By David D'Arcy
August 19, 2005 - 1:40 AM PDT
In Don't Look Back (1967), the images that seem to stay with you are of Bob Dylan on stage during a British tour, standing alone, spot-lit, singing with a guitar and a harmonica strapped around his neck, in front of sell-out crowd after sell-out crowd, with a composure that you find only with the most self-assured performers. It was 1965, and Dylan, all of 24, looked a lot younger.
Here we see Dylan, a self-invented Dylan, re-invent himself day by day in the glow of youthful creativity. As he stumbles through the tour - unscripted is the understatement here - Dylan's self-invention is indeed a crude process, but no less watchable for its roughness as D.A. Pennebaker films it step by step, song by song.
But there's another scene that a lot of us who think we know Don't Look Back probably won't remember. Dylan's manager (and one of the film's enablers), Albert Grossman, is plotting with a British booking agent to wring an extra hundred pounds out of a few already booked appearances. Pennebaker records enough of the finagling to show the show business behind the Bob Dylan who seems pure onstage.
Of course, we all know that the entertainment business lives off agents who can scratch out an extra ten percent. But do agents and their clients really want us to see how folk music sausage is made? Pennebaker makes sure that we don't miss it.
Yet everyone being watched by Pennebaker's camera in Don't Look Back seems unfazed by the lens that's watching the whole time - it's not just because the tour was fueled in part by hashish. And here you can see what makes D.A. Pennebaker unique. He has the confidence, the trust of his subjects, which gets him the free access which few entertainers and even fewer public figures will grant these days. The result is that the subject tells a story or, more precisely, is the story, whether it's Dylan, or James Carville in The War Room (1993) or Norman Mailer in Town Bloody Hall (1979) or Carol Burnett in Moon over Broadway (1997).
Pennebaker is often called, almost automatically, a "fly on the wall" filmmaker, because he's so present that you stop noticing him. Like most clichés, this one misses the point. This "fly on the wall" could just as easily be called the "fly in the soup," except this fly is there by mutual agreement, not by accident. He just makes sure that you don't see him in the final product, but you see what he sees.
Any documentary is far more complex than the advantage of unimpeded access that Pennebaker demands as a prerequisite. But that access always gives Pennebaker and his team (led by wife/partner Chris Hegedus) a head start. It also gives Pennebaker's films that special feel of the real story told from inside, or from behind the scenes of a performance or a political event. Note that in Pennebaker's case, behind the scenes never involves hidden cameras or ambushes.
I'll let others argue whether Pennebaker's uncanny skill at getting inside his subjects is at the core of this filmmaker's legacy, or whether that legacy is the unscripted verité style that Pennebaker pioneered. Bear in mind that this is not the later verité style of Fred Wiseman's great marathons. Watch a Pennebaker film now, and you'll see that the work is as much in the editing as it is in the observing.
And any young filmmaker would do well to watch Pennebaker's documentaries, if only to understand how you can reach dramatic effects not just by artful editing but also by just letting the camera roll. In Monterey Pop (1968), which Pennebaker shot with a team of peers behind the camera, your eye stays with Jimi Hendrix on shots that go on for what seems like an eternity. Here's one performer who doesn't need much editing, and a filmmaker who knows how to shoot in service of a performance.
Thanks to Monterey Pop, Pennebaker's influence is everywhere, whether today's music video slapdash directors know that or not. Nor should his role as an archivist or preservationist be neglected. Our memories of the young Bob Dylan are vivid, largely thanks to Don't Look Back. And the same can be said of Jimi Hendrix, thanks to Monterey Pop.
John Hartford, the songwriter and performer, never had the broad stardom of Dylan or Hendrix and probably never will. But we'll remember him as his own era's Will Rogers in Down from the Mountain, Pennebaker's 2000 doc of the Nashville concert performed by musicians who recorded the soundtrack of the Coen Brothers' Mississippi odyssey, O Brother, Where Art Thou? Hartford's irresistible warmth is all the warmer here since he's fighting cancer while he's telling all the jokes that are making you laugh. He died just as the film was released, and we're richer because Pennebaker put so much of him in front of us.
Another thing you learn from that film is that you don't need to really like country music to admire the people who make it in Down from the Mountain although it's hard to come out of that film not loving the music you just heard.
With Moon over Broadway - Pennebaker's chronicle of the making (and the near-unmaking) of the farce Moon over Buffalo - which returned Carol Burnett to Broadway in 1996 after 30 years, the backstage story will win over even the skeptics who think that theater's been lifeless for the last 50 years. Burnett enters tentatively, losing battle after battle with a director who resists improving the many flawed jokes in the book. She forgets her lines, sometimes even in mid-performance when the play is previewing in Boston. But when a winch fails during those previews and Burnett improvises - live - with a restless audience until the machinery is fixed, we see the magic: a natural entertainer's triumph over the kind of challenge that every performer in our scripted world dreads. (Of course, moments like this one are just what documentary filmmakers live for.)
I spoke to a spry and voluble D.A. Pennebaker, who has just turned 80, in Manhattan, where he lives. He talked about films, the future, and the evolution of documentaries during the six decades that he has been making them.
What's it like to turn eighty?
If you put it that way, it sounds like a pumpkin rotting, or turning green in the corner.
What was the first movie you saw?
Something with cowboys falling off their horses, but I have such a vague memory of it, I wouldn't know what it was called. The first movie that made me jump up and down was either the Buñuel Robinson Crusoe or it was Michael Powell's I Know Where I'm Going, which had such a documentary quality to it. It made me suddenly want to do that. He'd witnessed documentary, and he was holed up with Robert Flaherty for a year or so, in an editing room in England. He kept trashing Flaherty, who was doing Man of Aran (1934). He was taking two years to get the right storm, and Powell said, "That's bullshit. I could make five films during the time you take to do that."
When did you first hold a movie camera?
I got a little rental camera with some film and I shot one of my children when it got christened down in Florida.
No, sixteen. The first time I ever held a camera with the intent of doing some real damage was on Daybreak Express (1953). I don't know if you're familiar with John Sloan's paintings of New York, of the elevated train on 6th Avenue. He did one, a view of New York, from a big high building, and you can see what for a while was the Waverly Theater - it's now become the IFC Theater - it was a church then. If you look down into the street, where the elevated turns up 6th Avenue, it's the most lovely picture. Somebody had it in a loft and they were selling it back then. It was only $4500 - even thinking of it now makes me sick. I knew I was going to make a movie about that when I saw that picture.
There's also another picture, a picture from the ground, looking up at the Elevated as it came out of 3rd Street and zoomed up 6th Avenue. I just thought it was the most magic thing, with people running under it and crossing, all those Irish girls that he loved. You can see the edge of the church in that picture. I set out to do Daybreak because I heard they were tearing down the 3rd Avenue El, and that upset me quite a bit, and I set out to do a documentary of that, all of five minutes long. I made it as a silent film, with Duke Ellington's music.
Did you ever want to make dramatic features?
I didn't understand how they were made. It was like, did I ever want to build an automobile? Sure I did, but it has no meaning for me. When I saw Francis Thompson's film, N.Y., N.Y. (1957), which he made by himself with a hand-wound city special, I said, "Shit, I can do that." I'm a graduate engineer from Yale University, for Chrissakes, I've got to be able to do that. That set me off doing it, because the idea was that I could do it all by myself. I knew I couldn't do features by myself because you had to have it written, you had to have actors, and I was a loner, so those things were not part of my life at all.
"The idea was that I could do it all by myself.""We were booked in a falling down porn house and there were lines around the block."
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Besides reviewing art and film for National Public Radio, David D'Arcy has also written for the Art Newspaper, the Economist and other publications.
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