A Few Riffs for Penny

1.

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.

2.

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.


That discipline of seeing a scene through, no matter where it could lead, was firmly in place by 1950, when Pennebaker shot his first short, Daybreak Express, a five-minute portrait of the Third Avenue elevated subway line. It was released three years later, after Penny secured the title song by tracking down and projecting the film for its composer, Duke Ellington. The film turns New York into a kinetic, alien landscape, a jazz symphony of color, broken light and gravity-defying angles. In the ensuing years, he worked in a similarly lyrical vein alongside avant-garde filmmaker Francis Thompson, Shirley Clarke, Willard Van Dyke, and documentarian Albert Maysles, whom he first met in the Soviet Union in 1959, filming alongside him in Moscow during one of the more surreal moments in the history of the Cold War: the American National Exhibition, a.k.a. “The Dream Show,” where America sold a high-tech consumerist future to Communists. Shortly after, Penny’s destiny shifted, traceable to a letter discovered in his archive that was sent to him on October 19, 1959 by producer/director Robert Drew: 

Things have changed. Ricky can’t come. Decision: who and how? Answer: you and me. This is to pin down our job, the story and provide a check list for the next day and a half in New York. We’ll have a proper script and plan in action later . . .

The film Ricky Leacock couldn’t make was Balloon (1960), Pennebaker’s first collaboration with Drew and Time-Life Films. Shot in South Dakota in the winter of 1959, it follows a physicist taken by balloon to the edge of space with a huge telescope fastened to its gondola. The success of this collaboration led to the groundbreaking Kennedy films that followed, Primary and Crisis, which Penny helped Drew Associates sync, edit, and shoot. Present at the creation of the modern documentary, Pennebaker revolutionized the way we see, experience, and understand the world.

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

3.

Pennebaker’s most daring and powerful moments come when he is not content to merely observe phenomena but transgresses the strictures of documentary, finding within the shot jarring, poetic counterpoints to the subject he’s filming. Direct Cinema proposed a visual language perfectly suited to reflecting the accelerated, mass-mediated landscape of the latter part of the twentieth century. Within that genre, Pennebaker’s films, as director Martin Scorsese said of them, take us places we have never gone before “factually, cinematically, and poetically.” There’s immediate parity between the radicality of Pennebaker’s camera work and what he’s capturing. I asked cinematographer Sean Price Williams for his thoughts on this:

Pennebaker’s greatest gift as a cameraman was not in his movement or composition. He didn’t have Al Maysles’s singular, graceful style—his sweep in the panning or the emotional, impulsive timing with the zooms. Pennebaker was restless in getting himself in the right place at the right time. He could sacrifice “quality” to get the moment. He is responsible for the most euphoric shot in music documentary history. His coverage of Otis Redding’s performance of “I’ve Been Loving You Too Long” is the most extreme and purely expressive connection ever filmed between sound and light reaching the emulsion through the lens. Redding literally explodes into the viewer’s head. The boldness of it is especially exciting for me when imagining Pennebaker in the moment, actually blinded by the light, far from certain how the emulsion will register any of this, and still deciding to hold steady, to keep it coming . . . This is a great filmmaker’s moment, and startling in cinema as the director is so rarely in a position, even in documentary, with camera in hand, to make such a spontaneous decision. It is so beautiful and so unique.

4.

I moved from Philadelphia to New York in 2005 to work for Maysles Films. Albert Maysles introduced me to Pennebaker, but it was only later that I got to know him, seeing him almost daily over a two-year period, when I assisted Penny and Chris Hegedus in cataloging their vast archive of film negatives, outtakes, and papers. I figured myself another transient interlocutor in his life, a benign but irritating presence, poking around, asking questions he’d been asked a million times. It always surprised me how gracious he was, eager to talk, generous in his answers. Penny possessed none of the pretensions a towering artist of his stature is entitled to, none of the phoniness of character. He was as in awe of his films as we all were. The fact was, of course, that these weren’t merely “his films.” They were testaments of a higher order, to his subjects, all of whom he loved and admired, in their failures as much as in their successes: Gypsy Lee Rose, Bob Dylan, Piri Thomas, John and Robert Kennedy, Elaine Stritch, David Lambert, David Bowie, Timothy Leary, David Allen, Jimi Hendrix, Germaine Greer, Janis Joplin, John DeLorean, Jane Fonda, Depeche Mode, Bob Neuwirth, John Phillips, Bessie Schonberg, Branford Marsalis, Jimmy Carter, Carol Burnett, John Lennon, Norman Mailer, Elliot Carter, James Carville and George Stephanopoulos, Jacquy Pfeiffer, Steven Wise . . .

For as long as we continue to revisit and celebrate these films, all of Penny’s subjects will remain as brilliantly alive for us as the man who captured them. He allowed them all the freedom in front of his camera to make their own small purchase on eternity. The sum of those purchases has been gifted to us in the lifework of D. A. Pennebaker.

5.

Penny never learned to play stride piano like Fats Waller. Or cornet like his other great hero of the jazz age, Bix Beiderbecke. In fact, he never learned to play any musical instrument with the same dexterity and ingenuity he applied to his sawed-off, hot-rodded Auricon news camera. But he once wrote a song. One he always remembered and could hum. It’s lead sheet, in Penny’s hand, is among the papers in his archive. It’s called “Little Boat” and was to be Pennebaker’s only published musical work. The song was used by Shirley Clarke and Ricky Leacock for an early collaboration called Christopher and Me, a fairy tale about two children who go sailing on a mystery trip.

Little boat, little boat
I’ll sail with you
To the place where 
The sea and sky go to

When the wind blows
Our sails will fill
And we won’t go home
’til the stars do
And the crooked moon
Sinks in the sea 

Little boat, little boat
Sail with me


Pennebaker in Hydra, Greece, in 1967, at Leonard Cohen’s house.
Photo by Kate Taylor.


“Little Boat” © 1960 D. A. Pennebaker