The Rolling Stone who stayed still
It must have been thirty or forty years ago, but I remember the clip vividly, as if I had watched it again and again in slow-motion – which I suppose I did in my mind’s eye. The camera pans across a stage and the drummer, completely immobile except for his hands, blinks slowly as it passes him by. The slightest gesture, but I had never seen anything so composed (cold-blooded, really), private (although it was a big stage, with thousands watching), and purposive.
Many years later, in an anthology edited by Luc Sante and Melissa Holbrook Pierson, I read Dave Hickey’s essay on Robert Mitchum, which quotes the actor at length:
A real gun is a very serious instrument. It has serious implications and terrible consequences, so you have to handle a gun like that, as if it were serious – as you would handle a very serious thing. If you do this, your character gets real in a hurry – your character steals the reality of the gun, which the audience already believes. On stage, it’s just the reverse. The setting and props are fake. Or even if they’re real, they look fake. So it’s a completely different thing. Also, the stage is still. When you’re acting in a film, you know that when people finally see what you’re doing, everything will be moving. There will be this hurricane of pictures swirling around you.
The projector will be rolling, the camera will be panning, the angle of shots will be changing, and the distance of the shots will be changing, and all these things have their own tempo, so you have to have a tempo, too. If you sit or stand or talk the way you do at home, you look silly on the screen, incoherent. On screen, you have to be purposive. You have to be moving or not moving. One or the other … A lot of times, in a complicated scene, the best thing to do is stand absolutely still, not moving a muscle. This would look very strange if you did it at the grocery store, but it looks OK on screen because the camera and the shots are moving around you.
Then, when you do move, even to pick up a teacup, you have to move at a speed. Everything you do has to have pace, and if you’re the lead in a picture, you want to have the pace, to set the pace, so all the other tempos accommodate themselves to yours.
I thought immediately of Charlie Watts – the Rolling Stone who stayed still as the hurricane swirled around him. Watts was dignified, in a world where dignity was never valued. Gifted, musically, in a way that none of the other Stones (Mick Taylor excepted) really were. Keith Richards had his heroin chic thing in place. Mick Jagger was more like cocaine: gimlet-eyed, fishy and gorgeous and hideous, taking himself very seriously, not being funny (qualities that applied to Brian Jones, too). But Watts gave the sense of someone who was in on the joke. In a smart piece about Exile on Main Street, Ben Ratliff quotes the Stones’ sometime producer, Don Was:
You’ve got five individuals feeling the beat in a different place. At some point, the centrifugal force of the rhythm no longer holds the band together. That [alternate take of] ‘Loving Cup’ is about the widest area you could have without the band falling apart.
That was all Charlie Watts’s doing. Like Robert Mitchum, he knew what it took to hold things together (which wasn’t the easiest thing in the world in his case, with Keith Richards running the musical show): as so often, it came down to the timing.