I Film While Leaping from My Chair
D.A. Pennebaker on Bob Dylan, John Lennon, cinema vérité and Mary Poppins

By David Dalton
From Gadfly April 1999

"Almost immediately reality gave in on more than one point. The truth is, it longed to give in." —Jorge Luis Borges

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 than exasperated.

"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 of rock.

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!"

How 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 of Bob.

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 an anti-documentary.

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."

Telepathic direction?

"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 now.

"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."

Apocalyptic Bob

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 so electric.

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" fettle.

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 temperamental.

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!"