D. A. Pennebaker: Observation as Action

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.”

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