With a background in photography, I was initially attracted to the visual elements of cinema. But the first time I worked with great actors, my interest immediately shifted. Now, capturing a performance is all that matters to me; everything else is just there to enhance that moment.
A great performance occurs when someone disappears into what they are doing and everything that comes out of their body is fluid and true and channeling something subconscious. Of all the great performances in Criterion Collection films that have shaped my life, one stands out—but it’s not by an actor. Six minutes of D. A. Pennebaker’s documentary Monterey Pop preserve a moment in time and a performance that has captured my heart and imagination like no other: Janis Joplin singing “Ball and Chain” at the Monterey International Pop Festival.
A long lead-in by a wailing guitar brings the listener into a trance. The handheld 16 mm camera scans the all-male band onstage; then, suddenly, there is a hard cut to a static shot of a woman in profile, big head of frizzy hair covering most of her face. She starts to sing, and all it takes is one line: “Sitting down by my window, looking out at the rain.” I was mesmerized. Janis is entirely in the moment, gold slip-on shoes kicking the floor unconsciously, every ounce of emotion flowing out of her. She looks fierce: lips pursed and brow furrowed. The pain behind each word comes through on her face as her voice continues to reach new levels. And she means it. I believe every single word. Isn’t that what we want as filmmakers, to discover performances that are absolutely true and present?
The performance is so intense that you almost crave a break. The film cuts to Mama Cass, mouth agape, staring up in disbelief. This iconic shot of Cass solidifies my emotion—I’m not the only one feeling this way. The moment in time that Pennebaker captures is what most consider to be the arrival of Janis Joplin. And as the song finishes, we see why.
As she turns to walk offstage, her soft, smiling face passes through the frame in close-up. In some ways, we see Janis here for the first time. The tense, focused energy has lifted from her body. She looks like a different person: younger, prettier, and more at peace. The scene ends with Janis skipping offstage like a child, excited and relieved that everything went well. A stark contrast with the ferocious blues singer seen just seconds earlier. The filmmaker beautifully reveals the complicated duality of this woman.
Who was this woman? How did she display such intensity and then immediately transform into a little girl, skipping offstage? This scene shows us Janis, completely in the moment, channeling her emotions, captivating the audience, taking the viewer into another world, raising questions, and leaving everyone wanting more. It’s pure performance and pure filmmaking.
Sean Durkin is the writer/director of the award-winning film Martha Marcy May Marlene.