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Charlotte Zwerin: 1931-2004

By Tom White

Charlotte Zwerin, working on Thelonious Monk: 'Straight, No Chaser.'

Charlotte Zwerin passed away in January of lung cancer, and while we noted her death in the Short Takes column in the April issue, we felt it was especially appropriate for this issue, which focuses on music and documentaries, to pay a more prominent tribute.

Zwerin is best known for her work with David and Albert Maysles, editing and earning a co-director credit on the epochal films Salesman (1969) and Gimme Shelter (1970), as well two films about the artist Christo: Running Fence (1978) and Islands (1987).

Her work outside of Maysles Films included portraits of artists such as Willem de Kooning—De Kooning on de Kooning (1981)—and Isamu Noguchi—Sculpture of Spaces: Noguchi (1995). Her lifelong devotion to music—she had been married to jazz critic Michael Zwerin—is evident is such works as Horowitz Plays Mozart (1987), Thelonious Monk: Straight No Chaser (1989), Music for the Movies: Toru Takemitsu (1994) and Ella Fitzgerald: Something to Live For (1999).

Zwerin was the subject of a 2003 retrospective at the Museum of Modern Art in New York. She was working on a documentary about jazz pianist Tommy Flanagan before she died.

Documentary spoke to various individuals who worked with Zwerin to share their thoughts and memories of her.


"When I finally saw [ Gimme Shelter ] released, I was stunned by the opening of the Altamont sequence; Charlotte had compressed my experience of the first eight hours of the day into a sequence that really gave you a sense of the danger and chaos that was there that day. And I knew because I had shot all the footage and it was burned into my memory. I knew just how much work it had been to put all that together, and it was mostly my footage that she had used to compress.

My most intense memory of Charlotte is just how sharp she was in filmmaking and just how much she could cut to the central issue in a particular sequence or film or whatever it was you were discussing with her. She really was a great editor."

—Stephen Lighthill, ASC, one of the cinematographers on Gimme Shelter .


"What she did was adopt a 24/7 approach to the footage. She would just lock herself in with the footage and look at it over and over again. She would have a good sense of pacing, and she was a really good listener. I think it was a sense of absorption into the material.

We were all just so stunned about how well the Monk film came out. It was almost like we had fulfilled our duty to Monk's music, and she had fulfilled it. What she was really nervous about was that Monk wouldn't be presented properly. Charlotte decided that there wouldn't be any experts or interpreters in [the film], so we could get in as many solos by Monk on piano as possible. So the film is almost driven by piano solos of Monk and his compositions. Charlotte had the idea that if we carry the film by its music, then it would last much longer."

—Bruce Ricker
Producer, Thelonious Monk: Straight No Chaser


"She's the best. I've worked with a few editors, and I think even they would acknowledge that Charlotte was the very best. One problem that one could have with editors is that they over-edit, but she had the good sense to let things move along. The photography was such that it sustained itself without needing to go to a reaction shot. She would let it keep going. That was one of her skills. The other thing was that you would look at one of our films that she edited and I, knowing everything that I had shot, recognized that the very same truths that existed in the original uncut footage remained predominant in the final film. She had the skill of not over-exerting her privilege as an editor.

When we were in the middle of editing Gimme Shelter , my brother and I remembered that the Stones had asked to see some of the rushes. We took advantage of that request on their part and showed them some of the stuff, and we filmed them watching it. That idea came from my brother and Charlotte. The film would've been a far weaker film without that."

—Albert Maysles


"She had a way in all her films of capturing the artist's intention and passion. She was a great observer of people, and that was what she brought to her work as a director.

I always thought that her love of music informed her approach to editing. It was almost a mystical process sometimes; it was very organic. When she would finally end up in the editing room, the way she approached structuring the film was as if she was composing the film."

—Margaret Smilow
Producer, Music for the Movies: Toru Takemitsu ; Isamu Noguchi: Sculpture of Spaces ; Fine Tuning: The Pacific Music Festival Experience.


Thomas White is editor of Documentary.