Only Connect: D.A. Pennebaker, 1925-2019

By Jerry White

Cinéma vérité is all too easy to misunderstand, all too easy to take literally. Worst of all, it’s all too easy to piously debunk—even by some of its most famous practitioners. Frederick Wiseman, when interviewed for Peter Wintonick’s Cinéma vérité: Defining the Moment (1999), said that “my definition of cinéma vérité is that it’s a pompous French term that has no meaning.” (Maybe, but then why is it still so much a part of popular understandings of documentary?) Interviewed in the same film, D.A. Pennebaker—who died on August 1, at the age of 94—uses the term a lot less self-consciously. “What cinema vérité does that’s different is, it has this funny historical context. It really happened at one time. This is your history.” 

It would be easy to remember Pennebaker’s legacy this way. As editor and camera operator for Primary (1960), he and his fellow Young Turks at Drew Associates (Ricky Leacock, Albert Maysles, and Terence Macartney-Filgate) got closer to John F. Kennedy than seemed possible at the time, sometimes (though not always) in sync sound. Much the same could be said of Pennebaker’s real breakthrough film, Dont Look Back (1967), in which Bob Dylan seemed to come right off of his album covers and into the laps of the viewers, enthralling young, hip Americans just as the Lumière Brothers’ train apocryphally terrified a bunch of turn-of-the-century Parisians. This is your history, youth of America: all of this really happened. Thank God we had Pennebaker, a ’60s embodiment of Susan Sontag’s belief that the Lumières’ power lay in “the wonder that reality can be transcribed with such immediacy.”

But, Saint Susan notwithstanding, this is not where Pennebaker’s enormous importance is truly to be found, any more so than that of the Lumières. Better to pay attention to what he says a few minutes later in the Wintonick film, cutting through Wiseman’s wisecracks to get to the real heart of the matter. “I think of Cézanne coming along, when everybody, you know, had to swat the flies on the trompe l’œil Dutch pictures, or they weren’t any good,” he said, in a deceptively rambling tone. “And he’s suddenly saying, forget the fucking flies! Look at this schmeer! And everybody said, what schmeer, you know? Get it out of here. In the beginning, it had to be really hard. And little by little, that generational thing takes up, and everything changes. And eventually, everyone says, boy those schmeers were great. I want some more of those schmeers. Who’s making those schmeers these days?”

Pennebaker was a master of the schmeer. You see that ethic in some of his most memorable images, such as the unexpectedly moving, stage-light-drenched close-ups or a ghostly extreme long shot of a prancing, white-clad Dave Gahan in Depeche Mode 101 (1989), a joyous film about a terrible ’80s band that he made with his life partner Chris Hegedus. You could see that ethic in the way that he and Hegedus structured some of their most ripped-from-the-headlines features, such as the engrossingly shambolic The War Room (1993), an exuberant film about a terrible ’90s politician. Pennebaker was a Romantic at heart, in search of startlingly transcendent moments and uncannily able to find them among a decidedly non-sublime crowd: politicians, rock stars, actors. That ability to make the rough-hewn seem revelatory was there all along. Though modestly framed as a mere sketch, his 1964 vignette Lambert & Co., or “Audition at RCA” raised carefully edited bobbing camerawork to very high art indeed: an early-film solo from Mary Vonnie, framed in a perfect low-angle close-up, is just as full of life as the climactic, Dave Lambert-centred ensemble performance.

Pennebaker emerged at a crucial moment of transition in documentary filmmaking: the arrival of lightweight sync-sound camera equipment, the technical breakthrough that really made vérité what it is. That historical moment featured some of the same problems as the comparably significant changeover from silent to sound cinema, including unreliable and highly directional mikes, heavy and cumbersome sound recorders with wonky motors, etc. Some of the form’s early enunciations (including Primary) display some of the same limitations as that prior era of transition: one is reminded of the tea-room sequence in Alfred Hitchcock’s Blackmail (1929) during the scene of Kennedy’s big speech, in which the sync really only works one fairly static setup at a time and strategic cutaways are made to images where the sound being in sync is not an issue. Armed with a mechanical engineering degree from Yale, Pennebaker himself became crucial to solving these technical problems: he and Leacock famously figured out how to use the movement of Bulova’s Accutron watch to regulate and synchronize the motor of both a recorder and a camera. That would be enough to guarantee him an important place in the history of cinema technology, an innovator along the lines of Michel Brault, who was working at the NFB on similar problems at the same time. 

As with Brault, though, Pennebaker was much more than a master tinkerer: he was a great artist, part of a transnational explosion of creative and technical innovation that had major political importance. The best book on this global phenomenon that I know of is Gilles Marsolais’ 1974 L’aventure du cinéma direct, updated in 1997 as L’aventure du cinéma direct revisitée. That second, much-expanded edition serves as a kind of alternative history of world cinema, as seen through technical and institutional shifts that seem familiar in many ways, but with documentary at the centre and narrative a sort of afterthought. Framed as part of this sort of history, Pennebaker’s importance is comparable to Godard’s: while they are not exactly the same kind of innovators, both moved cinema technology forward in important ways, and both were (to return to that formulation from the Wintonick film) making some of the great schmeers of their day.

In that spirit, it seems appropriate to return to the film maudit that Pennebaker and Godard didn’t quite make together. Originally titled One A.M. (for One American Movie), the project was eventually abandoned by Godard and subsequently completed by Pennebaker as One P.M., which is sometimes known as One Pennebaker Movie or One Parallel Movie, after Godard’s snarky post-facto references to it. (Pennebaker only finished it at all because he was facing what he called “severe contractual coercion” from the Public Broadcasting Laboratory programme of New York’s WNET, which had backed the project.) Despite its troubled parentage, the film is notable particularly for a virtuoso sequence of wild handheld camera about 30 minutes in, featuring a group of African-American musicians playing in the middle of a Berkeley street. There is some jamming, some crooning (“Black magic…Blaaaack maaaagiiiiic…”), some Islamic invocations (“Bismillah!” “As-salamu alykum!”), and some rabble-rousing (“Calling all Black people, calling all Black people…We are going to break down the Statue of White Liberty!”). As the camera gets closer and closer to the musicians, the sequence eventually drifts into a mesmerizing series of blurry extreme close-ups and zooms, with one of the musicians chanting over and over, “Communicate! Communicate! Communicate!”—a moment which, in retrospect, reads as an “Only connect!” for the age of vérité. 

One P.M. (or whatever you want to call it) is far from being the best work by either Godard or Pennebaker. But it should still be remembered, if for no other reason than it reminds us that Pennebaker was a key part of a movement as important as the French New Wave, and was—like the Lumières, like Godard—no stranger to laboratory-like environments. That, in turn, might help us understand the evolution of postwar cinema in a way that gives documentary, and especially the school loosely known as cinéma vérité (or direct cinema, or whatever you want to call it) the pride of place it deserves, for the reasons that matter.

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