Tuesday, August 13, 2019

In Memoriam: D. A. Pennebaker 1925-2019

 Filmmaker D.A. Pennebaker was a pioneer in a type of film style known as cinéma vérité (truthful cinema.) Though the term has been used to describe such disparate offerings as the feature films of Robert Altman and John Cassavetes, TV series such as Hill Street Blues and The Office, and even the occasional commercial, it was first and still foremost a style of documentary that emerged in France toward the end of the 1950s and soon caught on in the United States as well. What made cinéma vérité possible was the recent availability of hand-held cameras, which allowed a more intimate, naturalistic look at whatever a film's subject matter. The method also eschewed traditional voice-of-God (or Edward R. Murrow) style of narration, and often didn't even have people talking directly to the camera, all in an effort to make sure the viewer felt they were right there in the room with the film's participants. One thing the viewer didn't see, however, was the hand-held camera actually doing the filming, a detail the documentary's participants may have noticed right away. This has led to the common criticism the people you're watching in the supposedly non-fiction movie may in fact be less than vérité  to make themselves to look good on camera. This used to bother me too, until it dawned on me that people often lie through their nonmiked teeth even when there's no camera around. You want total honesty? Sneak into someone's bedroom while they're talking in their sleep.

As for Pennebraker, he got his start as an assistant to Robert Drew, who basically invented the American branch of cinéma vérité with his groundbreaking 1960 documentary Primary, a depiction of the struggle between Hubert Humphrey and the young upstart John F. Kennedy for presidential delegates in Wisconsin. Striking out on his own, Pennebaker chose not politics but rock 'n' roll for his first film: 1967's Don't Look Back, detailing Bob Dylan's 1965 tour of England, as well as the disintegration of his relationship with then-girlfriend Joan Baez, and culminating in the suspense-filled arrival of Scottish singer and supposed folk music rival Donovan, who when he finally arrives looks as though he wished he were in some other documentary. Dylan himself comes across less as the messianic figure that his most ardent admirers imagine him to be and more like a hipster contrarian, which, as a casual fan of the man's music, is fine with me. Ironically the most famous scene in this mostly naturalistic film is one that's decidedly unnaturalistic: Dylan holding up cue cards as "Subterranean Homesick Blues" plays in the background. The success of Don't Look Back established Pennebaker as the leading cinematic chronicler of the 1960s counterculture (though the Maysles brothers were a close second.) Pennebaker  and Dylan worked again on a second film titled Eat This Document though the latter eventually took it out of the former's hands. Why? I think he just his frustrations out on Pennebaker. Dylan is pissed-off through most of the film, and with good reason as the former folkie-turned-rocker is continuously heckled by folk purists who apparently spend on a lot of money on concert tickets just to get their betrayal by electric guitar out of their systems. Dylan also chats with John Lennon in the back seat of a car. The normally witty Lennon seems at an uncharacteristic loss for words as ends up playing straight man to an obviously inebriated Dyan.  Never commercially released, Eat This Document exists as a bootleg video, and of course can be found on the internet.

Next up for Pennebaker was his next great musical documentary of the decade, 1968's Monterey Pop, considered rock's first big festival as well as a predecessor to Woodstock. Unlike the Don't Look Back, this documentary (or "rockumentary") was a more straightforward concert film. But if you like the music of that era, what a concert! And the crowd is as much of a part of the film as the music being they "ooh" and "ah" each performance. Probably one of the more memorable bits of "oohing and "ahing" comes from Mama Cass during Janis Joplin career-making performance of "Ball and Chain". Then there's Jimi Hendrix, who sets his guitar on fire, a scene that I'm sure has brought many a Hard Rock Cafe franchise owner to tears.

Pennebaker, now the go-to person for rock movies, went on to make films about the aforementioned John Lennon, David Bowie, Alice Cooper, and Depeche Mode. But there were  docs on other subjects as well. He agreed to produce fellow documentarian  (and later his wife) Chris Hegedus' film Town Bloody Hall about a 1971 debate between Norman Mailer and some notable feminists of the era (when the notable feminists of the era, such as Diane Trilling and Germaine Greer, aren't debating each other.) There were also foray into Broadway with films about Stephen Sondheim and Elaine Stritch, a movie about country music, and his most notable non-rock cinema offering The War Room, in which we see James Carville and George Stephanopoulos successfully plot to make Bill Clinton president (The economy, stupid.)

When motion pictures came into existence around 1890 or so, it wasn't obvious and wouldn't be for another dozen years that fictional storytelling was to be the medium's primary purpose. In the beginning, every movie was a documentary, if you define documentary as something that's basically nonfiction. A motion picture was seen as an extension of photography, not the theater (even as they were being shown in theaters.) People back then assumed it would always be that way. Instead, nonfiction fell by the cinematic wayside, and may have disappeared altogether if not for the efforts of such folks as D.A. Pennebaker. Cultural trends may come and go, but reality will always be with us.

The guy with the beard in the background is beat poet Allen Ginsberg.

Rock, rock, rock! For a change of pace, how about some...

...Sondheim and Stritch?

OK, let's all end this on a non-musical note, though the following clip may make one think of a song anyway. Politically, I'm closer to Bernie Sanders than the Clintons, but can't help but be charmed by this bit of nostalgia:

 Ah, life before fascism. Memories light the corners of my mind/Misty water-colored memories of the way we were...




  1. He certainly had a long and illustrious career.

  2. Orville Redenbacher for president 2020!

    Hi, Kirk!

    I enjoyed your tribute to filmmaker D.A. Pennebaker who died at the start of the month at the age of 94. I appreciate his cinéma vérité style of film making. The hand-held "steady cam" and "eavesdropping" camera angle with 3/4 frontal shot of an interview subject, are techniques used in many types of productions in recent years. I didn't know that Pennebaker shot those counterculture films and rockumentaries. Monterey Pop was indeed a major event in rock history and a great documentary film. I enjoy those closeups of Mama Cass, her attention riveted and clearly mesmerized by Janis Joplin's incendiary performance. I very much enjoyed the rare clip of Dylan and Donovan performing for each other and the Don't Look Back interview. Seemed like John Lennon couldn't wait for that car ride to end. I don't care how big a star you are, if you are an obnoxious drunk, I don't want to be anywhere near you. I noticed Mama Cass came up in that convo. That's an iconic scene of Jimi Hendrix on stage lighting up his guitar at the end of his show. I can relate. In high school, I was a member of an unsuccessful, short lived garage band. We made the mistake of destroying our instruments BEFORE the performance. I loved Jimmy Carvelle's address to the troops in The War Room. How true it is: "the harder you work, the luckier you are." I know Carvelle will be joining the pundits on MSNBC election night 2020 to give his expert analysis. I hope he'll be grinning from ear to ear.

    Thanks, good buddy Kirk!

  3. Shady, you think Bob Dylan is bad? You should see me after a single Budweiser. It's enough to make Keith Richards turn his head in disgust.

    1. :) :) :) They said Johnny Carson couldn't hold his booze either and was a mean drunk.

    2. Oh, I'm not a mean drunk, Shady, just a silly one. But then I'm pretty silly sober, too.

      Maybe that's why no one's offered me a late night talk show.