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Q&A: D.A. Pennebaker (Part I)

Highlights from Issue 25: The Documentary Issue

D.A. Pennebaker filming the 1968 concert film Monterey Pop (1968)

Photography Courtesy of Pennebaker Hegedus Films

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Wednesday, March 22, 2006

What follows is an excerpt from Issue 25: The Documentary Issue

D.A. PENNEBAKER LOOKS BACK
(EXCERPT)

By Nile Southern

Few seem as capable of handling frenzy on a gigantic scale as D.A. Pennebaker. From Crisis to Primary, Monterey Pop to Don't Look Back, each film captures a massive disruption of the status quo. Pennebaker, who was born in Evanston, Illinois, in 1925, confesses that besides luck (and the ability to be in the right place at the right time) his enduring good fortune may be due to the talent that has gathered around his nest.

The following interview (excerpted here from the extensive STOP SMILING cover story) took place in Pennebaker's office in the Upper West Side of New York, which he shares with his wife and collaborator Chris Hegedus, director Nick Doob and a host of talented, ambitious documentary filmmakers.

Stop Smiling: How has “documentary” changed in meaning over the years?

D.A. Pennebaker: I think a lot of people making so-called documentaries are really making personal, hybrid films. The difference between a documentary and a fiction film is getting harder to find. If you re-enact stuff, is that a documentary? Maybe it is, if you say so! In coming years, the line will blur more and more. Documentaries have simply become interesting to do, and there might be money there. It's very much like the novel bursting out at the beginning of the last century. There were certain writers whose voices you wanted to hear. I think that's happening now with documentary makers.

SS: How do you know when a project is right for you?

DAP: We're sort of like Robinson Crusoe: We're sitting on this island, day after day, no particular thoughts come to us. But somewhere in the back of our heads is the idea we're supposed to get off of here! Then one day you see a footprint — and that gives us a sense of action. We're always looking for that footprint. The film has to come to us in some fashion where we understand it wants to happen. And then we join hands with it and see what comes. You'd have a hard time selling stock in this company on that basis.

SS: You've likened what you do to “making a little tune.” How does picture making differ from other art forms?

DAP: One of my early films was totally determined by Duke Ellington's music. I feel in debt to Ellington and instinctively to all musicians. They taught me my art. The very nature of film is musical, because it uses time as a basis for its energy. It needs to go from here to there, whereas pictures and paintings are just there. With movies, you're putting something together that's not going to be totally comprehensible until the end. It's the concept of the novel and the sonnet — you need to get to the end, to see if you like it and decide what it's about. With stills, there's always the same instant, frozen and beguiling, but lifeless. A single note. With film, the moment doesn't hold — it rushes by, and you must deal with it like you do music and real life.

It doesn't mean that movies are somehow better than stills, or better than painting — it's just a further step. People who want to put their names on a wall in some way, to lay something down, have to take notice. That's why we're coming to the end of a certain kind of artistic era. The end of the Byronic era for artists was, you know, the artist telling everybody to fuck off. That's the kind of Larry Rivers, Hunter S. Thompson aspect, which was great. They were tough men, and they knew something we all want to know. But that's like 7th grade. Sooner or later you want to go to 8th grade, just to see what's there. You have to go through all these steps to get to where you're pointed.

*****

SS: How do you feel about documentary in relation to fictional film, art and television?

DAP: Remember, television has to sell cheese, which is no crime. As long as you have people wanting to buy cheese, that's a perfectly reasonable thing. People pay mortgages and bring up children doing it — it's not a disaster for our times, as some people think. Since it's an outside view, the documentary is going to be regarded less as a resource, and more as art. I have some hesitation in considering films as art. Would you lie down and die for a Greta Garbo film?


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