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How D.A. Pennebaker Changed the Art of Documentary Filmmaking

Filmmaker Robert Greene ("Bisbee '17") explains the late documentary legend's impact and surveys his career.

"The War Room"

“The War Room”

Pennebaker Hegedus/Kobal/Shutterstock

Robert Greene is a documentary filmmaker whose credits include the Sundance-acclaimed “Bisbee ‘17” and “Kate Plays Christine.” He teaches at the Murray Center for Documentary Journalism at the Missouri School of Journalism.

The first word that comes to mind while watching D.A. Pennebaker’s 1953 debut film “Daybreak Express” is love – love of light, love of movement, love of music, love of ideas. In five wildly inventive minutes, the great filmmaker, who died earlier this week in his home at the age of 94, uses various cinematic techniques to capture and recreate the rush of a New York City subway commute. Edited to an exuberant score by Duke Ellington, “Daybreak Express” was part of a groundbreaking group of films that revealed the abstract and musical potential of the observational camera. It was created by a man who loved the act of making things and loved pushing the documentary form forward.

A few years later, Pennebaker hooked up with Robert Drew, Richard Leacock, the Maysles brothers and others to invent a whole new way of seeing. As part of Drew Associates, Pennebaker – a former engineering student at Yale – literally built the 16mm sync sound cameras that would be used to launch the revolutionary Direct Cinema movement with films like “Primary” (1960). “A theater without actors” was how Drew described their new kind of documentary, and Pennebaker was immediately exhilarated by the possibilities.

“When we got equipment in hand, what was possible was so much more incredible than we had ever imagined,” he told Sam Adams in a 2011 interview. “I think Drew thought that we were going to be making documentaries, which is to say, we would be interviewing people about things going on and it would be kind of a journalism thing. I had no such intentions.”

A strident belief in the power of the observational camera was a hallmark of Pennebaker’s monumental career, and his legacy might best be defined by his shrewd understanding of the complexities of filming people. “Don’t Look Back” (1967) is a portrait of Bob Dylan in the midst of a career transition, but it’s also a two-way dance between camera and self-aware chameleon, with Pennebaker’s hard lens capturing and magnifying Dylan’s slippery shtick. He was rightly celebrated for his films about musicians – the Dylan film, “Monterey Pop” (1968), “Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders From Mars” (1973) and “Depeche Mode: 101” (1989) essentially invented and re-invented the concert film.

original cast album company

“Original Cast Album: Company”

But for me, Pennebaker’s most important contribution might be his grasp of the possibilities of performance in documentary. His masterpiece “Original Cast Album: Company” (1970) is a stripped-down homily to the act of people acting; the contradictory power of people playing themselves for his exacting nonfiction camera is the de facto subject of all of Pennebaker’s films. “1 P.M.” (1971), his radical collaboration with Jean-Luc Godard, exemplifies Pennebaker’s commitment to innovative cinematic forms.

As much as his ingenuity, it was the image of Pennebaker that was so influential to several generations of documentary filmmakers. Yes, Pennebaker hung out with rock stars and sometimes looked like one himself, but that’s far less inspiring than how the man many of us came to know as “Penny” came to be seen. Starting with “Energy War” (1977) and “Town Bloody Hall” (1979), where Norman Mailer debates a leading group of feminists including Germaine Greer, Pennebaker was inseparable from his partner Chris Hegedus. They founded Pennebaker Hegedus Films, married in 1982 and became a near-constant presence in the evolving documentary community for nearly 40 years. For many of us, Pennebaker and Hegedus were the model; their partnership looked like an ideal blend of romantic love and ambitious collaboration.

I’d never call Penny and Chris “friends” — I admired them from a reverent distance and shook their hands whenever I could — but in my own life, their relationship was a true guiding light. The image of them walking into rooms together will be missed; my own presence in those rooms made me feel so lucky.

Pennebaker’s son Frazer was their producer, and the sense that family and this kind of work were inseparable was a big part of Penny and Chris’ infectious allure. But so was their enduring devotion to making films. “The War Room” (1993) is the greatest political documentary ever made, an extraordinary behind-the-scenes look at Bill Clinton’s successful 1992 presidential campaign, which showed that everyone in politics, including strategists-turned-television personalities James Carville and George Stephanopoulos, were actors without scripts.

Editorial use only. No book cover usage.Mandatory Credit: Photo by Sonia Moskowitz/Pennebaker Hegedus/Kobal/Shutterstock (5872226b)D.A. Pennebaker, Chris HegedusThe War Room - 1993Director: Chris Hegedus / Da PennebakerPennebaker Hegedus FilmsUSAOn/Off SetDocumentary

D.A. Pennebaker and Chris Hegedus filming “The War Room” (1993)

Sonia Moskowitz/Pennebaker Hegedus/Kobal/Shutterstock

Pennebaker and Hegedus continued to produce vital work, and their last film together was “Unlocking the Cage” (2016), an affecting look at the thin line between the legal rights – and the emotional interior lives – of we humans and other animals, showing us all just how good they still were. According to Pennebaker’s friend Roger Friedman, who broke the news of his passing, Pennebaker died while writing his memoir. There was never a sense that the work would stop.

Penny just loved filmmaking. He loved ideas and he remained excited about the possibilities of what we do until his last days. In 2016, after a Sundance screening of my film “Kate Plays Christine,” I was a bit startled when the lights came up and Penny and Chris were sitting in the front row. During an answer to an audience question, I found myself pontificating about “observational cinema” but felt so self-conscious with two of the greatest living documentary filmmakers in front of me that I stopped and introduced them to the audience. Penny loved the ovation he received and he loved basically taking over the Q&A. He had a lot to say about my movie and it was an incredible moment in my life.

Afterwards, Penny, Chris, my partner Deanna and our two kids all stood in the hallway of the cinema, with Penny excitedly telling us about some of his unseen experimental films from the sixties that reminded him of my work. We talked for over 20 minutes. I was giddy and overwhelmed. Their kindness and the enthusiasm in his eyes is something I think about often. Imagine being that influential, having made those films, and still finding the time and energy to go deep with a younger filmmaker like me. Thank you, Penny, for showing me how to be. Thank you for paving the road for all of us to drive down.

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