When the Rafael Theater in San Rafael held a 50th anniversary screening of “Monterey Pop” this past June, I went to see it with my 22-year-old son Zachary to recall the feelings of the Summer of Love.
The theater was packed with people around age 70. As Californians, they might have been at Monterey, 50 years ago to the day, for what was a pretty grand event — even if it rained some in June 1967. Many of the veteran moviegoers at the Rafael were rocking and rolling in their seats as the great performers came on screen — Janis Joplin, the Mamas & the Papas, The Who, Otis Redding, Jimi Hendrix, and the man who stole the show: Ravi Shankar.
The people who made the film, led by D.A. Pennebaker, were determined to show just on-stage action. They weren’t interested in asking the musicians why they were there, or getting the kids in the crowd to say what it all meant to them. But a lot more comes through in the film: the kids in sleeping bags, absorbing hamburgers and hash, knowing they were seeing wonders but realizing that a pop festival could be like a badly organized camp. There’s even a shot of Brian Jones in the crowd — still a Rolling Stone then, still alive — looking gloomy. The Stones had been forbidden to play at Monterey because of their various legal problems. And I’d still rather hear Ravi Shankar play for 20 minutes (he was on stage for hours) than listen to Mick and Keith fulminate against restrictions on their liberty.
Monterey ’67 was an innovation. Woodstock came two years later, and the Stones did Altamont. Monterey was thrown together with only a few weeks’ notice. Tickets were in the $3 to $6 range. Pennebaker’s crew had new 16mm cameras with reliable synch sound, and the extraordinary musicians did the rest. Watching it in 2017, a bunch of happy Californians on Social Security were sure it had been a great time. Zachary had a look in his eyes — not too common — as if to believe that his parents might have once seen some magic.
Do you remember 1967? There were be-ins in Golden Gate Park in San Francisco and Central Park in New York. Ronald Reagan was inaugurated as governor of California. “Bonnie and Clyde” and “The Graduate” opened. Jimi Hendrix’s “Are You Experienced” and the Beatles’ “Sergeant Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band” were released. In San Francisco, something that would be called the Summer of Love was happening — that name had smoother connotations than the Summer of Sex. Charles Manson moved to the city so as not to be left out.
The mood of the summer wasn’t just about love, however. Throughout 1967, there were marches and demonstrations against the Vietnam War. The death toll there kept mounting, with maybe 10 Vietnamese casualties for every American. Or was it 20? But the war’s commanding general, William Westmoreland, told the world that the enemy forces were clearly losing. No one told the enemy or deterred their offensive in early 1968. There was another war, for six days, in the Middle East, just a few days before the Monterey Pop festival, and its results are still there, obdurate, cruel and insurmountable.
But lot of us were getting enough love or sex, music or excitement to be giddy with being alive. In so many ways, if you’re going to be fully alive you need to set history aside. Without that blithe approach, you can end up too close to despair. Brian Jones looked lost in the overcast at the Monterey Fair Grounds, but he didn’t know what was coming.
I was in that frame of mind, this past June, because around the same time I rewatched “Monterey Pop,” I was also watching a preview of another important work about the same era: the 18 hours of “The Vietnam War,” the PBS series directed by Ken Burns and Lynn Novick. Like Pennebaker, Burns and Novick are among our finest documentarians. And, like “Monterey Pop,” “The Vietnam War” is a landmark documentary. Indeed, I think it is the best film I have ever seen — assuming that a great movie can be 18 hours long. Why not? The real war in Vietnam went on so much longer.
Why is this documentary so good? Well, it’s because it is a passionate but judicious work of history, of political disaster and military accident, of stupidity armed to the teeth with modern weapons and recondite military strategy. It is great because it has as many Vietnamese witnesses as Americans and because it makes plain the extent of ongoing tragedy in Vietnam, even if that country seemed to have had a resilience at recovering from the war that the United States did not match. You see, the war mattered to the Vietnamese more than self-importance. As someone says in the film, that war drove a stake into the heart of America. So much of our barely suppressed cultural civil war comes from the late ’60s and early ’70s.
But the 18 hours work because Burns and Novick have found 20 or so witnesses who speak candidly about what happened to them in the war and how they digested the unspeakable experience. If a great film is one at which you weep constantly without a storm of shame for your tears, then “The Vietnam War” is a great film. It may even be that the ordeal of the film will be too much for many viewers. If you’re going to do history, you need to be braver than ordinary soldiers on a much longer tour of duty.
The years 1967-69 seemed like a pivotal period at the time — though we felt the world turning but had no way of controlling it. The truth about the Monterey Pop festival would have to include much more than the interplay of Shankar’s fingers on the sitar and his accompanying drums. The love be-in that we were hoping for was shot through with drugs, dysfunction and compromise. It was an era of assassinations and political suspense, yet young people were having maybe the greatest time they had ever had. My wife cut inches off the hems of her dresses to turn them into minis and made the remnants into ties for me. It was bliss, and we ended up divorced.
Well, what do you expect, you should ask yourself. Didn’t Tolstoy know the structure had to be war and peace? Wasn’t there a weird harmony in Janis Joplin twisted in the fervor of singing and a Vietnamese child, naked but for napalm, running down a road in Asia? There’s no longer a military draft, but my son Zachary — home in California, having graduated into a time that may not need him — looks at his world now and seems as wary as someone in a lottery he cannot understand. With its mixture of love, peace, music, war, drugs and protest, 1967 was out of control — isn’t that always our world’s way? But things felt exciting then, and now the mood has shifted. Somehow the stake is in our hearts still, and we do not know how to be rid of it.
“The Vietnam War”
• Ken Burns and Lynn Novick
• 10 Episodes
• Airing on PBS beginning Sept. 17
RECOMMENDATIONS: Landmark Documentaries
• “Stories We Could Tell,” Sarah Polley, 2013: A brilliant, witty and very tricky exploration of the filmmaker’s family origins.
• “O.J.: Made In America,” Ezra Edelman, 2016: Not just the definitive portrait of O.J. Simpson, but a masterly portrait of sport, celebrity, race, intermarriage and Los Angeles.
• “Portrait of Jason,” Shirley Clarke, 1967: Jason is a black, gay prostitute living in the Chelsea Hotel. All he does is talk about his sad self — and the result is riveting.