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.

    


















3 comments:

  1. Very nice and appreciable blog. Thank you so much for this valuable blog. Keep it up.


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  2. Hello, sir.

    I'm writing my master thesis on Slipstream, and I have a few questions about the editing process that went down on that film. I was wondering, if this finds you, could I posit them to you?

    Thank you in any case.

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    Replies
    1. I'm delighted that you're writing your thesis on this obscure gem. Please feel free to contact me at University of North Carolina School of the Arts.

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