Part 1 – The New Documentary
My mother-in-law and even my wife brought maximum pressure, but I had no interest in returning to the United States. We were young and doing great, even in a city as expensive as London. I was finding work as an editor of pilot TV commercials for the UK, the US and Canada. The real bread-and-butter came from working as an unskilled laborer on rehabs, humping debris into dumpsters, skimming plaster walls. In the summer of ’69 I refused to leave.
I booked a room in a Victorian rowhouse in South Kensington. My landlords were two successful, but struggling, free-lance journalists with two children and a granny in the basement. They were renting the house from a wealthy, absentee landlord. We were a household of church mice. There wasn’t a spare bit of cheese or an extra shilling anywhere. As winter approached, the house rode with the outside temperature. My shins were constantly scraped and bleeding from tripping over furniture. The wall switches didn’t work in order to “save on the electric.”
Then I got a break: assistant film editor on a two-hour music documentary for the BBC and NET. It was perhaps the first time a classical music event, the Dubrovnik Festival, would be shot up-close using the new handheld film cameras and sound recording equipment that were coming into their own. Within weeks of each other, three major outdoor music events – the Dubrovnik Music Festival, Woodstock, and The Stones in the Park, a free concert by the Rolling Stones in Hyde Park – were filmed using multiple handheld cameras and portable magnetic tape recorders. The equipment was revolutionary. I had a head full of ideas for films, the best of which were for this type of filmmaking. I felt privileged to be part of this vanguard.
In an age in which anyone with a smart phone can spontaneously record images, with automatically synchronized sound, of the horrifying and often deadly clashes between police in the United States and African-Americans, it is difficult to imagine that such fly-on-the-wall recordings were impossible before 1960. But they were.
Certainly, we have all seen the documentary footage of Neville Chamberlain in 1938 declaring, “Peace forour time,” or FDR declaring, “A date which will live in infamy.” But these recordings required elaborate staging. It took at least a couple of men to set up the sound recording equipment, with its vacuum tubes, and more men to place the heavy “sound-proof” film camera on a tripod.
The thirst, the drive for go-anywhere, shoot-anything documentaries was clearly there in the1950s, but there was no equipment to make it possible.
The magnetic tape recorders developed after World War II were more mobile, but a motion picture camera clatters like a knitting factory, making it impossible to record sound and shoot film at the same time. A motion picture camera takes twenty-four still photographs per second. A claw pulls the unexposed negative down, a metal gate slams shut, holding the negative in the correct focal plane for the lens, the photo is shot, and the gate opens again…. clatter-clatter-clatter-clatter.
By the late 1950s, an accomplished Life magazine writer and photo editor, Bob Drew, was awarded a Nieman Fellowship at Harvard. As he later put it, “I focused on two questions: Why are documentaries so dull? What would it take for them to become gripping and exciting?”
He wanted to create a new form of documentary that would, “drop word logic and find a dramatic logic in things which were really happening.” It would be, “theater without actors, … plays withouy playwrights, …reporting without summary or opinion.”
With development money from Life, he developed a lighter, quieter camera, the Auricon, that could actually be handheld and operated by a single cameraman. In the summer of 1960, he got permission from presidential hopeful John Kennedy to do a four day-shoot of the Wisconsin Democratic primary.
His film crews followed Kennedy through a crowd of hand shakers, captured a speech from five feet to the side of a podium, and huddled with Bobby and Jack in a crowded hotel room waiting anxiously as the voting returns came in. There was a new sense of intimacy and reality in this documentary format.
According to critic Matt Zoller Seitz, Primary “had as immense and measurable impact on non-fiction filmmaking as Birth of a Nation had on fiction filmmaking.” Its film crew included such legends as Richard Leacock, D.A. Pennebaker and Albert Maysles.
Although the Auriconhad drastically cut down on sound and weight it was still out in front of the cameraman, as if it were on a tripod: it needed a brace with a poll attached to the front of a cameramen’s belt.
By the mid-1960s there were a slew of competitors for the Auricon, but all were made obsolete by the Eclair 16NPR (noiseless, portable, reflex). This light-weight camera had a film magazine that was not only at the back of the camera, which rested on the shoulder, but the magazine could be changed in seconds. All the painstaking lacing of film onto sprocketed wheels was inside the magazine itself.
But portable sound recording remained a major problem. No matter how good it was, the transfer of an original recording to a second copy, to a third copy was always progressively worse. With analog sound the background noise, the buzz, doesn’t just double itself with each transfer, it squares itself. It was always necessary for a sound recordist to record at as high a level as possible without creating distortion.
Sound recordists on the go continued to have problems, but this changed with the introduction of the Nagra tape recorder in 1962, which was as ingenious as the Eclair 16 NPR.
Most tape recorders have two heads: an eraser head, usually a simple electromagnet that comes on only when the record button is pressed; it ensures that the tape is clean, and a sophisticated record/playback head. The Nagra was completely transistorized and had three heads: an eraser head, a record/playback head, and another playback head, all grouped together. It was small enough and light enough to be carried by a shoulder strap.
The remarkable feature of the Nagra was that the recordist no longer had to monitor the sound input. Using earphones, the recordist was not listening to the input but to the actual recording played back on the second playback head, about half a second after words were spoken or the clapper board had shut.
The new documentary, known as direct cinema, or cinema vérité, was not well received by the television establishment that continue to believe that without narration, or without an on-camera correspondent, you don’t have a story. Such Bob Drew classics as Primary and Yankee No!, about anti-Americanism in Latin America, never made it to prime-time television.
A cinéma vérité film has no director. It has only four major credits: producer, cameraman, sound recordist and film editor.
Although the Eclair and the Nagra were quickly adapted by television networks for voice-over newscasts, when they wanted something as free flowing as Primary, or the film on the Dubrovnik Music Festival, they had no one in-house who could do it. They had to outsource the project to one of half a dozen companies on both sides of the Atlantic. I believe there were fewer than 100 professionals working in cinéma vérité film production in 1969.
The real impact of this new equipment stemmed from the remarkable ease with which these portable film crews could gain permission to film just about anything: government officials, military officers, and others seemed flattered to be followed around and filmed, not realizing that some of their practices could be considered abhorrent.
It was Eclairs and Nagras that brought the Tet Offensive of 1968 to the nightly news shows. The Saigon chief of police obviously imagined no blowback when he raised a pistol to the head of a handcuffed Vietcong prisoner and pulled the trigger in front of a portable film crew. Little wonder that more recent American military exercises have required that television news crews be carefully “embedded.”
Frederick Wiseman’s Titicut Follies (1968) is another case in point. He and his camera crew were given free rein to roam through a Massachusetts hospital for the criminally insane. No scenes were set up and nothing rehearsed as we watched the daily and habitual humiliation of these prisoners. A wrinkled old man, deranged and having a fit, is confined to a cell – where he can rant, naked, to the bare brick walls and concrete floor. An uncooperative prisoner has a tube forced down his nose to force-feed him. The agonizing scene is masterfully crosscut with footage of the same man, in death, being primped for burial by a mortician.
The documentary was so shocking that it helped spur the closing of lock-down mental asylums in the United States.
In retrospect, it is hard to believe that the supervisor of the hospital, who had the authority to stop its release, never considered it.
For those inmates with legal guardians on the outside, Wiseman had obtained releases to allow the footage to be shown without claims of an invasion of privacy. For those inmates without guardians on the outside, the hospital supervisor had a similar right to sign waivers and had done so. Like Saigon’s chief of police, he could not imagine negative blowback from allowing film to document the types of daily practices and procedures that had become common in the hospital throughout his career.
Yet, Titicut Follies proved to be such an embarrassment to the Commonwealth of Massachusetts that the film was suppressed for many decades on the grounds that it was “an invasion of privacy” of the inmates.
The adoption of the Eclair and the Nagra likewise played a significant role in swaying public opinion about the Civil Rights movement and the war in Vietnam. Opposition to the war grew slowly, fed by a daily dose of film reports on nightly news broadcasts.
Likewise, as coverage of civil rights protests changed from still photographs, however graphic, to Eclair footage of Alabama state troopers assaulting peaceful marchers dressed in their Sunday best on the Edmund Pettus Bridge, or the water cannons and dogs let loose on non-violent protesters, Americans took note.
Crucially, these rapid changes coincided with the coming-of-age of the Baby Boomers. This generational tsunami played a big part in the anti-Vietnam War and the civil rights movements. These young people had little interest in the conformist thinking of the Silent Generation that preceded them. More interested in rock ‘n’ roll than in the white popular crooners, they brought a whole new musical sound to prominence, with the Beatles in the forefront.
As the editing of the BBC/NET documentary on the Dubrovnik Festival was drawing to an end, I was given a rare privilege as an assistant. I was allowed to cut the visual footage that would go behind the interminable list of credits of orchestras, maestros, divas and tenors.
Coinciding with the festival, American astronaut Neil Armstrong became the first person to walk on the moon. Throughout the world the excitement seemed unprecedented. In Dubrovnik, jubilant crowds celebrated well into the night, their running, their glee, their footsteps on cobblestone streets caught by a mute Eclair a few inches from the ground, all of it backlit, followed by water cannons cleaning the empty streets. It was great footage for end titles.
I was not without credentials. I came to London to attend a two-year program at the London International Film School, that was and is an excellent school. But London was more expensive than I had anticipated. After the first year, I did not have the resources to continue to pay tuition, and so I worked under the table at any job I could find while I completed a short black-and-white 16mm film of my own. The script was somewhat complex and had been turned down by Bruce Beresford, the Aussie in charge of the British Film Institute’s Experimental Film Fund, who later directed Driving Miss Daisy. I figured the only way I could get funding would be to do a sloppy first draft on very little money.
The story was about two boys who fight over a toy and one of them has a revenge dream. Live action for the project was completed in one day and each camera set-up was shot only once. There were no retakes; if a shot didn’t work it hit the cutting room floor. It took me nine months to edit the film, working at other jobs during the day and renting cutting rooms at off hours. The film raised great passions. People loved it or hated it. Bruce Beresford apologized for failing to fund it. Contemporary Films, Ltd., a highly respected distributor that had handled the first short works of Roman Polanski and Milos Forman, granted it distribution.
Suddenly, I was an acknowledged British film producer, British script writer, British film director, and British film editor. Like all releases in the UK, my film was reviewed in the British Film Institute’s Monthly Film Bulletin. The film had the feel of student work. but it could grab attention and helped to satisfy the thirst for experimental work that existed in the 1960s. It was well-received at British film clubs, film festivals and the various national film theaters. On its strength I obtained a visa to work as a resident alien in the British film industry.
During my last week of work on the Dubrovnik film I was asked to come for an interview as an assistant editor on another cinéma vérité film. The job was on the other side of Soho, which was then the liveliest section of London – the restaurant district, the theater district, the film district, the strip club district, Chinatown, the red-light district, and the fastest place in the UK to score street drugs, all rolled into one.
The offices were at the back of a mews in a barely heated second-floor gallery above the stables where horses were once fed and groomed during their short, genteel visits to London. The filmmakers called themselves the Tattooists. Their ambition was to tattoo cinematic images onto other people’s brains (hey, it was the 1960s). Here I met two extraordinarily talented people. They were too young to be among the pioneers of the cinéma vérité movement, but among the first to split off on their own.
Nic Knowland, a gifted cinéma vérité cameraman, had spent much of the year with John Lennon and Yoko Ono in Montréal for their peace initiative, their Bed-In, only to come back to London to be one of the cameramen on Stones in the Park, He was now working on various projects for John and Yoko.
About the Stones concert, he told me in his soft-spoken, yet self-assured way that during his long hours of shooting film magazine after film magazine through his Eclair, he wasn’t even aware of the camera. It had become an extension of his mind, his curiosity, and his enjoyment of the moment.
Nic’s professional skills are matched by his remarkable demeanor. He is the type of person who has a noticeabley calming effect on entering a room full of people. He is quite unassuming and, back in the day, might have been characterized as verging on the counterculture of our generation.
Dick Fontaine was a graduate of Cambridge who seemed to know everyone in London. He was a grammar-school boy, raised in the small town of Thetford, where the Daughters of the American Revolution had erected a bronze statue of Thomas Paine in the town of his birth.
I have often wondered whether that statute contributed to Dick’s uncanny understanding of American culture, literature and jazz or his ability to be on the edge of new and interesting things. Thomas Paine was of course a hero of the American and British counterculture of the 60s.
As the only American founding father without a gravesite, it is little wonder that the Daughters of the American Revolution wished to honor him with an expensive statue. Many of the locals, however, have never shared their appreciation. As Dick was growing up the statue was occasionally tarred and feathered to show proper English righteous indignation of Paine’s having ridiculed Christianity in the eighteenth century.
Dick, with his shoulder length hair and expensive cigarillos could both talk to the men in suits who financed films and convince them of subjects worth filming. His bell bottom trousers were always presentable, more Kings Road, than Carnaby Street. As he exhaled smoke, he would carry on a conversation in profile so as not to blow smoke in anybody’s face.
After university, he took a job at Granada Television in Manchester, where he grew interested in the young rock groups in nearby Liverpool. The best of these gave lunchtime performances in a hole in the ground known as the Cavern Club. These four teenagers had also spent a few months playing in the bars of the red-light district in Hamburg, Germany, before the discovery of George’s young age – he was 17 – led to their deportation.
Dick was the first to bring them into a TV studio for a live performance. In 1963, the Beatles really took off, cracking the doldrums that had afflicted England since World War II. Beatlemania was something the country had never seen before. A US tour was planned for 1964, with no clear idea of whether they might make it in the States.
Dick somehow convinced the decision-makers in Granada to grant him a large enough budget to make a documentary film on how a local rock group was reaching for the big time in US. Before flying with the Beatles, he contacted Richard Leacock in New York and asked him to shoot it.
Leacock was too busy but recommended Albert Maysles, whom Dick had never heard of. Richard Leacock and Albert Maysles were among the cameramen who shot Primary. The Maysles brothers agreed to be filming at Kennedy Airport when the plane landed.
Their camera captured an unprecedented throng of thousands of banner-waving, screaming girls at JFK. The New York media attempted to take the Beatles down a notch, but the boys from Liverpool were witty enough to win over the country. Dick’s 25-minute British film was broadcast as Yeah! Yeah! Yeah! It was the first British example of cinéma vérité.
In 1967, Dick Fontaine obtained funds to do a film on one of his American heroes, Norman Mailer, whose notoriety and popularity were not what they had been 20 years before. In the midst of being followed around by filmmakers, Mailer decided to join the March on the Pentagon. In the course of the protest, he was arrested and briefly jailed. The result was the writing of his nonfiction novel, Armies of that Night, which won a Pulitzer and re-established Mailer as an important writer of the time.
Dick Fontaine and his cameraman are mentioned throughout the book. Mailer recounted their waiting for him when he was released from jail.
“Have they been treating you all right?’
“Yes, very correct. Americans are always correct except when they’re burning babies in foreign countries they know nothing about.” (That would go down well with the British.)
Now, in 1969, Dick was interviewing for an assistant for his second film on Norman Mailer. The film crew had spent the summer following Mailer on a personal political campaign. He was running for mayor of New York with the objective of making New York City the 51st State. The city’s financial reserves were nonexistent, the public services were dysfunctional, and maintenance of infrastructure even worse. At the same time New York City was a cash cow for the politicians in Albany and Washington, D.C. Tax dollars flowed out by the millions, if not the billions, but little came back. If New York City could become a state, the political balance might shift.
On this project Dick would have to share producer credit with financial types who had nothing to do with the filming. He decided to become the film’s editor. I was hired as the assistant editor. It was an honor and a thrill. Mailer was among the greatest of my American political heroes. A finished version was due for broadcast in New York in four or five weeks, but the forty hours of film was far from a rough-cut. Apart from the formal political speeches, all of it was undirected, unplanned and quite spontaneous. Clearly, this was a chance to plunge into the mysterious editing of cinéma vérité.
Raw footage, of course, is completely disjointed. Rarely is a camera turned on at the beginning of an interaction. There are always interruptions: a film magazine may run out and loading another one takes time. A pause, such as moving to the other side of a table to get a better shot or the suspension of sound recording due to the unnoticeable hum of an approaching aircraft, are all causes of the fragmented jumble of this type of filming.
The goal of the cameraman is the opposite of the goal of the film editor. The cameraman wants to take it all in. Everything is essential; as little as possible should be missed. A film editor, on the other hand, has to find a coherent narrative in this patchwork of sound and pictures. You have to be as true as possible to your sources while compressing the information and shaping it. Quite often, all you have is the middle of an event. Out of that you have to find a sentence or paragraph that occurs four minutes into a scene but can be used as a good beginning. You have to rearrange the sequence of a conversation so that there is as little distortion and as much compression as possible. As Frederick Wiseman put it, this kind of editing is “fictionalizing reality.”
Dick was an excellent teacher and I took to it like Br’er Rabbit to the briar patch.
With film, you have to keep reminding yourself of the critical trigger of Harry Cohn, the president of Columbia Pictures, a small studio in the 1930s and 40s. When his rear end began to itch or get restless, he knew the movie wasn’t good enough. Mr. Cohn was well aware that as you sit in a movie theater in an uncomfortable, unmovable chair, you are subjected to 48 flashes of light per second, showing you 24 different still pictures. In the process you are in total darkness most of the time. It is a lot to ask of an audience. Harry Cohn’s rear end is one of the reasons he produced fewer duds than the major studios.
Dick and I worked well together, which is how our mentor/student relationship quickly evolved into a partnership. He took ideas from me and I took ideas from him, which is why we eventually shared joint credit as co-editors on The Other Guys Are the Joke. Another reason I so quickly took to juggling these hundreds of bits of conversation and seemingly disparate visuals is that I am dyslexic, which gives me a heightened sense of visual thinking. As one member of my dyslexic tribe so aptly put it, “I rarely think in words at all. A thought comes, and I may try to express it in words afterwards.”
Out of 40 hours of film we soon had a little more than two hours of viable sequences. We then started putting them into different running orders, seeing how different sequences might bump up against each other. Some were easily eliminated, as other sequences contained similar information but were a lot more interesting to watch. Finally, we were down to about an hour and 20 minutes, still 30 minutes too long. At this point in the process the editor is sick of it. You know every word and every shot. You become ruthless in pursuit of a brevity and rhythm that will keep people watching till the end.
We finished the film on time. It sparkled.
A couple of weeks later, Nic Knowland invited me to come with him to the house owned by John and Yoko to cut one of her short film projects. The house was in Ascot, a posh suburb of London. It was a large Georgian mansion, Tittenhurst Park, that they had equipped with their own sound studio and film editing suite. John and Yoko were warm and gracious. The project involved
what looked like an 18th century balloon ride on a snowy winter day. John and Yoko, dressed in black capes, black scarves and hoodies, ascend with the balloon master, to a gray overcast sky.
At the house I saw some touching footage of John and Yoko in their kitchen after inviting in two American fans, who had somehow found the address of the house and camped out near the front gates with no tent in hopes of getting a glimpse of these two
superstars. John and Yoko offered them tea and something to eat while John told them, “I’m just an ordinary bloke. There’s nothing special about me.”
Shortly after Christmas 1969, Nic informed me that John and Yoko had a major project that needed a second film editor. Work on their feature-length film about their Bed-In in Canada had to be finished as quickly as possible. In the next month or so the documentary film of the Beatles’ recording sessions for Let It Be would be finished but its release would be postponed. None of the Beatles liked the album.
Part II – John and Yoko
By January 1970, the rancor that had been eating at the Beatles had become a cancer. The recording sessions of their latest album, Let It Be, had been filmed. The film was almost ready but nothing seemed to bring the album up to the vibrancy of a Beatle album.
Yoko had seen a rough cut of Let It Be and was extremely displeased. There was much too much of Paul and Linda and not enough of John and Yoko.
I don’t know where the earlier sessions of editing the film Bed Peace had occurred but by the time I was hired as a second film editor, the entire project had been moved to the Tattooists’ headquarters in Soho. John and Yoko considered it such a priority that they took up residence at a London hotel. It was urgent to get Bed Peace finished and blown up to 35mm. My fear: Yoko’s complaint, her aggressive indignation, suggested that my new job might involve attempting to deal with an ego the size of the Hindenburg.
The existing editor, Franco Rosso, had been working with Yoko, without an assistant, for many months. He was a recent graduate of the Royal College of Art and had done an excellent job of cutting the footage for Give Peace a Chance and other recorded songs, such as Instant Karma. But these were music videos.
There was also an eight-minute montage of John and Yoko’s marriage ceremony followed by travels through airports, beneath a soundtrack of Yoko screaming like a banshee and John strumming Because the World is Round. I suggested that at most it be cut down to no more than two minutes, only to find that Yoko considered the footage sacrosanct. It was among her best collaborations with Franco. The wailing montage would have to be the opening sequence in the final film.
Yoko Ono’s artistic background was avant-garde New York. She was a prominent member of Fluxus that held festivals in Europe, Asia, and North America. According to Wikipedia the group consisted of artists, composers, designers and poets who emphasized the artistic process over the finished product. Fluxus women created performance works, such as Yoko Ono’s Cut Piece, a stage performance in which the audience was invited to cut-off her clothing.
The rancor within the Beatles had come close to a breaking point with the recording of Abbey Road, their eleventh studio album, which gave rise to the popular rumor that Paul was dead.
In an attempt to get back to their roots, the Beatles had decided to do an album without the assistance of the gifted George Martin, who had at first had been their recording engineer – but by Sgt. Pepper was often referred to as the fifth Beatle.
Most of the recording sessions of Let it Be were filmed with handheld cameras in the Beatles’ sound studio. Recording sessions can be dreary. In an attempt to inject some energy into the footage some recordings were done with handheld cameras and Nagras on the roof of the Apple records, which was in the midest of a neighborhood of embassies and international corporations.
It was expected that a police raid would liven-up the film andit did. But none of the Beatles were satisfied with the music in Let it Be. The recordings on the roof were done during cold weather. Eventually, American record producer Phil Spector was brought in. He plastered the album with his Wall of Sound, and it was released in late spring 1970, as the Beatles finally broke up.
Yoko is often branded the Dragon Lady who caused the Beatles to falter. Certainly, her showing up for recording sessions, starting with the White Album did not help. But it was Paul McCartney who took the legal steps to end the Beatles. He rightly realized that the man who had nosed his way into becoming their manager, Allen Klein, intended to increase their royalties while personally controlling the rights to their recorded music. Paul and his father-in-law, a successful New York lawyer, cut Klein out by breaking up the Beatle partnership. Klein eventually went to jail for some of his business dealings. Had he remained manager, much of their music would have been degraded by being sold off as background music for toilet paper ads and the like.
This is not to say that John hadn’t played a part in the demise of the Beatles. He was the first to split off to make independent records with Yoko and the banality of Let It Be might be said to indicate that all the oxygen had gone out of the room.
John and Yoko had married in Gibraltar, honeymooned in Amsterdam with their first Bed-In for peace, and traveled on to Montreal for a second Bed-In.
The Canadian Broadcasting Corporation had decided to do a film of their visit. The CDC had invited a slew of people to visit John and Yoko’s hotel suite. Visitors would include not only the local Beatles Fan Club, and U.S. fugitive-felon antiwar draft dodgers, but also such celebrities as black comedian and activist Dick Gregory; Tommy Smothers, whose network television show had pushed the envelope and been canceled; LSD guru Timothy Leary and his wife Rosemary; poet Allen Ginsberg; and cartoonist Al Capp. It was an excellent brew for a cinema verite film.
Nic had shot more than 30 hours of footage, but it was extremely disjointed even for cinema verite. The film crew consisted of Nic and a soundman, but no assistant cameramen. This meant he had to unload the film negative and load new negative into a magazine in a light-tight black bag whenever he was out of usable magazines, leavinghuge gaps in events and conversations.
As we set to work, I took the footage of Dick Gregory and Franco took the footage of Timothy Leary and his wife. Within a day it was clear that Franco had no idea how to work with footage of this type. He was excellent at cutting music videos and would have been great with a scripted documentary, or a documentary with an announcer on camera. He also seemed flustered and tired of working with John and Yoko. He quit.
We had hired a young lady as an assistant film editor who in theory understood where all the different sequences and strips of film could be found hanging from the hundreds of little hooks in the trim bins. But Franco had been his own assistant editor and was the only person who actually
had any idea of where any of these strips of film were physically located. When Yoko wanted a particular shot that she recalled, the new assistant editor could never find it.
On the second day of working John asked, “Reilly? Are you Irish?”
“Yeah, my family’s made up of Reillys and Quinns and O’Reillys and Faheys, and not much else.”
“Three of the Beatles are Irish.”
And from Liverpool at that.
We suddenly had a bond. Much of Liverpool consisted of Irish whose families had escaped the famine but couldn’t get find passage to America. As Philip Norman put it in John Lennon, the Life, by far the best book I’ve read on the subject, Liverpool had “its back turned to the rest of Britain, its gaze fixed admiringly, yearningly, above all knowingly, on America. America came and went each day in transatlantic liners like the Queen Mary and the Mauritania, and in the savior faire of Liverpudlian crews whose easy familiarity with fabled cities far away earned them the nickname Cunard Yanks.”
John and Yoko’s campaign for peace was especially timely as events unfolded in 1968 and ’69. The conformity of the post-World-War II years was giving way to the restlessness of a new generation. In 1968 there were student insurrections in the United States, France, Japan, West Germany, Mexico, England and even Prague.
In May 1968, student demonstrations and protests in France were met with forceful confrontations by university officials and police. The discontent spread to the working class and there were massive general strikes, as well as occupation of universities and factories across France. Factory production ground to a halt, and the import and export of goods came to a standstill. For two weeks France was paralyzed and seemed on the brink of revolution. According to Wikipedia, President Charles de Gaulle fled to Germany, after secretly removing his personal papers from the Elysée Palace. He reportedly told his son-in-law that he did not want blood shed for his personal defense.
Almost half a million protesters marched through Paris, shouting, “Adieu, de Gaulle!” Government officials began destroying documents and wondering how far they would need to flee. There was, of course, the French army, but it consisted mostly of conscripts of the same age as the workers and students. Then De Gaulle reappeared, dissolved the National Assembly and called for new elections in six weeks.
Oddly, De Gaulle won the election in a landslide, but a cultural revolution had taken place. No longer would students and workers be as subservient to their masters. Cracks were opening in the traditional class system. Law-and-order types in the United States felt that the events in France would never have gotten out of hand if the French authorities had been given access to CS tear gas of the type that would soon be used by the governor of California.
In the United States, the antiwar movement so vexed President Lyndon Johnson that he decided not to seek a second term. In the spring of 1968, Dr. King was assassinated in Memphis, Tennessee, sparking a wave of riots in more than 100 cities. Robert Kennedy had announced as an antiwar candidate for the Democratic nomination but was gunned down on June 5, 1968.
Richard Nixon easily won the Republican nomination at a Miami convention center that could be walled-off and protected from protest. He had lost to Kennedy in his bid for president, and subsequently lost a bid to become governor of California. Now six years later Nixon had been resurrected with a new image and persona reworked by Roger Ailes, the media consultant who went on to become CEO of Fox News when it was created in 1996, and later became an advisor to the Donald Trump, where he assisted in debate preparations against Hillary Clinton.
The convention for the Democratic Party did not go as smoothly. It was held in Chicago, and at least 15,000 protesters showed up. On August 28, 1968, a full-fledged riot broke out. Five of the protest organizers were subsequently found guilty of crossing state lines to incite a riot and were sentenced to jail.
The subsequent report for the National Commission on the Causes and Prevention of Violence assigned blame for the riots on the police and called the violence “a police riot.” Nevertheless, it was later said that on that night, America voted for Richard Nixon, just as the French had re-elected De Gaulle.
After the mayhem of 1968, John and Yoko had correctly read the national yearning for an effective peace movement. Whether or not “peace” could be sold as readily as “soap” remained to be seen. John had always been cynical about idealistic students and their “revolution.” In 1968, he and other members of the Beatles had visited students at the Hornsey College of Art during a student strike sparked, like the strikes in Paris, by the rapid expansion in the enrollment at the college without a corresponding expansion in facilities or faculty. The Beatles were hard-nosed Liverpudlians, with little in common with these elite art students. Their visit gave rise to the song Revolution:
You say you’ll change the Constitution
Well, you know
We all want to change your head
You tell me it’s the institution
Well, you know
You better free your mind instead
But if you go carrying pictures of chairman Mao
You ain’t gonna make it with anyone anyhow
Don’t you know it’s gonna be all right
All right, all right
John and Yoko had arrived in Montréal by the time of the next major confrontation. At the University of California, Berkeley, a number of city blocks had been demolished to make way for new athletic fields and dormitories yet remained derelict lots of rubble for more than a year.
In April 1969, local merchants and community activists decided to turn the area into a People’s Park. After stories on their efforts appeared in the local newspaper, a landscape architect contributed services while more than 1,000 others contributed trees, plants, shrubs, sod and funding.
The University administration promised they would not proceed with any building without consulting the community. But California Governor Ronald Reagan saw things differently. Reagan called the Berkeley campus “a haven for communist sympathizers, protesters and sex deviants.” He considered the efforts to create a park a direct challenge to the property rights of the University. It was an opportunity to fulfill his campaign promise to crack down on student dissent.
In the initial clash, the California Highway Patrol and Berkeley police could not control the demonstrators. A number of sheriff’s deputies were chased by the demonstrators, who then turned over a police car and set it on fire.
According to Rolling Stone, “As the protest picked up – some estimates say it grew to around 6,000 people – Reagan’s Chief of Staff, Edwin Meese III, called for reserves. Nearly 800 officers responded, dressed in riot gear, many with badges skewered to hide their identity, went after the protesters with nightsticks swinging. As the protesters retreated, officers fired tear gas canisters and “00” buckshot at the crowd’s backs as they tried to escape.”
As the police began to use lethal force, John Lennon was on the phone to People’s Park leaders by way of a radio station that was broadcasting his advice. John’s words are perhaps his most eloquent in our film. He advised everybody that, “If it looks like violence just get out and let them have the park. It’s not worth killing yourselves for a park… You should keep [up]… a solid advertising campaign as they do to us. They are all the time selling their wars or selling their products. We must do the same.”
But by then things had gotten out of hand. A young bystander, watching from a roof, was killed by shotgun fire and another blinded. Ronald Reagan declared a state of emergency and called in the California National Guard. A curfew was successfully imposed. In spite of these measures, National Guard helicopters flew over the Berkeley campus, blanket bombing tear gas, CS gas with pepper. Wind dispersed the gas over the entire city, and even children swimming in a pool several miles away had to be taken to the hospital.
A year later, Reagan, speaking to a farmers’ convention in Yosemite of “Bloody Thursday,” said, “If it takes a bloodbath, let’s get it over with. No more appeasement.” According to the New York Times, “the crowd laughed and applauded.”
Of equal mindset were Richard Nixon and his Vice President, Spiro Agnew, who said, “This is the criminal left that belongs not in a dormitory, but in a penitentiary. The criminal left is not a problem solved by the Department of Philosophy, or the Department of English, it is a problem for the Department of Justice.” He was speaking to a group of Florida Republicans at a dinner in Fort Lauderdale on April 28, 1970.
Later that year he was quoted in the Washington Post as saying, “There are people in our society who should be separated and discarded.”
Eventually, it was gunfire and bloodshed that brought the “behavioral modification” that Spiro Agnew hoped for, just as it was gunfire and bloodshed that brought an end to the student protest in Tiananmen Square two decades later.
For millennials, the way in which these movements gathered strength is becoming unimaginable today. Even though social media has been credited with facilitating many public actions, such as the uprisings of the Arab Spring, it is becoming increasingly evident that the same magic little box, the smart phone, that can take videos of police killings and even broadcast them live, has also put an end to the invisibility and freedom that my generation enjoyed.
The stoners of my generation believed that the clarity of the images brought to light by Eclairs and Nagras together with the defiance of the new generation were proof of the dawning of the Age of Aquarius, a time of enhanced humanity, cooperation and peace. It might more accurately be called the dawning of the Age of Surveillance.
In the digital age, with infinite amounts of memory, the authorities can easily put together your movements, within a few feet, of all places that you might have gone on the 12th of May two years ago. They can tell you the telephone calls that you made and telephone calls you received. If you should choose to live without this addictive tracking device, there is always face recognition and closed-circuit television. There are algorithms that figure out your your tastes and nonconforming opinions by simply monitoring your Internet activity.
In China, it is unlikely there will ever be another Tiananmen Square. Millennials there, like millennials here, know they live in a “panopticon,” a concept conceived by 18th-century British philosopher, Jeremy Bentham, of a prison in which there is no privacy. Each cell is always well illuminated and is open on one side to a watchtower in the center. It creates fear, apprehension and “good behavior.”
In China if the tentacles of the digital panopticon have become aroused by your thoughts or behavior, you might be prohibited from riding on a high-speed bullet train or lose your permit to live in a city – or much worse.
After working with John and Yoko for several weeks I came to realize that in many ways they lived ina panopticon. Unlike the president of the United States, or the prime minister of Britain, they could not arrange for government agents to secure a restaurant or seats in a sports stadium and expect protection from being mobbed. They essentially had to live under a self-imposed house-arrest.
John and Yoko worked well together. They delighted in childlike spontaneity and had an anti- commercial and anti-establishment-art chip on their collective shoulder. She was clearly ADHD and at times it seemed that if she didn’t complete one of her ideas in one day she could never get back to it.
John was a deeply private man, who even disliked hearing his own voice when he was recording, and he could be moody. But Yoko could pull him out of his funks. It was as if she was his circus ringmaster, always bringing forth for him some new spectacle never tried before. John adored Yoko, and I have often wondered whether he would have lived as long as he did without her.
The most successful of Yoko’s film projects was a kind of scripted cinéma vérité film called Rape. Nic Knowland was the cameraman. He and his crew met Eva Majlata, a young 21year-old Hungarian, as she arrived at Heathrow Airport. She could not speak much English but was thrilled to be greeted by the paparazzi that followed her from the airport into London. Her sister was then living and working in London and was in on the joke. The thrill of the paparazzi soon wore off, but Nic and his crew were impossible to ditch.
They, of course, knew ahead of time all of her planned movements. If she visited a tourist site, such as Karl Marx’s grave, they were there waiting for her. If she walked across London Bridge, they were on the Bridge. If she went to her sister’s workplace, they were there waiting for her. This relentless filming and following went on for days, culminating with an early morning visit to the flat where she was staying. Nic had a key to the door and went in with his crew, cornering her in the apartment as she whimpered for mercy. Rape was commissioned by Austrian television and went to the Montreux Festival, the most prestigious of European television festivals. As one critic put it, “It does for the age of television what Franz Kafka’s The Trial did to the age of totalitarianism.”
Part III – Sleeping with Bed Peace
As the weeks of editing wore on, John and Yoko remained committed. They would show up at the Tattooists at about 11 most mornings and stay until almost midnight. Yoko would often remember two or three shots that she had seen before and wanted to add to a sequence, but these couldn’t be found in the trim bin. My assistant would find a description in the logbook compiled when the film was first developed. Next to the hand-written description of action filmed were the foot-by-foot edge numbers that corresponded to the edge numbers on the negative that was still held at the film lab.
Again and again, I would show up at the lab at midnight or a little later to ask a special favor of having the appropriate negatives pulled and new positive prints developed, hopefully by noon. Often, I would sleep on the cutting room floor. I was 26 at the time. Everyone who went in and out of the Tattooists’ offices was under 30, with the exception of Yoko.
When John and Yoko were around, it was always a circus. There were business calls from Apple, or close friends in the UK or the United States. At one point, Rosemary Leary called from Texas to let them know that Timothy had just been sentenced to jail on a minor drug offense – I believe it was a roach, the remnant of a marijuana joint, found in the ashtray of a car, probably because Richard Nixon considered Timothy Leary “the most dangerous man in America.” On another day, a con artist from the Netherlands had somehow managed to convince the Dorchester Hotel that his bill would be paid by John and Yoko, as he was part of their team for peace. John showed up one day with a new 12-string guitar that he had seen in the window of an instrument shop; he returned it three days later.
Food would be brought in once or twice during these 8- to 12-hour sessions. It was normally excellent vegetarian Indian food. For the first time I learned that food could simply be picked up with a piece of naan – no utensils necessary.
Often John would get bored with the film editing and do chalk drawings on the tables and desk in the other room. He would often use black tape to put up hexagrams that could be interpreted in the I Ching.
In early February, John told me that Yoko’s birthday was coming up and asked if I had any ideas. I said that as they had enough money to get pretty much anything they wanted, whenever they wanted, perhaps the present should be something that wouldn’t last very long but might spark a joyful sense of the unexpected. I suggested that he have a large delivery of flowers made every hour on the hour to the Tattooists’ office for at least eight hours and that he give her a large jar of caviar.
At about 10 a.m. on February 18, a large jar of caviar arrived from Fortnum and Mason. At 11 a.m. an extremely large bundle of well-arranged flowers arrived. The driver departed and five minutes later came back into the Tattooists’ office with another large well-arranged bundle of flowers. He did this six more times. Clearly his dispatcher had realized that all eight arrangements were to be sent to the same address and that a great deal of petrol could be saved by making one delivery.
John and Yoko did not show up at the Tattooists’ on Yoko’s birthday. The next day she was thrilled by the flowers, but it turned out she didn’t like caviar.
The curious thing was that when either of them needed to go to the public lavatory, located at ground-level in the mews and shared by other companies, they would go together and be gone for 15 minutes or so. None of us said anything to each other, but it seemed possible that they might have a
heroin habit and were shooting it up in the loo, perhaps giving new meaning to John’s strident lyric:
“Everybody’s got something to hide, except from me and my monkey!”
While John had a possible heroin monkey on his back, I had Harrods Department Store on mine. The urgent departure of my wife and our infant daughter had been triggered by my visiting mother-in-law. She made a take-it-or-leave-it offer. She would pay the cost of moving all our clutter back to the States if it were done while she was there. Everything went, down to plastic plates and dishtowels. A month later I got a bill for £2,000. The move had been charged to my wife’s account at Harrods. My name was on the account. I guess she and her mother were trying to send me a message.
By now the various sequences of Bed Peace were coming together. John and Yoko’s meeting with the Canadian Beatles Fan Clubs was the most touching. The best conversation was with Dick Gregory. The group that they might have expected to get along with, but did not, were the Vietnam War draft resisters. The only real argument came in a meeting with Al Capp.
Al Capp was a successful newspaper cartoonist whose Li’l Abner, a satire on hillbillies living in Dogpatch, Tennessee, ran from the mid-1930s to the late 1970s. At its peak it was read by 60 million people. In the 1960s he became enraged by student protest, the counterculture and the likes of John and Yoko.
He had a quick wit and a stiletto tongue. He was delighted to be invited to Montréal. He had done his homework and had acquired a Btitish copy of their Two Virgins album, which featured a black and white full-frontal photograph of John and Yoko in the nude (the cover photo was never released in the United States) I doubt that either of them knew who he was. They greeted him cordially, but he slashed at them verbally with all his wit and venom. It was vengeful; it was bizarre. They had to evict him from their hotel suite.
Al Capp was eventually arrested and tried for exposing his genitals to students at the University of Wisconsin and was fined $500. Both Grace Kelly and Goldie Hawn, in their biographies, recalled being sexually assaulted by Capp.
It was now time to start assembling a rough-cut of Bed Peace. As with the film on Norman Mailer, it was a matter of trial and error as to which scenes would work best in different trial sequences. It was immediately clear that the recording of Give Peace a Chance would be the high point, and that John’s telephone conversation with the activists in the People’s Park and the confrontation with Al Capp would be the two other most striking parts.
John and Yoko’s plan was for a film release at about the same time as the album release of Let It Be. They had a self-imposed deadline to get the final 16mm negative out to Technicolor to be blown up to 35mm as soon as possible. Let it Be had already crossed the finish line. We were all invited to a private screening. Yoko and John did not go, but it was important that the rest of us see it. At the screening I had the privilege of sitting to the left of George Martin, who was chatting to a person to his right. I was stunned by one comment. “Yoko Ono,” he said with bewilderment, “is the only person I’ve ever met who is tone deaf.”
What was unexpected in the film footage for Bed Peace was the lack of conversation between John and Yoko and their celebrity guests. Each of the guests arrived with particular things to say but there was no Stephen Colbert, no Johnny Carson – to provide counterpoint and wit. Most of the guests made their points, gave their stump speeches, but with little response from John and Yoko and no flowering of intellectual banter.
The film provided a unique picture of the 1960s, but only as a series of one-way interviews and vignettes. It was a talking-head picture in which the two principal heads didn’t really talk.
It finally occurred to me that the only way keep this film from failing the Harry Cohn itchy-butt test within the first couple of minutes after the wailing banshee montage would be to open with the Al Capp confrontation. Capp so successfully insulted and overwhelmed John and Yoko, that the viewer could readily see their shortcomings and sympathize with them.
This seemed to work.
As we juggled various sequences to come up with a watchable film, it had almost become apparent to Yoko that their assumed leadership of a new world-wide peace movement was really just a part of a much larger peace movement with multiple leaders, many of whom were in their film. She finally asked my opinion of their place in all of this. I was frank with her. She and John were important leaders in a movement with many important leaders.
She winced, as if I had deeply insulted her. She had never anticipated that I would betray her in this way. Years later she would write, “Dear Friends, In 1969 John and I were so naïve to think that doing the Bed-In would help change the world…” But on that evening in 1970 her aggressive determination would not be tempered by any comments I might make.
The next day her disappointment had turned to anger. She approached me with a piece of paper, handwritten notes to myself.
“Is this yours? This is your writing?”
It was a note to myself written on the margins of a piece of paper with printed text in the middle. My cursive handwriting started in the margin at the top of the sheet of paper but then made an abrupt right turn onto the right margin, as it got to the bottom it made another abrupt right turn so that the words were upside down in relation to the beginning of the note. As this note to myself spiraled inward there were incomprehensible phonetic spellings, understandable only to myself. Some letters leaned to the left and others to the right. The script got smaller and smaller as it spiraled in.
“Yeah, that’s mine.”
“Now I know you’re crazy.”
I wasn’t offended. This was not the first time my dyslexic scribbles had been thrown in my face. In this case the note was just her excuse.
Through Nic she hired another film editor by the end of the day. I was not asked to leave as that would have resulted in organizational mayhem. Suddenly the straitjacket, the tension was gone. I would not be sleeping on the cutting room floor anymore. For the first time in months I could look around my workplace.
There were a number of small companies occupying the mews off Greek Street. In the former ground-level stables were architectural offices, public relations offices, design studios and the like. On the second floors were those working in less prestigious occupations, such as film editors. Directly across from me, at eye level, were half a dozen middle-aged tailors putting the final hand stitches into gentlemen’s clothing for bespoke tailors on Savile Row.
Yoko went to work re-editing the scene that she disliked the most, the meeting with the draft evaders. It was changed from an intelligent, but quite friendly, sparring of opinions markedly different from those of Yoko into unintelligible gibberish, with Yoko doing most of the talking. It was then sent off to the negative cutters and on to Technicolor to be blown up to 35mm.
Neither Let it Be or Bed Peace was strong enough to merit a theatrical release on its own. Perhaps if each were cut to 50 or 60 minutes, they could have succeeded as a double feature on the demise of the Beatles.
One consequences of John and Yoko’s trip to Montréal was the writing and filming of Imagine, in a white room, with a white floor and a white piano, all lit by Nic Knowland. John had done a complete turnaround from his rejection of the idealism of the striking Hornsey Art School students and created perhaps his, and her, most memorable song.
Yoko was dissatisfied with Bed Peace and eventually re-edited it in New York so that her manifesto for world peace might be better understood. It was no longer a cinema verite documentary, but now credited Yoko as director. The film was so changed that you could no longer tell the difference between the Beatles Fan Club, the Red Rabbi, the fugitive draft dodgers or anyone else. The visuals looked as if they had been run through the blades of a Vitamix, leaving the overall impression of two people hounded by the paparazzi, insatiable fans and curious admirers. It had become a remake of Rape with John and Yoko too numb to cry for mercy.
The film was released in New York as The Bed-In and got horrible reviews. Years later, this re-edited version was renamed Bed Peace and made available on YouTube, where it can be found today without commercials (over 1 million viewers to date).
As for me, I had been working for John and Yoko 14 to 15 hours a day, seven days a week for 3 1/2 months at a reasonable hourly rate. I had covered my debts and had a bank account flush enough to acquire a rent-controlled flat in Knightsbridge, due to the forced eviction for multiple marijuana busts of an up-and-coming band known as The Third World War. I could even invite my infant daughter and charming American wife back to London, after she’d freaked-out and fled to the States, draining our meager savings account and kneecapping me with unexpected debt.
I had survived the Sixties. Oh, Lucky Man!
Jack Reilly was raised in Washington, DC. After graduating from the University of Pennsylvania he and his wife moved to London to attended the London International Film School. On the strength of an experimental film he got into the documentary film industry just as direct cinema was coming into its own. His most outstanding credits were as a film editor; he also directed infomercials for such companies as DuPont Chemicals, UK. In his last two years in London he taught at the Hornsey College of Art, while developing two feature film scripts, which were well regarded but never produced.