D. A. Pennebaker: Observation as Action

On Film / The Daily — Aug 6, 2019
D. A. Pennebaker

When news broke this weekend that groundbreaking documentary filmmaker D. A. Pennebaker had passed away at the age of ninety-four, it was reported that he was working on his memoir. If that book eventually appears in some form or other, it will undoubtedly include a chapter or two on Pennebaker’s collaboration in the early 1960s with Robert Drew, Richard Leacock, and Albert Maysles. These four filmmakers led a team that, as Eric Hynes put it in Sight & Sound in 2016, “innovated a method for recording picture and sound on the go that quite flatly—no hyperbole needed—revolutionized documentary filmmaking.”

The book might also offer a fresh anecdote culled from the making of Dont Look Back (1967), the sui generis portrait of a transformational artist at a crucial turning point in his career. The longest and happiest passages would cover Pennebaker’s years working with his wife and partner, Chris Hegedus. Among the dozens of long and short films they made together is The War Room (1993), a chronicle so revealing of the whatever-it-takes tactics of a winning political campaign that we probably won’t see the likes of it again. Even without the book, though, we have the stories and insights Pennebaker related over the years in countless interviews in which he was as generous with his time as he was with praise for his collaborators and support for young and aspiring filmmakers.

In a 2017 interview for Film Comment, Daniel Eagan got Pennebaker to reflect on his own youth. He grew up in the Chicago of the late 1920s and ’30s, a city “exploding with jazz.” As a boy, he began collecting 78 rpm records—“Fats Waller, Louis Armstrong, all those names.” Years later, he found himself thinking “about how jazz influenced me,” and “I realized that I learned how to edit film by listening to those 78 rpm records.” A track like Armstrong’s “West End Blues” would have originally run around twenty minutes and would be cut down to just over three for the vinyl release. “Listening to those 78s taught me how to create scenes from a lot of information,” Pennebaker told Eagan.

Penny, as he was known to his friends and admirers, studied engineering at Yale and even founded a company, Electronics Engineering, before discovering his true passion. A friend, filmmaker Francis Thompson, “needed help, someone who could drive him around and things,” he told Eagan, and he began working with Thompson on N.Y., N.Y., an abstract reverie capturing a day in the life of the city that wouldn’t be released until 1957. N.Y., N.Y. is clearly an influence on Pennebaker’s first solo project, Daybreak Express (1953), an exuberant five-minute run along the elevated tracks down Third Avenue set to Duke Ellington’s 1933 recording of the tune that gave the film its title. The opening shots, set alight by the rising sun, would be echoed in the thrilling shots of Otis Redding singing “I’ve Been Loving You Too Long” and glowing in the halo of a spotlight in Monterey Pop (1968).

In 1959, Pennebaker and Albert Maysles spent a summer in Russia filming Opening in Moscow, shot at the history-making American exhibition on a small, wind-up camera. When they returned to the States, they began working with Robert Drew, Richard Leacock, and inventor Mitch Bogdanowicz on something better, an Auricon 16 mm camera light enough to be freed from the tripod, mounted on a shoulder, and synched up with a portable sound recorder. The team that would eventually become Drew Associates, funded by Time-Life, set about launching what would become known as the Direct Cinema movement.

Their first feature, Primary (1960), which tracked the dueling presidential campaigns of John F. Kennedy and Hubert Humphrey in Wisconsin, was the game-changer. “It is not an exaggeration to say that before Primary, documentary as we know it today—the art of candid observation—didn’t exist,” writes Thom Powers here in the Current. “Not the equipment, not the techniques, not the philosophy. The Drew team was making it up as they went along.” They stuck to their founding principles: No God-like voiceover narration and no talking head interviews. Seek out the action, observe, frame, and shoot—which is not as simple as it sounds. At RogerEbert.com, Matt Zoller Seitz writes about what makes the “Pennebaker shot” so distinctive: “It’s active, it’s searching, it’s restless. It’s never inattentive to what’s right in front of it, but at the same time, it is constantly aware of the entire room . . . It’s a physical skill, this sort of camerawork. It’s athletic.”

Talking to Sam Adams at the A.V. Club in 2011, Pennebaker recalled the thrill of discovery in those early days. “When we got equipment in hand,” he said, “what was possible was so much more incredible than we had ever imagined.” The second crucial Drew Associates feature is Crisis: Behind a Presidential Commitment (1963), which crosscuts between Washington, D.C. and Alabama, where the governor, George Wallace, was determined to keep two black students from enrolling in the university. In the White House, as President Kennedy and his brother, Attorney General Robert Kennedy, quietly weighed their options, Drew’s team made the most of their unprecedented access. Pennebaker stayed in touch with RFK over the years, and as he told Eagan, he was supposed to have been at the Ambassador Hotel in Los Angeles on June 5, 1968, when Bobby was assassinated. “The thought that I might have filmed him getting killed just filled me with such despair that I almost gave up filmmaking,” he said.

Drew’s team began to drift apart even before Crisis, and in 1962, Pennebaker set out to make his first full feature as a director. Jane focuses on Jane Fonda, twenty-five at the time, and aiming to bolt out from under the shadow of her famous father, Henry, and establish her reputation as a serious actress. But the Broadway show she stages with her boyfriend director, The Fun Couple, flops. Talking to David Schwartz at New York’s Museum of the Moving Image in 2010, Chris Hegedus recalled seeing Jane, “absolutely my favorite film,” for the first time. “It has a very dramatic film structure, and it’s told like a fiction film. I felt like, okay, it looks like somebody just shot it themselves. I’m a cameraperson; I know that I can do that. And that was it. You just find a real-life story, somebody going through something really dramatic, and you be there for it. That was it. I was trying to make a living with graphic arts in New York, and I just threw everything away. After that film was when I made the commitment.”

A few years after Jane, Pennebaker, now well and truly out on his own, was invited by Albert Grossman, who managed a handful of folk and rock stars, to tag along as Bob Dylan toured England. The year was 1965, Dylan was as big as they come, and he was about to go full-blown electric. Pennebaker wasn’t sure what Grossman wanted—perhaps a few good minutes of footage to use as promotional material. “He didn’t hire me,” Pennebaker assured Eagan. “In fact, I paid for the film. He just said come along. Nobody paid me anything. I was told that I could do it. It was as simple as that.”


In England, Pennebaker soon discovered that he found the way that Dylan interacted with everyone around him—the press, the handlers (Grossman and Bob Neuwirth), the fellow performers (Joan Baez), and the drop-ins (Donovan)—far more interesting than the actual performances. Working only with a sound man (or simply handing the microphone to whoever happened to be next to Dylan at the moment) and a second cameraman for the concert footage, Pennebaker propped his personally customized camera up on his shoulder and followed the singer-songwriter he often compared to Lord Byron wherever he went. “No matter what the shifting cast, setting, or situation, we feel over and over that we were not meant to see or hear any of this,” writes Robert Polito in the essay accompanying our release of Dont Look Back. “We take it for granted now that Dont Look Back, the chronicle of Dylan confronting the modern celebrity game and giving it the Bronx cheer, is the definitive look at the troubadour poised between reluctant prophet and full-on rock star,” writes Rolling Stone’s David Fear.

But back in the States, it wasn’t an easy sell. In 2007, Pennebaker told Time’s Carolina A. Miranda that when he screened Dont Look Back for “people in suits,” they’d disappear after the first reel. “One day,” he recalled, “this guy called up and said, ‘I’d like to come see it.’ He was manager of a string of porn houses all over the west. At the end of the screening, he said, ‘It looks like a porn film. But it’s not. It’s just what I’m looking for.’ So it ran in this theater in San Francisco for the better part of a year. The papers started to review it. People started coming in large groups. Pretty soon, theaters were coming to us.”

The Dylan of Dont Look Back—sharp-tongued, often cynical, shot in grainy and at times almost noirish black and white—was certainly one side of the 1960s. Monterey Pop, a bountiful concert movie featuring Jimi Hendrix, Janis Joplin, the Mamas and the Papas, the Who, the Byrds, and on and on, all acts in their prime, gives us the ’60s in full psychedelic bloom. “What makes it a truly unique and lasting work is the way in which it knowingly breaches the barrier between performer and audience, between mythmakers and myth, capturing for all time a generation coming into recognition of itself,” writes Michael Chaiken in our essay.

There had been films shot at music festivals before—Bert Stern and Aram Avakian’s Jazz on a Summer’s Day (1959) and Murray Lerner’s Festival (1967), for example—but Pennebaker told Eagan he still didn’t know how to go about tackling this one. He directed his crew, which included Maysles and Leacock, to some extent, but ultimately, he simply “sent them off and they were fantastic. I tell you that film made me realize that if you gave people the insight and the liberty to do whatever they wanted, that people who were interested would do fantastic things.” That spirit extended even to the performers. In 2015, he told Bilge Ebiri at Vulture about the time Jimi Hendrix pitched in. “We were doing a thing with Janis, and he did sound for me! With the Nagra recorder and then slating at the beginning of takes and everything!”

Pennebaker carried his fascination with performers to his next feature. For filmmaker Robert Greene (Actress, Bisbee ’17), who’s written a heartfelt tribute for IndieWire, “Pennebaker’s most important contribution might be his grasp of the possibilities of performance in documentary. His masterpiece Original Cast Album: Company (1970) is a stripped-down homily to the act of people acting; the contradictory power of people playing themselves for his exacting nonfiction camera is the de facto subject of all of Pennebaker’s films.” Original Cast Album: Company “catches every bitchy, bleary-eyed, brilliant moment of Stephen Sondheim and the late, great Hal Prince putting the cast members of the Tony-winning play through their soundtrack-recording paces,” writes David Fear. “The fact that people are catching up to this singular cringe-comic doc thanks to Documentary Now’s pitch-perfect parody feels like major win-win.”

Pennebaker’s career took an odd detour in 1971, when Jean-Luc Godard, whom he’d met in Paris in the early 1960s, proposed that the two of them team up with Leacock, who leaned further left politically than any of the other original Drew Associates. As Pennebaker describes it, the project “was to be called 1 AM (One American Movie), and it was to be about the rising resistance to the Vietnam War and the impending revolution that Godard was convinced was about to happen in the U.S.” When both Godard and Leacock jumped ship, Pennebaker was contractually obliged to complete the film on his own. “Thus,” he wrote, “1 AM became 1 PM (One Parallel Movie—or One Pennebaker Movie, as Jean-Luc has called it.)”

That same year, Pennebaker received an invitation from another volatile personality, Norman Mailer. In 1970, Pennebaker had shot the writer’s third feature, Maidstone, and Mailer proposed that he film a panel discussion on feminism he was organizing at Manhattan’s Town Hall. “Mailer was his pugnacious self as he battled with, among others, the author Germaine Greer and the journalist Jill Johnston before a raucous audience,” writes John Williams in the New York Times. “The footage of the night remained on a shelf for nearly a decade, but when it was released as Town Bloody Hall in 1979, it was called a remarkable time capsule of a colorful moment in New York’s intellectual and cultural history.” It was Chris Hegedus, by this point giving Pennebaker’s career its second wind, who convinced him that there was a viable film in this footage. “There was so much sexual tension going on between Norman and Germaine in it,” she said. “I almost edited it as a love story, in a certain way.”

Introducing his conversation with Hegedus and Pennebaker, David Schwartz noted that whether the couple was “filming rehearsals of a Broadway show, a longshot presidential campaign, the creation of an Internet startup, or an intense French pastry competition, there is a common thread to their work. They are interested in people who try to build something from nothing; they capture the spark of the original idea, and then the collision between the idea and reality.” Robert Greene adds that Hegedus and Pennebaker were “a near-constant presence in the evolving documentary community for nearly forty years. For many of us, Pennebaker and Hegedus were the model; their partnership looked like an ideal blend of romantic love and ambitious collaboration.”

Teaming up with filmmaker David Dawkins in 1989, the couple made what Eric Hynes calls “one of the greatest, if criminally underrated, concert tour films,” Depeche Mode: 101. Again, as with Dont Look Back, Monterey Pop, and Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars (1973), Pennebaker’s record of David Bowie’s farewell to one of his landmark personas, the actual onstage performances alone are not what makes Depeche Mode: 101 soar. The devotion of the fans is the other vital half. Pennebaker told Sam Adams that when they started out, they knew nothing of the band. “I went out to listen to a concert in California or Oregon or some place, and I came back and said, ‘The audience for this band, I don’t think they go to any other music concerts except Depeche Mode. I don’t think they have any other life except for Depeche Mode.’”


The Hegedus and Pennebaker oeuvre includes Energy War (1977), a three-part special for PBS tracking the eighteen months it took President Carter to pass his controversial energy bill; Moon Over Broadway (1997), in which Carol Burnett mounts a comedy; and Unlocking the Cage (2016), a plea for the rights of living beings who don’t happen to be human. Their crowning achievement, though, is The War Room (1993). The surprisingly dramatic and often quite funny story of Bill Clinton’s victorious presidential campaign is told not by focusing on the candidate himself but on the operatives backstage. Robert Greene calls The War Room “the greatest political documentary ever made” in that it shows “that everyone in politics, including strategists-turned-television personalities James Carville and George Stephanopoulos, were actors without scripts.”

Pennebaker told Bilge Ebiri about the night they showed The War Room to its budding stars. “George laughed all the way through it,” he recalled. “At the end, he said, ‘If I’d known you were going to do this, I’d have never let you in!’ Their best impulses fooled them into letting you in. Same with Dylan.” Given the specific historical moment that The War Room captures, Ebiri had to ask, “Which takes precedence when you’re structuring a film: posterity, or the demands of the contemporaneous viewer?” Pennebaker replied: “From the very first film I ever did, I’ve always asked, ‘What can you tell the future that nobody knows about now?’”

For news and items of interest throughout the day, every day, follow @CriterionDaily.