Collecting Evidence: D.A. Pennebaker

“The beauty of a concert film is that you get a bunch of your friends in and throw everything at it: the best cameras, the most takes you can. It’s in and out, real fast. You’re ants at a picnic looking for breadcrumbs."

 

From the 1960 primary victory of John F. Kennedy to the behind-the scenes action of the 1992 Clinton campaign, from Jimi Hendrix burning his guitar on stage at Monterey (“Wild Thing,” indeed) to T-Bone Burnett and friends resurrecting bluegrass, from John DeLorean taking on the automotive establishment to Rip Torn assaulting Norman Mailer on a film set, filmmaker D.A. Pennebaker has witnessed—and filmed—the cultural history of the last 50 years. The 79-year old Pennebaker remains one of the most significant names in non-fiction filmmaking, as attested by the success of the recent music documentaries Down From the Mountain and Only the Strong Survive. In April, Pennebaker and his long-time collaborator Chris Hegedus come to Webster University to discuss and screen highlights from their work.

In the early 1960s Pennebaker, along with Richard Leacock and Albert and David Maysles, was one of the pioneers of a new kind of filmmaking, first labeled “direct cinema,” and later given the name “cinema verité.” Working under the guidance of Robert Drew, a Life magazine photographer, they wanted to change the very foundations of filmed journalism, using newly developed portable cameras and sound equipments to bring viewers directly into a filmed event. “What we were trying to do was beyond just the mechanics of moving a camera around,” Pennebaker explained in a recent telephone interview. “But we weren’t trying to get news items. We were trying to get a complete story”

Financed by Time-Life for the company’s television station, the films of Drew Associates were ignored at first but have gone on to become the founding texts of an entire field of documentary, as well as significant historical documents in their own right. Pennebaker’s 1960 Primary, about the Wisconsin political race between JFK and Hubert Humphrey for the Democratic Party nomination, may well have been the first time audiences saw politicians anywhere other than behind a podium. “They’d never seen anyone running for president who looked like normal people,” the filmmaker recalls. Modern politics, with its emphasis on image and television, can identify its origins in this film, where a new kind of candidate with movie-star looks, powerful show business endorsements, and a glamorous trophy wife pushes the homely Humphrey (whose campaign appearances are highlighted by a man playing “The Ballad of Davy Crockett” on an accordion) out of the picture.

Frustrated by the demands of network television, Pennebaker struck out on his own with Don’t Look Back, the 1966 film about Bob Dylan that remains his most popular work. Most of the film was shot in the objective verité style, but the opening sequence, with Dylan standing in a street holding up cards with the lyrics to “Subterranean Homesick Blues,” has been heralded as the prototype for the music video. Pennebaker credits the singer for the inspiration. “I ran into Dylan at a bar. He said, ‘I was thinking of an idea for a film where I’d hold up a piece of paper and write the words of a song on it.’ So we took a big pile of shirt cardboards along with us on the tour. And on the last couple of days everybody sat around drawing them out. Donovan did some, Joan [Baez] did some; I think I did, too.”

The success of the Dylan film led to an even more ambitious project, the filming of the first major rock festival. Monterey Pop remains one of the very best concert films ever made, with a simplicity that eluded most other concert films. “I didn’t want to waste a lot of time interviewing people about their views on marijuana or whatever.” Of course, it helped that it climaxed with the then-virtually-unknown Jimi Hendrix humping his amplifier, pouring lighter fluid on his guitar, and leaving the charred remains onstage spitting feedback. Monterey’s simplicity gives it an authenticity that no previous film about rock music (and darn few since) could match.

Though Monterey cemented Pennebaker’s hip quotient and led to commissions for other concert films, such as David Bowie’s 1972 “retirement” as Ziggy Stardust, the filmmaker remains flexible, moving between well-organized concert projects and less predictable subjects. “The beauty of a concert film is that you get a bunch of your friends in and throw everything at it: the best cameras, the most takes you can. It’s in and out, real fast. You’re ants at a picnic looking for breadcrumbs.

“You know that the concert’s going to be over in 90 minutes. When you’re filming something like The War Room, you don’t really know when a scene is finished. So you keep your nose in as long as you can. Sometimes you have a situation like Chris did in Startup.com [a film about the rise and fall of an Internet company], where there is no ending. You’re not sure what the ending should be”.

While much has been written about the responsibility of documentary filmmakers to preserve the integrity of their medium, Pennebaker is less a purist than a talented observer who tries to respond to the spontaneity of the events he films. “The moment you have rules for anything, artists are only concerned with breaking them,” he explained. “I’m not sure that they help you much. We made rules of things that we were going to try not to do, like interviews or narration or misusing footage to get a cut-away. But the story is king when you’re making a film.

“ You’re collecting evidence. If you start cutting corners, people start to doubt you. You’ve got to maintain a certain authenticity. People have to believe that what you show them is what you say it is.”

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Collecting Evidence: D.A. Pennebaker

From the 1960 primary victory of John F. Kennedy to the behind-the scenes action of the 1992 Clinton campaign, from Jimi Hendrix burning his guitar on stage at Monterey (“Wild Thing,” indeed) to T-Bone Burnett and friends resurrecting bluegrass, from John DeLorean taking on the automotive establishment to Rip Torn assaulting Norman Mailer on a film set, filmmaker D.A. Pennebaker has witnessed—and filmed—the cultural history of the last 50 years. The 79-year old Pennebaker remains one of the most significant names in non-fiction filmmaking, as attested by the success of the recent music documentaries Down From the Mountain and Only the Strong Survive. In April, Pennebaker and his long-time collaborator Chris Hegedus come to Webster University to discuss and screen highlights from their work.

In the early 1960s Pennebaker, along with Richard Leacock and Albert and David Maysles, was one of the pioneers of a new kind of filmmaking, first labeled “direct cinema,” and later given the name “cinema verité.” Working under the guidance of Robert Drew, a Life magazine photographer, they wanted to change the very foundations of filmed journalism, using newly developed portable cameras and sound equipments to bring viewers directly into a filmed event. “What we were trying to do was beyond just the mechanics of moving a camera around,” Pennebaker explained in a recent telephone interview. “But we weren’t trying to get news items. We were trying to get a complete story”

Financed by Time-Life for the company’s television station, the films of Drew Associates were ignored at first but have gone on to become the founding texts of an entire field of documentary, as well as significant historical documents in their own right. Pennebaker’s 1960 Primary, about the Wisconsin political race between JFK and Hubert Humphrey for the Democratic Party nomination, may well have been the first time audiences saw politicians anywhere other than behind a podium. “They’d never seen anyone running for president who looked like normal people,” the filmmaker recalls. Modern politics, with its emphasis on image and television, can identify its origins in this film, where a new kind of candidate with movie-star looks, powerful show business endorsements, and a glamorous trophy wife pushes the homely Humphrey (whose campaign appearances are highlighted by a man playing “The Ballad of Davy Crockett” on an accordion) out of the picture.

Frustrated by the demands of network television, Pennebaker struck out on his own with Don’t Look Back, the 1966 film about Bob Dylan that remains his most popular work. Most of the film was shot in the objective verité style, but the opening sequence, with Dylan standing in a street holding up cards with the lyrics to “Subterranean Homesick Blues,” has been heralded as the prototype for the music video. Pennebaker credits the singer for the inspiration. “I ran into Dylan at a bar. He said, ‘I was thinking of an idea for a film where I’d hold up a piece of paper and write the words of a song on it.’ So we took a big pile of shirt cardboards along with us on the tour. And on the last couple of days everybody sat around drawing them out. Donovan did some, Joan [Baez] did some; I think I did, too.”

The success of the Dylan film led to an even more ambitious project, the filming of the first major rock festival. Monterey Pop remains one of the very best concert films ever made, with a simplicity that eluded most other concert films. “I didn’t want to waste a lot of time interviewing people about their views on marijuana or whatever.” Of course, it helped that it climaxed with the then-virtually-unknown Jimi Hendrix humping his amplifier, pouring lighter fluid on his guitar, and leaving the charred remains onstage spitting feedback. Monterey’s simplicity gives it an authenticity that no previous film about rock music (and darn few since) could match.

Though Monterey cemented Pennebaker’s hip quotient and led to commissions for other concert films, such as David Bowie’s 1972 “retirement” as Ziggy Stardust, the filmmaker remains flexible, moving between well-organized concert projects and less predictable subjects. “The beauty of a concert film is that you get a bunch of your friends in and throw everything at it: the best cameras, the most takes you can. It’s in and out, real fast. You’re ants at a picnic looking for breadcrumbs.

“You know that the concert’s going to be over in 90 minutes. When you’re filming something like The War Room, you don’t really know when a scene is finished. So you keep your nose in as long as you can. Sometimes you have a situation like Chris did in Startup.com [a film about the rise and fall of an Internet company], where there is no ending. You’re not sure what the ending should be”.

While much has been written about the responsibility of documentary filmmakers to preserve the integrity of their medium, Pennebaker is less a purist than a talented observer who tries to respond to the spontaneity of the events he films. “The moment you have rules for anything, artists are only concerned with breaking them,” he explained. “I’m not sure that they help you much. We made rules of things that we were going to try not to do, like interviews or narration or misusing footage to get a cut-away. But the story is king when you’re making a film.

“ You’re collecting evidence. If you start cutting corners, people start to doubt you. You’ve got to maintain a certain authenticity. People have to believe that what you show them is what you say it is.”

Be the first to comment

Leave a Reply

Collecting Evidence: D.A. Pennebaker

From the 1960 primary victory of John F. Kennedy to the behind-the scenes action of the 1992 Clinton campaign, from Jimi Hendrix burning his guitar on stage at Monterey (“Wild Thing,” indeed) to T-Bone Burnett and friends resurrecting bluegrass, from John DeLorean taking on the automotive establishment to Rip Torn assaulting Norman Mailer on a film set, filmmaker D.A. Pennebaker has witnessed—and filmed—the cultural history of the last 50 years. The 79-year old Pennebaker remains one of the most significant names in non-fiction filmmaking, as attested by the success of the recent music documentaries Down From the Mountain and Only the Strong Survive. In April, Pennebaker and his long-time collaborator Chris Hegedus come to Webster University to discuss and screen highlights from their work.

In the early 1960s Pennebaker, along with Richard Leacock and Albert and David Maysles, was one of the pioneers of a new kind of filmmaking, first labeled “direct cinema,” and later given the name “cinema verité.” Working under the guidance of Robert Drew, a Life magazine photographer, they wanted to change the very foundations of filmed journalism, using newly developed portable cameras and sound equipments to bring viewers directly into a filmed event. “What we were trying to do was beyond just the mechanics of moving a camera around,” Pennebaker explained in a recent telephone interview. “But we weren’t trying to get news items. We were trying to get a complete story”

Financed by Time-Life for the company’s television station, the films of Drew Associates were ignored at first but have gone on to become the founding texts of an entire field of documentary, as well as significant historical documents in their own right. Pennebaker’s 1960 Primary, about the Wisconsin political race between JFK and Hubert Humphrey for the Democratic Party nomination, may well have been the first time audiences saw politicians anywhere other than behind a podium. “They’d never seen anyone running for president who looked like normal people,” the filmmaker recalls. Modern politics, with its emphasis on image and television, can identify its origins in this film, where a new kind of candidate with movie-star looks, powerful show business endorsements, and a glamorous trophy wife pushes the homely Humphrey (whose campaign appearances are highlighted by a man playing “The Ballad of Davy Crockett” on an accordion) out of the picture.

Frustrated by the demands of network television, Pennebaker struck out on his own with Don’t Look Back, the 1966 film about Bob Dylan that remains his most popular work. Most of the film was shot in the objective verité style, but the opening sequence, with Dylan standing in a street holding up cards with the lyrics to “Subterranean Homesick Blues,” has been heralded as the prototype for the music video. Pennebaker credits the singer for the inspiration. “I ran into Dylan at a bar. He said, ‘I was thinking of an idea for a film where I’d hold up a piece of paper and write the words of a song on it.’ So we took a big pile of shirt cardboards along with us on the tour. And on the last couple of days everybody sat around drawing them out. Donovan did some, Joan [Baez] did some; I think I did, too.”

The success of the Dylan film led to an even more ambitious project, the filming of the first major rock festival. Monterey Pop remains one of the very best concert films ever made, with a simplicity that eluded most other concert films. “I didn’t want to waste a lot of time interviewing people about their views on marijuana or whatever.” Of course, it helped that it climaxed with the then-virtually-unknown Jimi Hendrix humping his amplifier, pouring lighter fluid on his guitar, and leaving the charred remains onstage spitting feedback. Monterey’s simplicity gives it an authenticity that no previous film about rock music (and darn few since) could match.

Though Monterey cemented Pennebaker’s hip quotient and led to commissions for other concert films, such as David Bowie’s 1972 “retirement” as Ziggy Stardust, the filmmaker remains flexible, moving between well-organized concert projects and less predictable subjects. “The beauty of a concert film is that you get a bunch of your friends in and throw everything at it: the best cameras, the most takes you can. It’s in and out, real fast. You’re ants at a picnic looking for breadcrumbs.

“You know that the concert’s going to be over in 90 minutes. When you’re filming something like The War Room, you don’t really know when a scene is finished. So you keep your nose in as long as you can. Sometimes you have a situation like Chris did in Startup.com [a film about the rise and fall of an Internet company], where there is no ending. You’re not sure what the ending should be”.

While much has been written about the responsibility of documentary filmmakers to preserve the integrity of their medium, Pennebaker is less a purist than a talented observer who tries to respond to the spontaneity of the events he films. “The moment you have rules for anything, artists are only concerned with breaking them,” he explained. “I’m not sure that they help you much. We made rules of things that we were going to try not to do, like interviews or narration or misusing footage to get a cut-away. But the story is king when you’re making a film.

“ You’re collecting evidence. If you start cutting corners, people start to doubt you. You’ve got to maintain a certain authenticity. People have to believe that what you show them is what you say it is.”

Be the first to comment

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