workday to workday.  Negotiations between the union and studios have sometimes been contentious, of course; there have occasionally been strikes. 

     But in the past half-century labor-management battles never posed an existential threat to the union.  The entities that financed movie production recognized that a unionized workforce was good for them.  Filmmakers’ reasonable compensation package made competition for jobs intense, so producers have always gotten the highest quality work from union crews. 

     My son, Adam Miller, posited early in his editing career that the only way to make a good low budget film is with a big budget crew, because well-paid filmmakers can’t be inefficient.  Wasting time is too costly.  So wise financiers happily pay more - and save money in the long run - by hiring expert and efficient union crews that deliver high quality work, on schedule.

     I was unaware of the union when I fell in love with cinema and still romanticized the starving artist as much as any college student.  But after graduation, starvation was a tough sell.  My very middle class parents had just forked over much more tuition than they could afford.   Becoming aware of union wages (and above scale rates), however, enabled me to tell mom and dad that just like lawyers and doctors, filmmakers are often paid well.  I could work my way up in a field about which I’d become passionate, and the compensation would be good.  It was the union, of course, that made such a claim possible.

      When I joined the New York Editors Guild (IA Local 771) at the start of my career, hourly rates, insurance benefits, guaranteed time away from the workplace at the end of each day, and employer contributions to our pension fund were at an all time high.  But from the early ‘80’s to the present, organized labor has been under attack, so it’s gotten harder and harder for IATSE to negotiate agreements as good as those of the pre-Reagan years. 

     I’m not saying the union was perfect back then.  East and west coast locals hadn’t yet merged and were often at odds.  It was hard to become a member if you didn’t have family already in the IA.  Those of us who struggled to get on union shows even suspected a degree of corruption in addition to the obvious nepotism.  Finally, contracts between the studios and the various film crafts expired at different times, so a picture could be edited even if the cinematographers struck or designed and shot even if the editors were out; we were not a united front.
     But today all of the film crafts’ agreements with the AMPTP terminate on the same date, July 31st.  And this gives the IA true power to negotiate a good deal for us, because if there’s a strike we all go out and the networks are left without programming to start the television season, and movie studios won’t have finished films for “awards season.”

     Knowing we have this strength, it seems like a no-brainer to strike if the AMPTP won’t meet our demands on life and death issues.

     Let’s talk first about the length of the workday.  People outside the movie industry may not be aware that a 12-hour workday is considered normal in Hollywood; we often toil for as many hours in one week as non-filmmakers do in a week and a half.  Sometimes it’s much worse.

     Exacerbating the problem is the fact that the current contract requires only 8 hours between the end of one workday and the start of another.  In other words, if Tuesday’s shoot wraps at midnight there’s no financial penalty for requiring the production crew to be back on set at 8am.  Add commuting time and the need to unwind for a few minutes and what we wind up with is sleep-deprived filmmakers who do nothing but work. This not only wreaks havoc on our family lives, it becomes extremely dangerous.     

     The late cinematographer Haskell Wexler made these dangerous work conditions a cause célèbre after camera assistant Brent Hershman was killed in a car wreck in 1997, falling asleep while driving home from a job at the end of a 19-hour workday (which was preceded by four 15-hour days).  What the IA wants codified in the new contract, as I understand it, is 12 hours between wrap and call, and a maximum 14-hour workday.  Not only does that seem reasonable to anyone outside the motion picture industry, it seems absolutely vital to all of us in it.  The AMPTP seems to disagree.

     The issue of employer contributions to IATSE’s pension and welfare fund is more complicated.  Our pension plan is funded largely by employer contributions for every hour we work.  But as studios have made fewer and fewer films in the past decade, that revenue has diminished. 

     There is an additional source of pension plan funding:  residual payments from distribution in secondary markets – feature films on DVD and Blu-ray or sold to television networks and airlines, for example.  But these traditional forms of revenue are drying up as viewers today stream most content.  And right now, streaming services such as Netflix, Amazon and Hulu don’t pay residuals to the IA pension and welfare fund. 

     Consequently, the solvency of the plan itself is nearing “critical status.”  As of January 1, 2017, it was only 67.4% funded, and under federal law, a pension plan is considered to be in “critical” condition if funding falls below 65%.
    
     No one questions the importance of adequate pension payouts or affordable high quality medical coverage.  But when it comes down to financing pensions and insurance for those of us who work behind the scenes, the AMPTP is pleading poverty.

     Which is crazy!  While the studios complain that profits and attendance are at an all-time low for theatrical films and that TV ratings are way down, projected 2022 income for the film and TV industries, including power players Netflix and Amazon, is  $119.2 billion, up from $64 billion in 2017.   Clearly, then, the industry is making record profits.

     Simply put, my union sisters and brothers and I deserve to share fairly in the revenue. The AMPTP has already granted the Writers, Actors and Directors Guilds  “new media” (streaming service) residuals for their health and pension plans.  We want the same square deal.
  
     Because of streaming, of non-existent anti-trust law enforcement and of windfalls generated by recent corporate tax cuts, media corporations are so flush they’re considering construction of a $100 million tram to the Hollywood sign. How about investing that money in the those of us behind the camera who make the movies and TV shows that generate their mega-profits?  “Instead of a tram,” says a Local 600 spokesperson says, “let’s hike up instead and fund our pension!”

     Of course, I hope a strike can be averted.  Organized work stoppages wreak havoc with the very kind of economic security for which IATSE has struggled.  But at the moment the AMPTP seems intransigent on what, as I said above, are truly existential issues.  If we stay united and recognize our own bargaining power, we can make them do the right thing!




    







Thursday, June 15, 2017

MONTEREY POP! AT THE HALF CENTURY MARK

     
     The Monterey Pop Festival -- held two years before its better-known stepchild, Woodstock -- was the first weekend-long rock concert.  It turns 50 on June 16th.

     I was too young and too far away to join the west coast hippie devotees who flocked to the event.  So I waited for D.A. Pennebaker’s cinéma vérité documentary MONTEREY POP!, released over a year later, to have my first festival experience. I went to the Kips Bay Cinema on Manhattan’s east side excited to see the bands in the film.  I left feeling that my life had been fundamentally altered, certain I wanted to become a filmmaker (even though I had no idea know what that would entail). 

     True, when you’re in your mid-teens, as I was when I saw the picture, every moment is pivotal.  But the twists and turns of popular culture in the late sixties were sharp and mind-bending regardless of one’s age.                                                                                                                                           

In 1967, Hollywood was knocked off its center by such movies as BONNIE AND CLYDE, THE GRADUATE and Luis Bunuel’s BELLE DE JOUR.  At the same time, in the six months leading up to Monterey, the face of rock ‘n’ roll changed even more radically. 

The Doors, The Grateful Dead, The Velvet Underground, Janis Joplin with Big Brother and The Holding Company, and The Jimi Hendrix Experience all issued debut albums.  And two weeks before the festival, The Beatles – using orchestral music, shifting time signatures, sitar and tabla solos, and revolutionary recording techniques -- shattered rock ‘n’ roll’s few remaining limits with “Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band.” All of these new sounds spread quickly, reaching tens of millions of teenagers like me who listened to FM’s “progressive rock” radio. 

     Disc jockeys pioneering this new format played album cuts that were never released as 45rpm singles.  Such singles, the foundation (and only content) of AM Top 40 programming, were generally superficial.  FM’s darker, more complex tracks – with lyrics about whiskey bars, backdoor men and Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds -- became the soundtrack of my adolescence. There were songs about pills that altered your size and made you feel eight miles high.  Songs that asked, “Are you experienced?”  Songs that made me feel supercool indeed!

     As California, New York, London and Liverpool bands were forging a rock ‘n’ roll renaissance, Pennebaker -- with far less fanfare -- was transforming cinema in ways Hollywood hadn’t considered.  On May 17, 1967, DONT LOOK BACK, his film about Bob Dylan’s second British tour, hit theatres.  I had just become a Dylan fan and here was an intimate portrait that made me feel like I was hanging out with my new hero! 

     I experienced the same immediacy, a year and a half later, watching MONTEREY POP!

     Again, that motion picture was life changing.  I couldn’t fully articulate why at the time.  But as I look back 50 years I realize I watched it like a kid at a magic show, so enthralled I needed to find out how the tricks were done. Somehow I knew I could learn moviemaking.  Even now, as I revisit the film, I discover tropes and connections that weren’t apparent to me before.  Half a century later, MONTEREY POP! continues to inspire.

     What was groundbreaking and what enabled D.A Pennebaker to achieve such intimacy was cinéma vérité – a term coined by French documentarians for an array of techniques they had developed and which were refined in the U.S. by Richard Leacock, Robert Drew and the Maysles brothers along with Pennebaker. 

     Common wisdom about this genre, translated as “truthful cinema,” is that lightweight 16 mm. cameras and Nagra tape recorders developed in the sixties enabled moviemakers to be unobtrusive. Consequently their subjects – people like JFK and Hubert Humphrey in PRIMARY, Dylan in DONT LOOK BACK and dozens of musicians and hippies in MONTEREY POP! – were unguarded and unselfconscious as they couldn’t have been in front of Hollywood’s 350-pound Mitchell cameras and cumbersome audio systems.

     But the most important innovation in vérité wasn’t technological; it was a change in the attitude and behavior of directors.  Touring with Bob Dylan and, later, shooting musicians and audience members in Monterey, the filmmaker got subjects to reveal themselves to him by opening up to them.  If Dylan told a joke, Pennebaker laughed then became simultaneously vulnerable and entertaining by telling one of his own. 

     Likewise, during the making of MONTERY POP!,  the director and cinematographers engaged truthfully and openly with festival organizers, with a young woman who seemed incredulous that they hadn’t been to a “love-in,” with dozens of pot-smokers, and with the musicians at the movie’s center.

     Yet there isn’t a trace of dialogue from behind camera in the finished film; it was deleted entirely during post-production.  And this absence of filmmakers as narrators or interlocutors is another defining characteristic of cinéma vérité.  The documentarians’ openheartedness and candor off-camera enables those on camera to speak and act without restraint, while the magic of editing keeps the audience focused exclusively on the subject.

     So despite the genre’s name – “truthful cinema” -- these movies rely upon a great deal of artifice.  In Jean-Luc Godard’s LE PETIT SOLDAT, Bruno Forestier (a photographer played by Michel Subor) says, “Photography is truth. Cinema is truth 24 times a second.” Errol Morris, reflecting on his experience making THE THIN BLUE LINE and on its vérité progenitors, countered: “Film is lies 24 times a second.”   

     Motion pictures like DONT LOOK BACK and MONTEREY POP aren’t merely “windows onto the world,” easily contrasted with fiction features’ “reflection of reality.”  Their creators select what they shoot just as carefully as Hollywood feature directors.  And they use all the resources of theatrical film editing – disjunction of sound and image, sequential rearrangement, deletion, repetition, sound effects and music among them – to tell their stories most dramatically (and with the greatest emotional authenticity).

     Of course, I wasn’t aware of selection and editing when I was a young pup in the late sixties.  All I knew was how good these films made me feel.  How different they were from what I was used to watching on TV and in movie palaces.

     But blades of grass were busting through the concrete sidewalks of suburban America – including those of my working class Queens neighborhood. Changes were afoot not just in music and movies but in writing about society and pop culture. 

     In September ’67, I read an article in The Saturday Evening Post about kids (not much older than I was) who had run away to Haight-Ashbury.  Tens of thousands of them, living communally or on the street, smoking weed every day and tripping every other!  The piece, “Hippies: Slouching Toward Bethlehem” by Joan Didion, went much further than more glib reporting on “The Summer of Love” by television networks and mainstream newsweeklies. 

https://nstearns.edublogs.org/files/2012/.../Slouching-toward-bethlehem

     It complemented and exceeded Scott McKenzie’s hit song, “If You’re Going to San Francisco (Be Sure to Wear Flowers in Your Hair).”  And it was eye opening!  In The Post, no less – subscription par excellence of my grandparents’ quest to assimilate by reading the most Americana-infused magazine around -- with its Norman Rockwell covers and common sense features.

www.normanrockwellvt.com/boyscouts.htm

     Didion’s piece, a paradigm of New Journalism, is actually a close relative of MONTEREY POP! and its cinéma vérité siblings.  Didion, Tom Wolfe (The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test), Norman Mailer (Armies of the Night) and other practitioners of the genre were compelled to create a fresh kind of reportage not just because old methods had become stale, but because their stories were about unprecedented phenomena; unique styles had to be found for the telling. 

     Dan Wakefield, a reporter for The Nation, described new journalism as reporting “charged with the energy of art.”

     Wolfe had to be “on the bus” and write with a novelist’s linguistic virtuosity to capture the “stranger than fiction” quality of hundreds of people taking huge doses of pure LSD-25 together, come what may.  Mailer had to be an insider to paint his compelling, insightful picture of writers, poets, critics, students, university chaplains, Yippies and mystics who marched on the Pentagon to protest the Vietnam War.  Didion had to live among her Bay area post-beatnik dropouts to give readers the genuine article.

     These writers interacted with their subjects in the same way the new wave of documentarians did.  But they presented their interactions quite differently.  Cinéma vérité directors, as I said earlier, cut themselves out of their movies.  For new journalism, the writer’s presence became a defining characteristic of thee story.

     Being central in their own narratives, new journalists made a clear break from traditional objective reporting.  No “this reporter” or “editorial we” for Wolfe, Mailer and Didion!  Stories written accountably in the first person could go much deeper than dry, deadline-driven, style-less newspaper articles about acid, Vietnam War protests and hippies.

    While seeming to take the opposite approach – deleting themselves from scenes in which they had participated during principal photography -- vérité directors broke with newsreel tradition.  Shown in movie theatres starting in the 1930’s and reborn as the basic format for TV feature stories, newsreels used (usually bombastic) voice-overs and superimposed titles to tell the audience what was important in any given piece.  Their creators imposed drama in the most heavy-handed manner, leaving viewers feeling that all stories were alike and essentially meaningless.

https://archives.sfweekly.com/.../call-it-occupy-haight-street-harry-reasoners-1967

     By making himself invisible, Pennebaker let his subjects speak for themselves and allowed viewers to discover what was dramatic. 

     Which brings us back to MONTEREY POP!  The film begins with a “psychedelic” title sequence in which lights pulsate behind colored paper seen through still-wet enamel paint on glass. Janis Joplin and Big Brother’s “Combination of the Two” roars on the soundtrack. 

     Such artistry – absent from documentaries I’d seen – gave me a sense of the light show that accompanied festival performances as well as concertgoers’ euphoric, hallucinatory experience.  Big Brother’s lyrics evoked “dancing at the Fillmore” and made viewers at the Kips Bay want to jump out of their seats and join in.

     The title sequence holds up to this day.

     And it does so because of artifice!  Showing people tripping can’t capture what they see on acid.  Pennebaker’s (and editor Nina Schulman’s) inventiveness in post-production provides an experience much richer than what “objective” camera work and newscaster narration would have shown.

     The title sequence leads easily into a montage of people arriving in Monterey, underscored by Scott McKenzie’s “If You’re Going to San Francisco.”  There are images of hippies smoking, dancing and blowing bubbles.  Of psychedelic school buses and babies.  A candid shot of David Crosby checking audio gear, overjoyed.  “Groovy!” says Crosby, “A good sound system at last!”  A plane flies by and, in post-production, the editors decide not to use a sound effect for it.  We’re immersed in this amazing world, not just watching it from outside.  Because editors selected, rearranged, compressed and otherwise manipulated these images!

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=73jgeICl6SE

     By following McKenzie’s song with The Mamas and the Papas’ “California Dreaming,” Pennebaker eliminates the need for spoken narration.  We see and hear that we’re in California.  That hippies have come from far and wide, as have musicians. That the sound is going to be great. There’s no need for a newscaster to repeat what we already know.

     What knocks me out is that the order in which songs are used in the film feels completely natural even though it’s unrelated to the actual sequence of events.  A band called The Association opened the festival.  The Mamas and Papas were the closing act two nights later, but their set is the first shown in the movie.

     D.A. Pennebaker, you see, found a much more powerful organizing principal than mere chronology: the film’s performance timeline is a genealogy of rock ‘n’ roll.  The Mamas and the Papas lead off with a love song, the foundation of popular music.  Canned Heat plays some Mississippi Delta Blues.  Simon and Garfunkel are up next, representing folk music with a tinge of poetry. They’re followed by the African jazz of Hugh Masakela.

     After Masakela, MONTEREY POP! follows rock to new heights – new directions which were the essence of 1967 rock.  The Airplane marry Lewis Carroll and Ravel in “White Rabbit.” Janis performs “Ball and Chain” with such power the Goddesses of Blues look down and smile. An electric violin solo leads into Eric Burden’s rendition of “Paint It, Black.” Keith Moon redefines rock ‘n’ roll drumming.  Jimi Hendrix descends from another (benign, delightful) planet to perform “Wild Thing.”  Ravi Shankar plays a 15-minute raga shown mostly with thunderstruck cut-aways of listeners, including guitar virtuosi Mike Bloomfield and Hendrix.

     I must admit I didn’t know the extent to which Pennebaker re-ordered the performances until I heard him talk about it.  But the film’s structure is perfect. MONTEREY POP! builds and builds and builds to a point where you want to jump up and give Shankar a standing ovation along with the festival crowd.

     I could go on and on.  Pennebaker’s system for making sure his ten cameramen (yes, all men) knew which songs to shoot and which not to (involving DONT LOOK BACK’S Bob Neuwirth) is fascinating.  That they didn’t roll on Janis Joplin’s only scheduled performance because she hadn’t signed a release (with souls having to be sold to get her to go on again) is probably worthy of its own post.  The reason the film’s climactic raga had to be edited on extremely primitive equipment even though Pennebaker owned a technologically advanced system will captivate postproduction practitioners. 

     But it’s time to wrap up.  Which I’ll do by quoting D.A. Pennebaker's associate Robert Drew, talking in 1962 about what he hoped a nascent cinéma vérité would ultimately be:

     “It would be a theatre without actors; it would be plays without   playwrights; it would be reporting without summary and opinion; it would be the ability to look in on people’s lives at crucial times, from which you could deduce certain things and see a kind of truth that can only be gotten by personal experience.”

     MONTERY POP! embodies Drew’s aspirations for the genre.  That’s why it remains as engaging and moving as it was a half century ago. That’s why – a half century later, when pop culture is driven (into the ground) by demographic research and marketing algorithms  MONTEREY POP! can still change lives.