Legendary documentarist Donn Alan Pennebaker (D.A.) died Aug. 1, 2019, at age 94. Pennebaker had been a central figure in the evolution of documentary filmmaking as we know it today in terms of craft, style, and impact. In its Aug. 3 obituary The New Times heading read “D.A. Pennebaker, pioneer of Cinema Verite in America, dies at 94.” Though the type of documentaries he made often have been labeled as cinema verite, Pennebaker said he didn’t like that “cutesie French term.” He preferred “direct cinema.”
In my Dictionary of Film Terms: The Aesthetic Companion to Film Art, I express the differences this way: “Direct cinema: A term commonly applied to a type of documentary film made in the style of realist cinema. Direct cinema shares many of the same interests as cinema verite but is slightly different because it avoids the fluid, spontaneous camera involvement associated with cinema verite. Camera presence is minimized in direct cinema filming.” In this column, I’ll sometimes use the phrase “direct cinema/verite” for blending the two terms.
Documentarists proliferated globally during the 20th century, bringing new definitions. British director, John Grierson described the art form as “a creative treatment of actuality.” That worked well for most of the early pioneers like Robert Flaherty (Nanook of the North, 1922), Pare Lorentz (The Plow that Broke the Plains, 1936), and Joris Ivens (New Earth, 1934).
The World Union of Documentary, founded in 1948, expanded that terse definition by citing the genre’s thematic possibilities and goals: “Documentaries are all methods of recording on celluloid [and later video] any aspect of reality interpreted either by factual shooting or by sincere and justifiable reconstruction so as to appeal either to reason or emotion, for the purpose of stimulating the desire for, and the widening of, human knowledge and understanding, and of truthfully posing problems and their solutions in the spheres of economics, culture, and human relations.”
The goals and methods of documentary filmmaking have changed significantly over the years.Nearly all pre-1950 documentaries used double-system soundtracks captured on a tape recorder connected by cable wires to a tripod-bound camera, limiting the director’s flexibility. This system created challenges for out-of-studio filming and moving camera shots. In the widely used optical soundtrack system, film technicians created photographic images of the recorded sound modulations that would be added to the edge of the edited, processed celluloid print. A projector’s “exciter lamp” converted the photographed modulations to amplified sound. Post-filming procedures with a double-system track allowed the addition of sound effects, musical scoring, lip-sync, and voice-over narration for guiding and elucidating the documentary’s narrative. Filmmakers often pointedly referred to the out-of-the-blue appearance of a narrator as “the voice of God.” Early documentaries did indeed arrive as “creative treatments of actuality.”
Pennebaker’s entrance into documentary filmmaking occurred at a time when new sound and camera technology came on the scene. He was born in 1925 in Evanston, Ill. After serving in the Navy and studying engineering at Yale, he took a job as an electrical engineer, which would influence his filmmaking style. Having become intrigued by innovative, groundbreaking documentaries of the late 1940s and early ’50s, Pennebaker directed the five-minute film short Daybreak Express in 1953. The film followed the planned demolition of NYC’s Third Avenue elevated subway station. Edited to Duke Ellington’s classic song, the film incorporated a mix of documentary and experimental techniques. Pennebaker said that shortly after he saw the 15-minute film “NY, NY” (1958) by his friend Francis Thompson, he committed his life to a career in documentary filmmaking. The now-classic “NY, NY” featured distorting lenses, prisms, mirrors, and varied camera speeds for a riveting, abstract treatment of Manhattan’s skyline and its environs.
Enter Drew Associates
Drew was inspired by the artistry in the still photos of Life magazine. He imagined a direct-cinema approach that would emphasize a candid, observational style and move away from films with content “promotion.” New sound and camera technology would support that goal, namely hand-held cameras and sync-sound recording systems not bound by cable to the camera. Pennebaker joined Drew Associates in 1960 where innovative documentarist/cameraman Richard “Ricky” Leacock was already on board.
A first significant demonstration of new technology and its possibilities occurred in 1960 with the making of Primary. Drew had commissioned Chicago tech genius Mitch Bogdanowicz to convert a lightweight 16-mm Auricon television news camera with zoom lens into a camera for hand-held filming. The Auricon, combined with a Perfectone audio magnetic tape recorder, could be used for single-system, sync-sound recording. The rigidity of a tripod-bound camera was a thing of the past.
Shot in five days, Primary targeted the Wisconsin Democratic primary campaigns of John F. Kennedy and Hubert H. Humphrey. Leacock and indie documentarist Albert Maysles handled the camera work. Pennebaker edited the direct, observational footage. With hand-held cameras, simultaneously recorded sync-sound, and the absence of a guiding voice-over narrator, the editor would be vital in creating the documentary’s narrative “voice.” In choosing and arranging selected scenes, Pennebaker demonstrated how the edited material could present a fascinating, intimate account of a historical event without any predetermined script or post-filming audio additions. It was merely action without actors, no post-embellishment.
In one memorable series of edited shots, Pennebaker constructs a scene that follows JFK and wife Jackie into a Milwaukee rally where the crowd serenades the candidate with his campaign song, “High Hopes.” The scene set the tone and styling of Primary’s spontaneous, “fly-on-the-wall” approach.
By the time of Drew Associates’ iconic third documentary Crisis (1968), the production team was working with the German-made Nagra III NP sync-sound tape recorder by Polish inventor Stefan Kudelski. Nagra (translated from Polish as “it will record”) was a transistorized quartz machine that when paired with a mobile quartz camera provided a superior camera audio deck. It soon became standard for documentary filmmaking.
Crisis, shot over two days in June 1963, again placed Pennebaker and three fellow cinematographers in different locations. (Drew is listed as the uncredited director.) Alabama Gov. George Wallace was attempting to block black students Vivian Malone and James Hood from entering a University of Alabama campus building, and Wallace said he would personally guard the doorway. Cameras also were in the home of Attorney General Robert Kennedy in Virginia, in George Wallace’s home in Alabama, and at Assistant Attorney General Nicholas Katzenbach’s on-site quarters in Tuscaloosa. In an unusual degree of access, the filmmakers were permitted to film in the White House Oval Office.
Crisis’ narrative came from the tense political negotiations among the president, Robert Kennedy, and Katzenbach. The debated issues centered on how to best handle the evolving situation so that Wallace wouldn’t be cast as a martyr and Alabama onlookers wouldn’t turn violent if the government called in the National Guard. The unexpected appearances of 5-year-old Caroline Kennedy in the Oval Office and Kerry and Michael Kennedy in their parents’ Virginia home during the negotiations enhanced the documentary’s unobtrusive filming style.
In selecting Crisis for preservation in the Library of Congress’ National Film Registry, the committee wrote: “Crisis has proven to be a uniquely revealing complement to written histories of the period, providing viewers the rare opportunity to witness historical events from an insider’s perspective.”
Pennebaker left Drew Associates after Crisis and joined Leacock to form Pennebaker-Leacock, Inc. Many observers of 20th-century cultural history consider the partners’ two early films, Dont Look Back (1967) and Monterey Pop (1968), as milestones in the rapidly advancing counterculture movement. Both are listed among the best documentaries of all time. In making Dont Look Back, Pennebaker had insisted on “no apostrophe” in the title’s “dont,” a cue to the documentary’s rejection of conventional communication expectations.
In filming upstart singer/songwriter Bob Dylan on his 1965 tour of England, the portrait would come through as a candid observational exposure of the young musical performer. At just 24, Dylan is at once confident, combative, and self-absorbed. Dont Look Back begins with the awkward-looking singer-songwriter flipping cue cards in an alley. Some five dozen cards reveal the lyrics of “Subterranean Homesick Blues,” as a mute Dylan faces the camera and drops each subsequent lyric card to the sidewalk. Poet Allen Ginsberg hovers in the background.
The documentary moves freely from one British location to another: Dylan’s hotel room with soon-to-be ex-romantic partner Joan Baez (while he taps at a typewriter and she sings in the background); a performance at Royal Albert Hall; struggles to escape adoring fans; and a fiery clash between Dylan and a Time magazine reporter to name a few. Critics and audiences found the film’s unabashed honesty to be a revelation. Dylan was declared by some to be “the voice of a new generation.” Newsweek critic Joseph Morgenstern saw more in Dont Look Back than a fly-on-the-wall portrait of an emergent pop idol. “Dont Look Back is really about fame and how it menaces art, about the press and how it categorizes, bowdlerizes, sterilizes, universalizes, or conventionalizes an original like Dylan into something it can dimly understand.” (Newsweek, Aug. 21, 1967, p.65.)
Pennebaker spoke of Dont Look Back’s breakthrough effect. “It’s Dylan that breaks through, not me…” he would say. “I haven’t brought any great truth about Dylan to the stage. I just haven’t done it — Dylan does that. So if there’s any artistry in what I do, it’s deciding who to turn this fearsome machine on.” (Documentary Explanations, Garden City, Doubleday, 1971.)
Monterey Pop and 1967 posed a different kind of documentary experience for the Pennebaker-Leacock team. Hired to film the three-day music festival at the Monterey County Fairgrounds, the production required a sizable crew of cinematographers and technicians to cover the outdoor festival. Night shooting necessitated a variety of 16-mm film stocks and expert lighting. Audio recording had to adapt to new, powerful amplification systems. Some thirty-plus musicians were showcased during the June 26-28 event. Pioneering musician Paul Beaver (no relation to the author) would perform compositions on Robert Moog’s innovative electronic synthesizer. Otis Redding, Janis Joplin, Simon & Garfunkel, the Who, and Jimi Hendrix all gained significant recognition with the film’s release (in a blown-up 35-mm format.) Hendrix left his own special mark on the event: At the conclusion of “Wild Thing” the flamboyant performer smashed his guitar and set it afire.
Monterey Pop’s long-lasting impact can be seen in the global phenomenon of the multi-day music festival. Woodstock, the most iconic of early mega-concerts, followed in 1969 on a farm in upstate New York. The now-iconic Coachella Valley Music & Arts Festival originated in 1999 in Indio, Calif. The 20th anniversary of Coachella this past summer sold hundreds of thousands of tickets. My 23-year-old British granddaughter, Eleanor, attended with a friend as part of their “gap-year” adventure in the Americas.
And more politics
Pennebaker would continue to make dozens of culture-based documentaries over a five-decade career, many with his filmmaker wife, Chris Hegedus. Famous entertainers, as well as known public figures, were subjects. In The War Room (1993), Pennebaker returned to the type of political observation documentary that had captivated critics and audiences in Primary. Shot mostly in then-presidential candidate Bill Clinton’s campaign headquarters in Little Rock, Ark., the film’s primary subjects were communication director George Stephanopoulos and lead strategist James Carville during a four-month period. And while Clinton did not offer the unlimited access given by JFK for Crisis, The War Room is a revealing behind-the-scenes view of a major political campaign. The film earned an Oscar nomination and received the award for Best Documentary by the Motion Picture National Board of Film Review. It also has a preservation place in the National Film Registry at the Library of Congress.
Part of Pennebaker’s legacy can be seen in the fiction filmmaking styles of Jean Luc-Godard (and other French New Wave directors), John Cassavetes, Robert Altman, and Alfonso Cuarón, among others. Television procedural dramas like “NYPD Blue” and “True Crime” also owe a debt to Pennebaker’s direct-cinema style.
So much has transpired in cinematic circles since Pennebaker made Dont Look Back over a half-century ago. Today his influence can be found everywhere: past, present, and certainly future. When he received an honorary Oscar in 2011, Pennebaker was cited as one of the people “who redefined the language of film . . . and taught filmmakers to look to reality for inspiration.” That’s Pennebaker’s legacy, one of unending impact.