Reel Life #9: Gimme Shelter, Leave No Trace, and Monty Python and the Holy Grail

For the first time in this segment, I get to talk about a film that has only seen a limited release so far. This is especially great because now I get to voice my opinion of whether or not it’s worth seeing ahead of time.

Gimme Shelter by Albert Maysles, David Maysles, and Charlotte Zwerin (1970)

Saturday December 9, 1969 was of the day the Altamont Speedway Free Festival near San Francisco. Four months earlier in mid-August of that year, Woodstock was held in Bethel, New York. With the festival slated to play some of the prominent counterculture music of its day including Santana, The Flying Burrito Brothers, Jefferson Airplane, Crosby, Still, Nash & Young, and, most prominently, the Rolling Stones, many anticipated it would be a “Woodstock West”. What the approximately 300,000 attendees got instead marked the metaphorical end of the sixties zeitgeist when the festival devolved into complete mayhem.

What was originally going to be a straightforward rockumentary instead captured one of the era’s darkest moments, resulting in countless injuries and four deaths – one of which was captured on film. Part of the reason this festival turned out so disastrously is because the Rolling Stones’ tour manager had the particularly inspired idea to not only hire the Hells Angels as the security detail, but also pay them with $500 worth of beer.

Altamont isn’t as well-known as Woodstock. While most people learn about the latter in history class, baby boomers aren’t as quick to bring up the former – and understandably so. I myself would learn about the incident earlier this year when I watched a VH1 special “100 Most Shocking Moments in Rock & Roll History” wherein Altamont ranked third on the list. While Woodstock allowed a generation to dream, Altamont was the cacophonous wake-up call.

Going into this film, I assumed that Altamont would’ve panned out like the infamous Ten Cent Beer Night or Woodstock ’99 wherein the crowd at least had a semblance of civility until they finally had enough and began rioting. Instead, it’s plain to see that from the very beginning, things were out of control with the Hell Angels members beating multiple audience members during the first performance. Nobody at the time could’ve imagined it would serve as foreshadowing for the tragic loss of 18-year-old Meredith Hunter, a student from Berkeley, California.

When I think of how Gimme Shelter serves as a dark, spiritual antithesis to Woodstock, I’m reminded of a very similar relationship between The Third Man and Casablanca. Whether you’re a Stones fan or a rock fan in general, Gimme Shelter is a recommended watch. If you’re interested, check out the VH1 special; it is chock-full of the tragic, hilarious, and downright bizarre moments that shaped rock history.

Rating: 7/10

Leave No Trace by Debra Granik (2018)

This is a story about a man named Will living with his daughter Tom. They live in Forest Park, a nature reserve near Portland, Oregon, and their contact with the outside world is minimal. One small mistake tips their existence off to the authorities. After being made to live on a farm, the two set off on a journey to find a new place to call home.

What drove me to see this film was that it somehow managed to obtain a 100% on Rotten Tomatoes. This remains true as of this feature, and I was then determined to see it for myself.  One small problem: like many highly acclaimed films this year, distributors only thought to give it a limited release. Thankfully, once in a blue moon, a theater near where I live will show one of these films. This was one of those times, so now I have the pleasure of telling my readers whether or not a highly acclaimed film is worth seeing before it gets a wide release. As it turns out, this is a film that lived up to the hype.

One thing I was slightly worried going into the film that it would unrealistically idealize the protagonists’ lifestyle while portraying modernity in a negative light. As it turns out, I wasn’t giving the film enough credit. The authorities just want to help Will, and their removing him from the park isn’t done out of malice. They’re not particularly understanding of Will’s plight, yet he doesn’t volunteer much information, meaning part of the reason they can’t help him is because of his unwillingness to cooperate.

In fact, the narrative takes a fairly neutral stance on just about every single development and expects you to figure things out for yourself. Nowhere is this more obvious than with its basic premise. With the protagonists leading a life so far removed from the norm, the audience would naturally question what led them to do any of this. Abandoning society in favor of living in the wilderness with your daughter isn’t exactly something a normal person does on a whim. However, the reveal never happens. Tom’s mother is implied to be dead, yet she isn’t mentioned particularly often. One of Will’s psychology tests suggests he used to be a team player, but it’s never expanded upon. Tom’s overall demeanor implies a rather sheltered upbringing, yet how long they’ve been living in the wilderness is never disclosed.

To an outside observer, the overall lack of exposition would come across as poor storytelling, but I feel it’s a stronger narrative for it. In a way, it’s actually not too different from Shadow of the Colossus in that you’re told that the characters do what they do without ever really answering the question of why they do what they do. Like Shadow of the Colossus, Leave No Trace is much better at its brand of ambiguous storytelling because it gives just enough context on which you can start forming your own theories. Is Will protecting his daughter from what he believes to be an unjust society? Is he insane from grief due to a traumatic incident from his past? |Does Tom’s defiance of him at the end stem from being fed up of their lifestyle?  Does Will think the time she spent on the farm irrevocably corrupted her, thus serving as the impetus for them going their separate ways? Is he completely delusional?| None of these questions are answered, and I have to give Ms. Granik a lot of credit for having this much faith in her audience. Leave No Trace is a film whose plot details change depending on the viewer, and for that reason alone, it’s worth checking out.

Rating: 8/10

Monty Python and the Holy Grail by Terry Gilliam and Terry Jones (1975)

In 932 AD, King Arthur and his squire, Patsy, explore Britain searching for men to form the Knights of the Round Table. To this end, he recruits Sir Bedevere the Wise, Sir Lancelot the Brave, Sir Galahad the Pure and Sir Robin the Not-Quite-So-Brave-as-Sir-Lancelot. As they turn away from Camelot, God speaks to them, giving Arthur the task of finding the Holy Grail.

I think by this point, I’ve established that my film viewing trajectory has been quite strange. I’m one of the few people who can claim to have watched M and the Three Colors trilogy before Raiders of the Lost Ark, for instance. Monty Python and the Holy Grail is one of the most beloved comedies of all time, and it wasn’t until this past week I finally got around to watching it. I actually had the opportunity to see it when I was nine. Two girls brought this film to summer camp, but we didn’t finish it when it became apparent that they were the only ones who were laughing. Having been a particularly dense nine-year-old kid, approximately 100% of the jokes went right over my head.

So now I finally got around to watching it all the way through. With the higher capacity to appreciate this brand of rapid-fire comedy, what do I think of it? I really enjoyed it. I knew I was in for a good time before the opening credits stopped rolling. Fun fact: they tricked me into thinking I had accidentally activated the subtitles. The actual film is great too. Part of what I find intriguing about it is that Gilliam and Jones manage to get away with a lot of gags that would come across as painfully lazy in a vast majority of cases. This is a film that was made on a shoestring budget, and its shortcomings are made the impetus for several jokes throughout. |In fact, the reason it comes to an abrupt, anticlimactic end with Arthur and Bedevere being arrested for murder and the film’s production being permanently halted is because the budget had run out by that point. It was originally going to be an elaborate war sequence.|

In the hands of the less talented, Monty Python and the Holy Grail would’ve ended up like the average Naughty Dog effort wherein plot holes and shortcomings are constantly referenced, but never addressed. Here, it’s done to accent the film’s farcical tone, and what allows it to work is the fact that the practice isn’t used as a crutch or as a means to distract viewers from legitimate issues. It’s a frequent source of comedy, yet the writers knew when to move on. I can imagine I was one of the few people in this sphere to have not seen this film, but definitely do if you haven’t. With the film having won the highly vaunted Sergio, how can you go wrong?

Rating: 8/10

3 thoughts on “Reel Life #9: Gimme Shelter, Leave No Trace, and Monty Python and the Holy Grail

  1. I think Monty Python made it work because it’s treatment of its shortcomings were a way at poking fun at themselves rather than making excuses for it. A lot of other works seem to think just mentioning their flaws makes up for having them. The Holy Grail actually incorporated them, and so turned them into something else.

    Liked by 1 person

    • I think what also helped were the circumstances surrounding the film’s production; apparently, they did want to use real horses, but didn’t have the budget for it. Instead, they used coconuts to make the sound effects as a running joke.

      Otherwise, I think you’re right; with the Uncharted series (and other similar situations) the writers just mention the flaws and move on hoping the audience doesn’t notice. It makes the dialogue really distracting at times. The Holy Grail did the same thing in a much more transformative way. It’s to the extent where I didn’t catch onto the fact that many of these choices were brought on due to a low budget; I thought they were planned in advance.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. Pingback: July 2018 in Summary: At the End of an Arduous Month | Extra Life

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