Baird Bryant: Film-maker who captured the killing of a fan in the Rolling Stones documentary 'Gimme Shelter'
Friday 05 December 2008
The Maysles brothers' documentary Gimme Shelter followed the Rolling Stones during their US tour of November 1969 and captured the group's performances at Madison Square Garden in New York. But the film became much more famous for the disturbing footage of the chaotic free concert the band gave at Altamont Speedway on 6 December 1969.
Baird Bryant was one of 20 camera operators involved in the project – a young George Lucas was another – and the most in tune with the Maysles' cinéma vérité approach to film-making. When the Hells Angels hired by the Stones as security guards turned on both crowd and performers, Bryant kept filming the ensuing mayhem from the top of a bus. As the Stones played "Under My Thumb" in the middle of their set his camera captured a scuffle in front of the stage. Close examination of the footage revealed he had filmed the fatal stabbing of a fan named Meredith Hunter by a Hells Angel named Alan Passaro.
Closer examination confirmed that Hunter had been brandishing a revolver and Passaro's plea of self-defence was accepted in court. Gimme Shelter's editor Charlotte Zwerin suggested showing the tragic events to Mick Jagger on a film viewer and including the singer's reaction in the finished movie, which was released at the end of 1970.
A landmark documentary, Gimme Shelter came to represent the end of the Sixties and of the hippie dream shown in Woodstock: Three Days Of Peace And Music, filmed at the festival the previous year. Coincidentally, Bryant worked on two other important music documentaries first screened in 1971: Celebration At Big Sur, shot in California in 1969 and featuring Joan Baez, Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young and Joni Mitchell – who premiered her song "Woodstock", inspired by the festival she hadn't performed at – and Jimi Plays Berkeley, filmed in May 1970 and released after the death of Hendrix in September that year.
Bryant was involved in several other notable projects, shooting freewheeling 16mm footage in a New Orleans cemetery for the "trip scene" in Dennis Hopper's Easy Rider (1969), working as cinematographer on the award-winning documentary Broken Rainbow (1985), about the forced relocation of the Navajo Indians in Arizona in the mid-1970s, and filming Heart Of Tibet (1991), a profile of the Dalai Lama.
Bryant's work spanned several counter-culture movements. In the 1950s he lived in Paris and was an associate of the Beat writers William S. Burroughs, Allen Ginsberg and Jack Kerouac. Using the pseudonym Willie Baron, he wrote Play This Love With Me (1955), one of the "dirty books" published in English by the infamous Olympia Press, run by the notorious Maurice Girodias, and did the first draft translation of Pauline Réage's controversial erotic novel The Story Of O.
Born in Columbus, Indiana, in 1927, Bryant was a graduate of Deep Springs College in Inyo County, California, and later studied at Harvard University. While serving in the Navy, he saved up to go Paris and moved there with his first wife in the early 1950s. Bryant spoke French and Spanish and was one of several Anglo-Saxon free thinkers who hoped to recapture the spirit of the decadent Thirties in the French capital. There, he fell in with Gregory Cosmo, the youngest of the Beat writers, who introduced him to Ginsberg, and Alex Trocchi, a Scot who edited Merlin, a literary magazine run on a shoestring budget.
Though only a few issues appeared between 1952 and 1954, Merlin printed works by Samuel Beckett, Pablo Neruda and Jean Genet and gave emerging writers like Christopher Logue and George Plimpton a home. Bryant was already painting and taking photographs, with which he experimented during the developing process, producing proto-psychedelic abstract images, and he contributed to Merlin as associate editor. This brought him into contact with Girodias, who took over the ailing publication and paid him $600 to translate The Story of O, but he then asked the Marquis de Sade translator Austryn Wainhouse to revise his version.
Bryant was more successful with Play This Love With Me for Olympia Press's "Traveller's Companion" series which exploited a loophole in French law regarding the publication of erotic material in English (the books couldn't be confiscated).
"We presented our most lascivious desires to the world under our noms de plume," Bryant said. "I came up with a cast of characters: Willy the sculptor, the erotic renaissance man who has multiple talents as an illusionist, a photographer, film-maker and sculptor. The Baron, a phony nobleman whose darkest desire is to become the Devil, or at least play the role of the Devil in a dream that comes true, thanks to Willy's nefarious machinations. Lila, the con-woman who gets conned, but plays the game to the hilt. I just turned these characters loose and they had one of the farthest out, sexiest, funniest romps."
In Paris, Bryant also took copious amounts of drugs with Burroughs, jazz musicians like Chet Baker and the avant-garde sculptor Shinkichi Tajiri, with whom he made a short film entitled The Vipers. Built around a track by the pianist and bandleader Stan Kenton featuring the trumpeter Maynard Ferguson, and shot with a 16mm camera, the experimental film, bursting with ideas and random visual effects, won awards at European festivals and helped Bryant get work with the underground film-maker Shirley Clarke when he went back to the United States. In particular, he was the cinematographer on The Cool World (1964), a gritty film about teenage delinquents Clarke wrote, directed and shot in Harlem.
Bryant had met Albert Maysles on the boat back from Europe in 1959 and hooked up with him and his younger brother David to work on Gimme Shelter 10 years later. Bryant had already completed the filming of Celebration At Big Sur, which documented a smaller event than Woodstock and remains a nice time capsule of West Coast hippiedom, though it has yet to be reissued on video or DVD. Bryant's penchant for inserting other material into the films he edited came to the fore again in Jimi Plays Berkeley when he spliced footage of student demonstrations into Hendrix's tour de force "Machine Gun".
Bryant was sound effects editor on The Legend of Boggy Creek (1972), about a Bigfoot creature in Arkansas, and director of photography on Heart Of Tibet, a project that was close to his heart, and worked on around 100 films, including several documentaries with director Richard Cohen (Taylor's Campaign, with narration by the actor Martin Sheen, highlighting the plight of the homeless in Los Angeles, won two awards in 1998). Bryant enjoyed reading his Souvenirs Of The Beat Hotel script at Beat conferences in the US.
"Alex Trocchi, Bill Burroughs, Allen Ginsberg and Gregory Corso are all gone. That in itself is a lesson in impermanence," he said. "Another lesson learned: be yourself. Ultimately, the greatest lesson for me was that behind the illusion is emptiness. Ask the Dalai Lama whether that's true or not. I did."
Wenzell Baird Bryant, film-maker and writer: born Columbus, Indiana 12 December 1927; twice married; died Hemet, California 13 November 2008.
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