Film Remembrance: D. A. Pennebaker — Documentarian Extraordinaire

By Steve Provizer

“I climb in the camera and wait there, kind of like an animal…I let the person decide what they want to do and say and just follow.” — D.A. Pennebaker

The Late D. A. Pennebaker. Photo: Pennebaker Hegedus Films.

So said Donn Alan Pennebaker in a 2014 interview. Born in 1925 and deceased on August 1st,  D.A. Pennebaker was an important member of the cohort of filmmakers who, in the 1950s-’60s, helped forge the “verite” style of documentary filmmaking.  Up until that time, documentaries had largely taken the form of conventional travelogues, hagiographic portraits, newsreel footage, and propaganda films. Pennebaker and people like Shirley Clarke, Richard Leacock, Robert Wiseman, the Maysle brothers, and Pennebaker’s wife Chris Hegedus, rejected voice-over narration and interviews, deeming them too static and pedantic. They created a more active, fly-on-the-wall approach, which put the viewer in direct contact with the protagonists of the film.

Pennebaker had a long, prolific and protean career. Some highlights include: a kinetic 1953 film whose soundtrack was a Duke Ellington composition (Daybreak Express); beginning in 1959 he was a key member of a group of filmmakers, Drew Associates, which produced documentaries for television that examined important cultural events, such as presidential elections (Primary) and the struggle over integration (Crisis). His mid-’60s project with Bob Dylan, Don’t Look Back, includes the famous video for “Subterranean Homesick Blues”; his 1967 documentary Monterey Pop remains an exemplar of live festival event coverage; The War Room looks at Bill Clinton’s 1992 presidential campaign received an Oscar nomination, and his 2004 documentary Elaine Stritch at Liberty was nominated for an Emmy.

Pennebaker also made important technical contributions. In order to shoot footage outside controlled studio conditions, new equipment had to be created that would allow for truly mobile location filming. The director was trained as an engineer; he was instrumental in developing one of the first portable, synchronized 16mm camera and sound recording systems. His Monterey Pop was the first large-scale musical event filmed with hand-held sync sound cameras and it still holds up well.

Although he turned out to be a gifted collaborator, Pennebaker confessed that he was drawn to making documentaries because he could do it himself. He was inventive, dogged, and had the ability to win people’s trust. When necessary, he could make himself and his camera invisible. The man’s temperament and character synced well with the shifting aesthetics of filmmaking. In the late ’40s-early ’50s, about the time Pennebaker came to maturity, film noir arose.  Criminal and other bad behavior was old news on the screen, but the lack of moral retribution favored by film noir was new. The ’50s also saw the emergence of Le Nouvelle Vague (New Wave) cinema in France, which included such celebrated practitioners as François Truffaut, Eric Rohmer, and Jean-Luc Godard, whose film Breathless was essentially a documentary. (Godard, in fact, tried to come up with a collaborative project with Pennebaker, but the project was never completed.) Both film noir and innovative French cinema helped open up audiences for the fresh, grittier visuals and themes embraced by the documentarians.

Of course, Hollywood films continued to push another ‘reality,’ the whitebread/Eisenhower/Levittown/Patti Page/National Highway System myth. Documentaries began to probe an alternative vision, a world created by the sexual, drug, and artistic explorations of Beats and jazz musicians, the infusion of black music into white teenage culture and the struggle for African-American civil rights.

Here are a couple of short films that serve as examples of this valuable work. Although he often used jazz on his soundtracks, only two of Pennebaker’s films stick to a jazz theme. Both are short. The first is unusual for Pennebaker because it is so visually experimental: Daybreak Express (1953). He wanted to film the 3rd Ave subway before it was torn down.He loved Ellington’s music and wanted permission to use his piece “Daybreak Express.” He went to Duke’s office in the Brill Building and showed him a rough cut of the film. Ellington not only gave him the rights to use the music, he gave him complete ownership. (Ellington’s sister eventually remediated this cavalier decision). In the film, Pennebaker draws on angles, colors, and speed manipulation to conjure up an expansive visual palette. Using the sun as a framing device, he creates a dramatic unity that matches the Ellington arrangement.

Pennebaker’s other jazz film was Lambert & Co., or “Audition at RCA” (1964). This film is more typical in that it was made in black and white and was straightforwardly shot. It tells the story of Dave Lambert (co-creator of Lambert, Hendricks and Ross) and his four singers coming to the RCA studios and recording several songs as a “demo,” to see if the company would be interested in signing them to a recording contract. Even with no voice-over or titles, we receive a clear picture of the roles everyone played in the studio on that day — musicians, executives, engineers — and we are given considerably more insight into their personalities than one would expect, given the brevity of the film. This document takes on added meaning in the light of history; Dave Lambert was killed only a few months after filming — he was trying to help a driver change a flat tire.

D.A. Pennebaker spoke of documentary film as being merely an extension of home movies. There’s something to this.. Though he was dealing with powerful people, such as Robert F. Kennedy and Elaine Stritch, the director approached shooting them as though they were just his sly Uncle Bobby and his eccentric Auntie Elaine, over for a backyard bar-b-q. In other words, they were just people.

His filmography is available here.

Steve Provizer writes on a range of subject, most often the arts. He is a musician and blogs about jazz here.

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