A Few Riffs for Penny

A Few Riffs for Penny


Before he became a filmmaker, D. A. Pennebaker’s ambition was to play stride piano like Fats Waller. “What changed your mind?” I asked him. “Well,” Penny replied, “after I saw Fats play . . . ” Penny would have been about twenty when Waller died in 1943. Not an impossibility to have seen him, but no small feat of determination either. He had shuffled as a kid between his father in Chicago, where jazz wasn’t a word he was allowed to use in the house, and his mother in New York, and it was somehow disconcerting to me that the expanse of his life straddled enough successive generations that he had seen Fats Waller, Jimi Hendrix, and Depeche Mode play. Why this struck me as strange probably had more to do with my own lack of historical perspective, but it occurred to me then, more forcefully than any other time talking to Penny over this last decade, just how far he had traveled, how capacious were his interests, how curious he was and always remained.

In my mind, Penny’s rugged, patrician appearance gave him the countenance of a wayfaring sailor just returned from the high seas. The Sperry Top Siders, his striped rugby shirts—he reminded me of a lost Kennedy brother, all three of whom he knew and filmed. What Otto von Bismarck remarked about politics, and was later said of RFK, is doubly true of Penny: his life is a lesson in the art of the possible.


Like many finding themselves in the Pennebaker-Hegedus orbit, I discovered my Virgil in Penny’s oldest son, Frazer, who began working for his father as a teenager during the Leacock-Pennebaker days; he was a guide leading me through the ins and outs of their world. We connected in the early 2000s, when I was curating film programs at an arts center in Philadelphia and, as a fledgling archivist, helping Norman Mailer to get his own in order. Penny had shot Norman’s sixties trilogy—Wild 90, Beyond the Law, and Maidstone—and Mailer had been paying Pennebaker-Hegedus Films to store them. I interviewed Norman for Film Comment around this time, asking him about Penny and the final scene of Maidstone, where Rip Torn, in front of Norman’s wife and young children, attacks and bloodies Mailer with a hammer: one of those great unhinged, unscripted moments in the movies that self-ratifying moralists of every ideological persuasion can still lose themselves in. At the time, Norman stopped speaking to Torn and was skeptical of Pennebaker’s allegiances. Forty years on, the wounds healed, psychically and otherwise, and Mailer had become philosophical about it all: 

MC: Did you feel afterwards that Donn had any kind of obligation to put the camera down and intervene?

NM: [Mishearing the question] I always assume God to be much too occupied. I see God as a tired general.

MC: No, not God. Donn. D. A. Pennebaker.

NM: Boy, I thought we were really getting into top gear fast. I think Donn was bothered by it. I remember afterwards I was furious with him and I went up to him and said, “Well, would you photograph my last gasps?” He had a work ethic just as I did, and we discovered that his work ethic and mine had nothing to do with one another. At that point my work ethic was, the film’s over, let’s congratulate the director. His work ethic is finding a scene, so he stayed with the scene. On balance, he was right.

Top of post: Pennebaker in the early 1960s, photographed by Bill Ray; above: Pennebaker filming Bob Dylan in Europe in 1966, photographed by Björn Larsson Ask

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