I gather that Charlotte Zwerin, who was feted with a November 2003 series at the Harvard Film Archive, is shy and reticent, a major reason that hardly anyone knows her lustrous name. That's even though she's the credited filmmaker for Thelonious Monk: Straight No Chaser (1989), perhaps the greatest jazz documentary, and she's a co-director with Albert and David Maysles for their non-fiction masterworks, Salesman, Gimme Shelter, and Running Fence.
Isn't inaccuracy of the press a factor in her obscurity?
Most often, journalists honor the works above as "Maysles' Brothers films." Is sexism a factor? I've heard Albert Maysles speak on at least four occasions; I can't recall, even as he elegized his late brother, David, his discussing Zwerin's contribution. However, there is a quote of praise in one Albert Maysles interview: "And the quality of the work of our editors-like Charlotte Zwerin-was so extraordinary that you have to give them a filmmaker's credit."
Zwerin grew up in Detroit, attended Wayne State University, where she started a film society. She came to New York, slowly became an editor, worked for television in the 1950s including at Drew Associates, run by the pioneer of cinema verite, Robert Drew, and there she met the Maysles. At one time, she was married to the jazz critic, Michael Zwerin, and took his last name. She edited for others, including an Academy Award-winning film about Robert Frost, but she really came into her own employed on Salesman.
The Maysles provided the picture and sound of four door-to-door, Boston-based Bible salesmen, and Zwerin, far away in an editing suite, figured out brilliantly how to structure the story. Her ignorance of knowing the real-life salesmen was, she's since explained, her secret strength: she made a narrative, without sentimentality or directorial regrets for what hadn't been shot, adhering to the footage before her. "I think this removal from the scene," Zwerin has said, "helped my judgment and helped me to understand more clearly what the viewer would feel."
Zwerin directs, only rarely being on the set! Even the Thelonious Monk film was put into her hands, by producer Bruce Ricker, with much of the fabulous Monk material already in the can, photographed by Michael and Christian Blackwood. Ricker, a Cambridge resident, is the person responsible for the Zwerin retrospective, the first ever in America, which premiered in June 2003 at the Museum of Modern Art. He will lead a conversation about Zwerin at the Nov.1 HFA Straight, No Chaser screening. Ricker told me, "Clint Eastwood has contributed his brand new private print."
I ask Ricker about his pal, Zwerin. "Charlotte's a pioneer of cinema verite, and this tribute is way overdue. She's in the tradition of directors who come out of editing, like Hal Ashby and Robert Parrish. She once said that her major influences are David Maysles and jazz pianist, Tommy Flanagan. She gathers all the material and shapes it into a piece of work that's musical in nature. She's got a keen eye and she's a great arranger, like Gil Evans working with Miles Davis. Also, she's a very good listener, the key to making a good documentary."
Several Zwerin works were unavailable for advance screening: Sculpture of Space: Noguchi, ccelebrating the sculpture-without-boundaries of Isamu Noguchi, and Toru Takemitsu: Music for the Movies, about the Japanese composer for films of Kurosawa and Oshima. A major revelation is De Kooning on de Kooning, in which the audience eavesdrops on conversations at his East Hampton home with the great Abstract Expressionist, and, for five miraculous minutes at the end, watches a deeply absorbed De Kooning paint away. I never knew that such footage existed, this intimate visit with a laid-back, humorous Willem De Kooning and his intense, intellectually driven wife, Elaine De Kooning, her spouse's biggest promoter.
The subject of Arshile Gorky (1982 had been long dead when Zwerin made this 29-minute film. Much time is devoted to a poignant interview with Gorky's surviving wife, Agnes Fielding, dealing with the many demons precipitating her artist husband's suicide. Ella Fitzgerald: Something to Live For (1999) suffers because Zwerin is boxed into the impersonal format of a PBS American Experience. But the jazz-loving filmmaker subverts TV requirements by giving over long segments to uncut Ella singing away, with, among others, Nat "King" Cole, Sinatra, and, most thrillingly, the Duke Ellington Band.
(Boston Phoenix November, 2003)