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In the Cut

Charlotte Zwerin

By Michael Yockel | Posted 12/29/2004

In the most revealing moment of a most revealing film, the 1970 documentary Gimme Shelter, Mick Jagger sits in the editing room of filmmakers David and Albert Maysles, silently watching footage of the Rolling Stones performing onstage during their recent free 1969 concert held at Altamont Speedway, just east of Oakland, Calif. As the band plays “Under My Thumb,” the Maysleses’ camera crew captures the stabbing and stomping murder of a young black fan by several Hell’s Angels, hired by the Stones to supply security for the daylong concert. As Jagger pensively absorbs the killing for which the band unwittingly provided the soundtrack, his elaborate public mask melts away.

That extraordinary scene, wherein Jagger bears witness, in effect, to the death not only of a concertgoer but also of the 1960s counterculture, was made possible by Charlotte Zwerin, who edited Gimme Shelter and shared its directing credits with the Maysles brothers. When Zwerin learned that the Stones, whose 1969 U.S. tour serves as Gimme Shelter’s narrative, wanted to see the critical footage shot at Altamont, she persuaded the Maysleses to record the band’s reactions as part of the project.

“The real hero of the making of the film was Charlotte Zwerin,” cameraman Stephen Lighthill told Salon.com in 2000. “I was stunned with what she got out of my footage. She compressed it and gave you the sense of a buildup of tragedy that you otherwise wouldn’t have.”

Through her incisive, intuitive editing, Zwerin, who died Jan. 22 at age 72, consistently fashioned a compelling storyline for the brothers’ pioneering 1960s “cinema direct” (cinéma vérité) documentaries. Before Gimme Shelter, she helped shape their short films “Meet Marlon Brando” and “A Visit With Truman Capote,” both 1966, and, more famously, 1969’s feature-length Salesman, about four door-to-door Bible salesmen, for which she also earned a co-director’s credit.

In a stunning sequence in the latter, the camera alternates between the quartet’s oldest member, who has lost his touch, as he rides a train from Boston—scene of relentless recent failure for him—to Chicago for a sales meeting, and the meeting itself, during which various door-to-door brethren boast of impending success. It’s as if he is en route to his own funeral.

“When it comes to editing documentary material,” Albert Maysles confided to the Los Angeles Times immediately after Zwerin’s death, “she was the best by far.”

With the Maysles brothers, Zwerin went on to make 1978’s Running Fence, about the artist Christo’s project to build a 24-milelong fence made from fabric. But eventually she ventured out on her own when she perceived that, as she related to The New York Times in 2003, “They cast an awfully long shadow. And it came time for me to get out of it.”

Solo, Zwerin made a handful of engaging and evocative films about visual artists (including 1981’s De Kooning on de Kooning and 1982’s Arshile Gorky) and jazz musicians (1989’s Thelonious Monk: Straight, No Chaser and 1999’s Ella Fitzgerald: Something to Live For). New York’s Museum of Modern Art paid tribute to her work by staging a 2003 film retrospective.

Very likely, though, Zwerin will be best remembered for Gimme Shelter, especially those excruciating images of Jagger in the editing room. “It gave us a way to let the audience know right away that what they were about to see was something very disturbing,” she explained to The New York Times on the eve of her MOMA retrospective, “and not just a music documentary.” And while using the murder footage troubled her, she understood its innate importance: “What happened, happened, and, yes, you’re taking advantage of it, but as a filmmaker, you can’t just walk away from something like that.”

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