immediately reality gave in on more than one point.
The truth is, it longed to give in." —Jorge
D. A. Pennebaker has this bete noire. It's about
the way certain people with cameras
have been treating reality over the past hundred years.
Reality! Der ding an sich. It's no less slippery
a concept for him than it was for, say, Heraclitus or
Ludwig Wittgenstein, but, if Pennebaker can't tell you
exactly what it is, he knows darn well what it isn't.
The movies. You know, Hollywood, Cinecitte. "The
sets are fake and the people are acting. It's not real
life," he tells you with droll revulsion. "The
camera should be the ally of the audience, not
of the actors."
I've never quite thought of it quite this way, but once
the enormity of the betrayal hits me—hundred years
of insults to reality!—I become incensed. Those
ruthless charlatans and con artists out in Burbank!
It makes me want to round up the last remnants of the
Red Guard and burn down all the big studios. Honeypots
of illusion and shame! Not that Penny, as he's known
to his friends, is actually getting himself worked up
about any of this. Not in the least. He's more bemused
"If you consider how many films they make,"
he says, "very few of them have anything like the
substance of Stendhal or Pound. I got drawn into making
films through Ricky Leacock as much as anything. He'd
been the cameraman on Robert Flaherty's great documentary,
Louisiana Story. I suddenly thought: here's how
you could make a film that isn't a staged thing—because
you don't have to have that big piece of glass between
you and the film. You can deal directly with the person
you're filming, and that for me was some kind of key
idea. And from then on that's what I saw myself doing—breaking
down the unreality of the stage performance."
When I worked for Penny briefly, crisis seemed to cling
to him like a heraldic device. But even during moments
of dire peril—like the time Zelma Redding and
Otis Junior were about to decapitate us and feed us
to their baby shark—Penny remained his unflappable,
laid-back self. I figured he must have made some kind
of deal with the angel of close scrapes.
About this eel-like business of reality, you want to
listen to Pennebaker, because Penny's made two archetypal
documentaries of the last forty years: Don't Look
Back (1965), the classic film of Bob Dylan's 1965
tour of England, and Monterey Pop (1967) (with
Ricky Leacock), the mother of all rock festival movies.
They are so perfect in their own way that filmmakers—not
to mention Penny himself—have been trying to remake
them ever since. These weren't just great films of their
kind, they defined the cultural obsessions of the era:
our voyeuristic and quasi-sacramental fascination with
our idols and our submersion in the collective rituals
And this wasn't only a matter of being there at the
right time (as Penny somewhat disengenuously insists).
He had first to invent the equipment to make these films.
It would be as if William Burroughs, in order to write
Naked Lunch, had to invent the typewriter (and
scissors and glue). Before the sixties, movie cameras
were unwieldy and heavy, weighing forty pounds or more,
precluding the kind of agile filmmaking required for
these fly-on-the-wall documentaries.
While working for Drew Associates at Time Life in
the early sixties, Penny, along with Ricky Leacock and
Albert Maysles, invented a new lightweight, 16-millimeter
camera that freed the filmmaker to "float through
the world." (Penny is a very resourceful individual—a
few years earlier he invented the first computerized
ticketing system for American Airlines.) Fortunately
Penny had a degree in electrical and mechanical engineering
from Yale, and Leacock was a physicist. Their epiphany
was to use sound—essentially dialogue—as
the organizing principle for documentaries. This way
they could dispense with intrusive narrations and let
the interaction of the subjects tell the story. In order
to do that, they would have to develop an ingenious
synch-sound system, which they did. The dialogue in
the classic documentaries of Robert Flaherty from the
forties, Louisiana Story and Men of Aran,
is so bad because the noisy sound recorders had to be
kept far away from the camera.
I went to see Penny at his Upper West Side lair in New
York, a cluttered warren of editing rooms and offices
and congenial clubhouse where he works with two of his
sons, Frazer and Jo Jo, and his partner and wife, Chris
Hegedus, with whom he has made some two dozen documentaries
over the past twenty-five years, including the acclaimed
Town Bloody Hall (1973) and The War Room
(1992). Penny, his affable, voluble self, in fishing
sweater and tweed jacket, exudes mischief. We talked
about any number of things--an easy thing to do, since
he is one of the most beguiling, Homeric talkers you
are ever likely to meet. Here, in the words of Laurence
Sterne, "Digressions are the sunshine."
On how he decides to make a movie: "Sometimes a
strong-minded person appears and says, 'You should make
this film.' Followed by somebody else with a bagful
of money. Or a promise of money. Usually we'll operate
on a promise of money. Stupidly!"
he and Chris work together: "We go ten rounds,"
Chris says, "and the last one standing wins. You
do tend to need someone, though, 'cause it's a very
lonely thing, making these films. At times you're very
unloved by the people you're filming! They don't want
you around or think they don't want you around or don't
know if they want you around. So you're always going
through this process of thinking you're a big snoop.
Which, actually, you are."
For all his fulminating about the fakery of Hollywood,
there's not the slightest whiff of the doctrinaire purist
about Penny—if he feels like being theatrical,
reality will understand, like that little piece of documentary
hanky-panky in Monterey Pop where Mama Cass,
sitting in the audience, gasps at something she sees
on stage. Since in the film this occurs while Janis
is singing "Ball and Chain," we assume this
is in response to the overwhelming effect of Janis's
singing; but this was actually an audience shot filmed
without sound, and nobody knows what Mama Cass
was reacting to. But, it could have been. Outside
of Hendrix's flaming guitar, what else could cause such
an intense reaction? You might say that reality, in
the Pennebaker cosmos, is, like the quark, something
of a malleable quantity.
Someone Comes into the Room Shouting the Word "Now!"
Since Dylan occupies an almost supernatural place among
his most ardent fans, Penny—who worked on two
documentaries with him—has become a sort of window
into the soul of the Obscure One. He is a refreshing
deflator of high-flown theories, Dylanologists being
the most relentless seekers after hidden meanings outside
of exegetes of the Kabbalah.
Penny has made over a hundred films, worked with Janis
Joplin, Norman Mailer, JFK and David Bowie (to name
a few). You'd think he would be exasperated by people
still asking him about Dylan after all these years,
but he seems as curious as you are about the Enigma
In a sense, Penny has made three Bobumentaries. Besides
Don't Look Back, he shot footage of Dylan's 1966
tours, which Dylan, the filmmaker Howard Alk and Robbie
Robertson of the Band edited into the manic Eat the
Document (recently shown at the Museum of Broadcasting),
and You Know Something's Happening, a rough-cut
version of that same footage edited by Penny and the
boulevardier philosophe, Bobby Neuwirth, Dylan's
friend and former roadie.
The pretense fostered by cinema verite documentaries
is that we are seeing the unguarded, unvarnished self,
but with a mercurial and multiphrenic personality such
as Dylan's, there's always the possibility that what
we're seeing is a Dylan-on-Dylan effect. And, in any
case, it's the varnish Dylan puts on things that we've
come to see. As to whether Dylan's character in these
films is a put-on, Penny could care less.
"I don't think it matters at all. It would be like,
after a play, if I told you the whole thing was fake.
Does it change your opinion of the play? It's assumed
that Dylan was enacting. But I think, in Don't
Look Back, that Dylan's enacting his life as he
wishes to enact it. Not necessarily as it is,
and not necessarily as he wishes it were, but
just as he wants to act it. Don't Look Back is
a kind of fiction, but it's Dylan's fiction, not mine.
He makes it up as he goes along."
As far as his fans are concerned, the "real"
Bob Dylan is irrelevant, anyway. It's the Rimbaud of
rock, the pentecostal hipster of his songs that we want
to see, and that's just what Penny delivers. Part of
Penny's success is that, unlike more objective and cynical
filmmakers, he shares a reverential view of his subjects:
"I think musicians are a strange kind of clergy
among us," he says. "They're the closest thing
we have to saints."
I was curious about that scene at the beginning of Don't
Look Back in which Dylan holds up cards while "Subterranean
Homesick Blues" is playing on the track. It's become
something of an icon of filmmaking, used, among other
things, in Bob Roberts. "It was Dylan's
idea, actually, and a neat idea. He said, 'Do you think
this would be a good idea? We'll draw up these cards
and we'll play back the song I've just written and I'll
throw the cards up or somethin', I don't know.' So we
packed these cards and took them with us for the whole
tour, but it wasn't really almost till the last couple
of days—when Donovon and Joan Baez came in—that
we did anything about it. Donovan drew most of them,
he's a good drawer turns out. I did a couple too. Dylan
didn't do too many. I'd shot the scene just for fun
and it wasn't till after the film had been finished—I
originally thought the film was going to begin with
him in the dressing room—that I began looking
at it for the opening scene. I thought nobody'll even
know who he is, so I gotta get him on stage somehow
and then I thought about that thing we'd shot and I
stuck it in front and never took it off."
Some of the people in Don't Look Back come off
pretty badly. I wondered how they reacted to seeing
themselves behaving loutishly, Dylan's manager, Albert
Grossman, in particular.
"Grossman loved it! Nobody ever sees himself as
a bad guy, much less as a fool. They might be slightly
embarrassed but they think... Actually, I don't know
what they think. I'm always amazed.
"It was through Albert that I got involved with
Don't Look Back. I was working at Drew Associates
when he came and asked if I wanted to do something with
Dylan. "Dylan knew about me from my first film,
Daybreak Express—"-a five-minute rush
set to a Duke Ellington track shot from an elevated
train"—and Sara Lowndes [the future Sara
Dylan] was working for us, at the main Time Life office.
She had shown Bob a copy of Daybreak Express,
and he apparently had seen me somewhere by chance at
some party. Anyway, they wanted to do a film. I'm not
sure what was behind it, whether Albert wanted to get
him used to making a film or figured this is the kind
of film Bob might sit for as opposed to a Warner Bros.
big-budget film. But I think, knowing Albert, he had
in mind eventually selling something to Warner Bros.
"I put up basically all the money for Don't
Look Back. Albert put up some money in order to
transport Howard Alk and Jones [Howard's wife], who
were friends of Bob's. Jones was the person who did
sound for me, 'cause she knew something about handling
the nagra. Otherwise it was just me. Bob Van Dyck recorded
all of the concerts.
"Dylan saw that all I did was watch, and he dug
that—that I never asked him to do anything. I
was part of the group, I hung out with everybody all
of the time but I didn't shoot all the time. Often I
just sat and listened."
This Wheel's on Fire
Presumably, whatever Dylan thought of Don't Look
Back, he believed that Penny in some way could
read his mind, because, the following year, 1966,
he asked him to film his tour of Europe. But by now
his mental telegrams were becoming harder and harder
to decipher. If Don't Look Back was in the nature
of an objective self-portrait, perhaps what Dylan envisioned
for the next film was a self-portrait in a convex mirror,
something that would simulate on film the flashing chain
of images from his songs. Or, more likely—since
the concentration on such a project would essentially
have involved changing careers—he wanted to make
And, to a certain extent, he got it. Twice. Penny:
"After Don't Look Back was finished, Dylan
came to me and said, 'You've got your film'—which
he called Pennebaker by Dylan) —'now I
want you to help me make my film, but this time there's
gonna be none of this artsy fartsy documentary cinema
vérité shit. This is going to be a real movie.'
He had some kind of vision of it, but no idea in the
world how to get it. He'd occasionally say, 'Shoot that,
shoot some of this over here.' That kind of direction.
He would occasionally get people to say things or set
up situations. For instance, he would get rooms filled
with strangers who appeared out of nowhere and get them
all into the scene. I don't know what he was smoking,
but he was pretty far up in the air a lot of the times!
"It wasn't bereft of ideas. It's just that the
ideas in his head... What we were going to get on film
wouldn't be that! It might have been interesting if
he could have figured out how to sit and edit it. I
wasn't opposed to the film he was making... I just didn't
exactly know how to do it. So I started making the same
old kind of film—the only film I know how to make,
actually! If he had any ideas about how he wanted to
make it he never talked to me about it. We just went
from thing to thing, did whatever came next. You can
see that sometimes he says something but he hardly ever
looks in the camera or thinks about the camera. I think
he thinks I'm somehow shooting this thing the way he
wants it to be shot."
"I don't know. It was not uninteresting. It was
a marvelous trip but I was never quite sure what I was
meant to be doing. At one point I got so frustrated
I quit and went to Cannes. Henri Longois, who founded
the cinematheque, had asked me to show Don't Look
Back at the Festival, but when I got there I had
such a bad feeling about the place that I just packed
up the film and left. I didn't even show it. It wasn't
a place to show that film. Audiences have always had
to find these films themselves.
"Bobby Neuwirth and I made a first version from
the footage. It was all guessing, we didn't figure out
what to do with any of these things, we just stuck them
together quickly as a kind of a sketch—it's called
You Know Something's Going to Happen—to
jump-start the editing process, because nothing was
being done. This was around the time of Dylan's motorcycle
accident, so he wasn't working on it. And one day Greil
Marcus came in and saw it—he thought it was a
finished film; I had a hard time talking him out of
it—and wrote a review saying what a great film
it was. And Dylan happened to read the review and said:
'What the fuck is this? Whaddayou doing? You're not
supposed to be making this film.' And I wasn't
supposed to be, you know. I just said, 'Hey, it's only
a rough cut.'
"Next Albert shows up, saying, 'What are you doing'
You're not helping my client.' I said, 'Albert, you
know it's hard for two people to make a film. Either
one person makes it or another. You want me to make
the film, I could make a film, but it's not going to
be the film Bob wants. He doesn't want to have Don't
Look Back again in color! He wants something different
and you've got to give him a chance to do that.' Albert
planned to do this film for ABC but they eventually
disappeared. They gave up on it."
Eat the Document
Jonathan Cott described the bizarre editing of Eat
the Document in Rolling Stone as "quasi-methedrine
logic suggesting a self-consciously disintegrating structure."
And it is willfully, infuriatingly disorienting—jump-cutting
from twenty seconds of Dylan performing to fifteen seconds
of a train steaming through the English countryside
to twenty seconds of something else, as if some cinematic
sadist is constantly tantalizing you with some amazing
scene and then, just as you become involved, yanking
you away. Penny shakes his head:
"Howard Alk's concept of editing I found very destructive.
I would never let Howard edit a film for me because
he really likes the idea of undoing anything—bump
bump bump—a kind of throwing things against
the real time of a scene or a situation. Whatever it
is, go against it. So what you get in the end looks
to me like somebody just being really smartass. But
I suppose by now it looks very current. It looks like
MTV. So maybe everybody assumes I had the vision of...
Satan or something! Foreseeing what would be going down
"What I miss from the version they made are Dylan's
profound and amazing performances. They chopped them
all up, you don't have any performance continuity. They
see it as being an editing effect, when in fact the
really incredible thing was Dylan, the way he performed
those songs. The title is Al Aronowitz's. He said, 'Documentary?
Eat the document!'
"The thing that's upsetting if I thought about
it, which I don't let myself do much, is that inside
that tumble of laundry there's a fantastic film. And
it is a kind of follow-up to Don't Look Back.
A continuation. And if you put that film out, there
would be a huge audience for it. But it's not my film;
it's never going to be my film. We shook hands on a
deal and I'm stuck to it. I can't change it and Dylan
doesn't want to.
"Whenever I do discuss it with, say, Jeff Weiss
at Dylan's office, he says, 'Well, you know, I was amazed
that they let that thing [Eat the Document] be
shown at the Museum of Broadcasting!' But I realize
why. Sony put so much pressure on Dylan because they
were trying to sell the album. They were having gastritis
about the various permutations of what they could do
with the promotion of it.
"Dylan made his film from the outtakes of the rough
cut Bobby [Neuwirth] and I had put together. They took
these pieces of footage and jammed them together. They
were trying to make a point by doing that. It was a
sort of put-down of documentaries. It's kind of maddening.
But it's also as if Abraham Lincoln had made a film.
Whatever it turned out to be, you have to say to yourself,
'Jesus, I didn't know he had that in him.' So it has
that peculiar quality, of being substantially something
great and strange."
What there is of narrative (in either Penny's or Dylan's
version) is a series of unrelated scenes told through
a frantic eye, a sort of objective correlative of Dylan's
flashing chains of images. One amazing scene after another
unfolds, alternately manic and sublime.
And, in contrast to the black-and-white cinema verite
of Don't Look Back, the look of Something's
Happening is positively phantasmagoric. Some of
this has to do with the uncoated 7242 reversible film
stock used, one of the first fast films that Eastman
Kodak brought out. But of course, it's the advantage
Penny took of it—intuitively playing on its distortions
and technical shortcomings—that makes the film
It's not quite true, as Penny claims, that in You
Know Something's Happening he was making the film
he always makes. Some of the distortion and abstraction
of color from his first film, Daybreak Express,
has crept in. He admits it turned into something of
an expressionistic kind of film.
"None of it," he says, "was cinema verite."
There is a wonderfully eerie scene of the spectral faces
of children in the snow in Denmark. "It was very
cold, so the lenses frosted up, giving their faces a
haunting, unreal quality."
You Know Something's Happening, in its unfinished,
sketchy state, is more intimate and at the same time
more artificial than Don't Look Bac. The avenging
angel of hipness from Don't Look Back has been
replaced by a gawkier, even goofier and more sympathetic
Dylan; not so much the seething, amphetamine prophet
as a prankish, poetic presence.
Dylan, drawing a filigree mustache and beard on his
face with a pen. Dylan, outside a London shop, reading
a notice that offers to COLLECT, CLIP, BATHE, AND RETURN
YOUR DOG and then, like some inspired monkey grammarian,
spinning this unpromising material into epic permutations,
the combinations becoming more and more surreal until
the words are no more than notes that he can rearrange
in any order. It's as if music is his natural mode of
communication and the jabberwocky of speech for him
is a sort of verbal Bach fugue on which he ecstatically
riffs. This is borne out in the film's most moving scenes,
when Dylan plays with other musicians. Dylan and Robbie
Robertson writing a song together, or Dylan and Johnny
Cash sitting at the piano and singing.
While the 10-millimeter wide-angle lens creates the
distorted perspective of medieval rooms in paintings
of the Annunciation, the quality of the film stock,
like the raking light of a sky before a thunderstorm,
sheds an eerie radiance on everything. Its instability
lends a brooding, flickering flashback effect that can
make exterior shots resemble expressionist landscapes
and performance footage look like it was shot inside
a volcano. Drenched in this luminous penumbra, even
the drab, galumphing wallpaper of the interiors takes
on the appearance of mutated rain forest foliage.
The opening shot, as the band moves down the highway,
is a pulsating sky synced to a Dylan track, the sky
involuntarily blinking, as if the day itself is astonished
to see such goings on. The performance footage of Dylan
singing (an unreleased) "Big Mama" and "Ballad
of a Thin Man" is wildly chromatic and strange.
Light shatters into spiky arc-welded halos, colors bleed,
images break up. There are gravity-defying moments,
as when the camera momentarily turns upside down to
direct its gaze to the piano keyboard (so that Penny
can focus on the black and white keys) and then, like
some sort of light-seeking bug, hovers around Dylan,
the flaring light turning his head into a celestial
sparkler. It's as if some psychic storm had broken out
on stage. At times the light itself seems composed of
some oscillating phosphorescent substance, and this
feeling that reality is melting before your eyes seems
the perfect counterpart to Dylan's apocalyptic lyrics.
The John Lennon Bit
Penny says he regrets that he was not there when Byron
and Shelley went to Italy that summer. The two "unacknowledged
legislators of the world," drinking Corvo, smoking
hashish, planning their roles as poet kings and, in
a typically sixties fantasy scene, ending up locked
in their villa, shooting out the windows at the police.
But the scenes he shot of John Lennon and Dylan riffing
in the back of a limousine in London come close to being
our own equivalent. It's a sight to behold, the two
sharpest minds in rock playing with words from which
all trace logic has been surgically removed. Even if
the parodic sketches they pull out of thin air don't
always work, it's amazing to watch them engage in mock
patter and surreal quips, running through absurd routines,
scrambling up and down fantastic flights of fancy as
if they were syntactical staircases, language teetering,
like a drunken acrobatic, on the edge of nonsense.
Dylan, though sick (at one point Lennon prescribes an
extraterrestrial patent medicine for him), gamely plays
his role in this Dadaist repartee. He seems uncharacteristically
skittish and jaunty, playing the court jester to a deadpan
Lennon, who is in fine "Scarborough-is-a-scarf-that-covers-Yorkshire"
We see a couple of instances of Dylan directing the
film. At one point he insists Penny film something real
outside the window, and at another point he tells Lennon
to go back to the beginning of a piece of nonsense about
Barry McGuire, saying, essentially, "take two!"
Sorry, Beatles and Bob lovers, but for legal reasons
we can't quote the dialogue. You can find it faithfully
transcribed in the November 1993 issue of Mojo
or on the Internet.
Since we seem to be watching Dylan and Lennon acting
out some sort of unfinished play, I asked if Dylan and
Lennon were trying to recreate the sort of hyper-rap
they engaged in off camera.
"They had a funny relationship to begin with. In
this particular scene it was as if they were trying
to invent something for me that would be amusing in
some way, but at the same time they were doing it for
each other. It was not exactly a conversation by any
means. Dylan was so beside himself and in such a terrible
state that after a while I don't think he knew what
he was saying. He hauled him up the stairs of the hotel,
and when he got to his room he was really sick."
An Evangelist at Twenty-Four Frames Per Second
Penny's films are an expression of his temperament:
quirky, intuitive, laissez-faire, chaotic and ultimately
classic. Although he is a consummate craftsman, his
heart is with the brilliant amateurs.
"I've always been interested in getting away from
a fixed aesthetic, so I never think about how to frame
a shot. It's an attitude I want to put out on the street
because I don't want these films to be seen as finished
products. I'm more interested that they be seen like
the photographs of the French photographer Lartigues—'filmed
while jumping off my chair'—so they have that
feeling, so you don't see them as works of skilled,
aesthetic judgment. The one thing I've figured out about
film is that it's of the moment, intuitive. And, in
the end, uncontrollable."
Penny's anarchic impulses and idiosyncratic disarray
seem infectious (a nurtured chaos being part of the
overall plan), often extending to his equipment, cameras
at critical moments asserting their own right to be
A typical self-deprecating Pennyism goes like this:
"I don't know how to direct. I just trust in God
or whoever takes care of documentary films." But
sometimes his claim that he does nothing more than turn
on the camera and point can seem like an inverse form
of pride—like a magician's illusion of invisibility,
just as his stories about being there at the right time
can sound like a man with an Ariflex who just happened
to stumble on the Miraculous Draught of Fishes or the
Raising of Lazarus.
But how does Mary Poppins fit into all this?
"That's just a marvelous film," he says, without
a trace of irony. "It's so well made. Flawless.
I wouldn't know how to make that film!"