What the Cat Sees Out the Window with D.A. Pennebaker
Part I The Hypnotist’s Collector
Cinema-vtilmmakers refrained from telling the subjects what to do or how to act; they refused to direct’films thus credited the producer, camera crew, and editor but refused to name a directorthe cameraman was typically seen as the film’s author’.
- The Oxford History of World Cinema, edited by Geoffrey Nowell-Smith
Summer of Love. The very phrase conjures up images of Beatles, flowers, pot, LSD and Grateful Dead acid tests paralleled by Pink Floyd freak outs. 1967 was a year that stood as a psychic signpost for a generation that was attempting to rid themselves of an uptight, restrained lifestyle and break free until one lived in a land filled with love and out-of-body experiences. 2007 marks the 40th Anniversary of the release of Don’t Look Back, a film detailing Bob Dylan’s tour of Britain in 1965 and Monterey Pop, the first film made about a countercultural rock music festivalboth excellent historical documents helmed by cameraman/director/filmmaker D.A. Pennebaker.
Don’t Look Back is still near the top of the heap for music documentaries, as it appeared to invent a new way in which the cinema presented a subject. This past year has seen a special 2-DVD set released with additional commentary from Pennebaker and Monterey Pop stage director, painter, musician and Dylan partner-in-crime, Bob Neuwith. Don’t Look Back has endured with remarkable persistence simply because the film’s fly-on-the-wall’ objective narrative found a unique creative subject. “It stuck around,” said Pennebaker, “I think, largely in part because Bob has stuck around. He’s a mysterious aspect of our times.”
Jambands.com spoke with the filmmaker shortly before his two landmark Sixties films were shown in front of a festival audience in the Cinema Tent at Bonnaroo. Our brief conversation spurred my own musings upon the events of forty years agohow does one look back at Pennebaker’s two groundbreaking music films without thinking about the legacy of the artists being recorded? How does the writer attempt to observe his work without defining the rough edges in a way that short circuit the viewing experience? Don’t Look Back continues to find relevance as a fine example of _cinema-vtfilmmaking whereby a cameraman records unscripted reality’ as it happens. The black and white film is also noteworthy for the first and one of the best snapshots of the enigma known as Bob Dylan. Perhaps, more than anything, the film portrays an artist that is even more confused than a fawning audience needing a figurehead to make sense out of life.
Was Dylan a folk icon? A sell-out? A mocker posing as a hipster? “People hold him in a way that is highly responsible for a certain kind ofit isn’t just music, either,” said Pennebaker. “It’s an attitude. It seems to make him sort of a person that has curious personal wisdom.” This dichotomy would haunt Dylan throughout his career. Perhaps,
his latter-era workespecially his planned multi-volume Chronicles memoirsserve as a way to not just demythologize Dylan as pop icon but to paint his art into a more comfortable living space. After all, one can only carry the burden of generations upon one’s shoulders for so long before the mortal frame begs for rest (or is it forgiveness in the eyes of a less than perfect artist trying to satisfy a demanding, unrelenting audience?).
Regardless of his protestations about worshipping the almighty Bobhead, Dylan has been pegged as a man that conjures up some form of answer to life’s more puzzling questions. It is this tricky attribute that Pennebaker somehow captured on film that stymies the post-hysteria Dylan refutations that attempt to dispel such contrary notions. His body of work, his eloquent Kerouac on acid-laced lyrics more than any other performance aspect of his songs, ironically, continues to bewitch generation after generation of listeners. “Nobody’s quite sure where it comes from,” said Pennebaker, “or what it says but everybody knows that they have to listen to it.”
The film is interesting because of the many scenes capturing so many brutally honest moments sitting uncomfortably next to Dylanesque masked sequences that documentarians have been trying to duplicate for years since with perhaps lesser figures of historical importance. “All I did was to try to watch,” said Pennebaker. “I didn’t have any axe to grind, particularly. I wasn’t trying to metamorphosize Bob into some sort of social phenomenon.” Pennebaker is being modest. It isn’t just that he was able to isolate so many specific memorable scenes of an unguarded 24-year old Dylan. He also captures the artist in bizarre circumstances with an almost surreal light-and-shade motif that defies explanation considering the fact that nothing was staged for Pennebaker’s inquisitive camera. In the end, the filmmaker had a keen eye and ear and was able to instinctively gravitate towards the reality in any given circumstance by lingering over, under, upside down and in between the participantsjust long enough to capture something going on that Mr. Jonessociety’s squaredoesn’t know is happening. Pennebaker managed all of this in a slow waltz between cinema and agitated tone poem.
To be sure, Dylan didn’t appear too extraordinary to Pennebaker but history may prove otherwise. “He just seemed to me to be very normal but at the same time, he seemed like some kind of Kerouac thing taking place in our midst, like a birth of a Kerouac kid. That was interesting to me because I knew Jack.” This way of filming helped each voyeur develop a unique point of view without a need for the director-as-dictator with an auteuresque vise grip or a protestor with an axe to grind. “We sort of developed a way of filming and that was part of the task,” said Pennebaker. “Most films are kind of like lectures because whether they are scripted or not scripted, what you’re getting is somebody’s opinion about the thing you’re looking atin general, the world or whatever. That’s a kind of lecture. If you’re being lectured by the smartest person you can imagine, you could probably deal with that. (laughs) That’s worth listening to but general lectures begin to bother me and I don’t listen to them. I was trying to get the lecture aspect out of filmmaking and have it just what the cat sees out the window.”Part II California Dreamin’
California’s first capital, Montereywas home to a fishing fleet that hauled in 240,000 tons of sardines a year. When the sardines suddenly disappeared after World War II, the fishing industry collapsedfantasies of making it big once more have found form in the redevelopment of Cannery Row and Fisherman’s Wharf
- The Magic Bus: An American Odyssey, by Douglas Brinkley
The Monterey Pop International Festival held on June 16-18, 1967 was the first time anyone had attempted to gather so many hippies and heads in one place with a lineup that included the Grateful Dead, Mamas and the Papas, Jimi Hendrix and Jefferson Airplane. Suffice to say, the result was a huge success; albeit with a weird afterglow that appeared to cement its importance in an exact Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Heart Club Band/Summer of Love moment of time that was best left as a museum piece. Which is precisely why D.A. Pennebaker’s film is so incredible. Perhaps the best example of the celluloid documentary experience as Direct Cinemathat elusive term which embraced the participants in a moment of unscripted ACTION as ultimate truth_Monterey Pop_ gave the spotlight to acts at their artistic zenithMamas and the Papas and Otis Reddingand those who had yet to break through in the StatesHendrix, the Who and Janis Joplin.
The Dead, as they so often did in later years, blew a major opportunity on an important occasion and didn’t play well enough for posterity. What compounded this error was the fact that the band did not sign film or soundtrack releases thinking that the charity event was a commercial rip-off. However, no other film did a better job of laying the artistic foundation for Woodstock. The Monterey event helped to initiate the idea that a utopian society based on love, freedom, peace and drugs could actually exist; whereas, the August 1969 New York event defined the last stand of the flower power generation. “I shot one in ’65 Don’t Look Back,” said Pennebaker, “and the other in ’67 Monterey Pop. Monterey Pop was a festival that Lou Adler [record producer] and John Phillips [leader of the Mamas and the Papas] put together and I was asked to make a film out of it, which I did largely because I was curious about what it would be like.”
That insatiable curiosity led Pennebaker down a unique artistic rabbit hole that has been followed by many aspiring documentarians ever since as the acts presented on film garner nothing more than one song or a brief snippet to showcase a seminal performance. In this context, the hook worked with many bands alternating and complementing each other based upon their own stab at pop/folk/blues/soul/rock without boundaries. A new art form was being created at this high peak of all things Sgt. Pepper. Interspersed with the music are long, beautiful shots of the audience throughout the festival groundseither being entertained or peacefully soaking in the atmosphere. What was also happening was that Pennebaker found himself at the right place at the right moment in history. “I had never seen a concert film about a music festival before,” said Pennebaker. “I was drawn into it out of curiosity as much as anything. I was surprised about what I found out about music and performers, in general, that I really hadn’t known before.”
The keen sense that musicians, crew and audience in the famous Northern California town were part of history in the making is both explicit and humbling. Monterey Pop didn’t seem like just a music festivalmore like one of those proverbial metaphysical happenings where everyone is part of the creative process. The ghost town of history called the post-Army Elvis years and pre-Beatles era was over and what followed in its loud wake had never been done before, much less anticipated. “Yeah. I had a sense that popular music was changing,” said Pennebaker. “People were not exactly aware of it because you hear so much of it all around you and on the radio that it becomes like wallpaper. You just stop noticing how it is different from what it was five years before. I think that was an important aspect of that festival.”
Whereas Pennebaker was helped with a camera crew which included Richard Leacockin which he collaborated with on _Primary_a film about the 1960 Democratic presidential primarywhich ignited the trend towards _cinema-vtDirect CinemaNick Proferes, Albert Maysleswho along with his brother, David would helm Gimme Shelter, the 1969 Rolling Stones _tour le apocalyptica_James Desmond, Barry Feinstein and Roger Murphy. The incredible bill was fine-tuned for the film, featuring the Mamas and the Papas, Canned Heat, Simon and Garfunkel, Hugh Masekela, Eric Burdon and the Animals, Big Brother and the Holding Company, the Airplane, the Who, Country Joe and the Fish and Ravi Shankarwho blew minds with his searing sitar performance.
All of the artists were in town at the behest of music producer Lou Adler and head Papa, John Phillips who produced the festival and film. Alas, appearances by the Beach Boys, Dionne Warwick and the Beatles never materialized but that is a minor quibble in lieu of the trailblazing footage captured by Pennebakerwho was on stage with his hand-held cameraand crew. “You got to hear the best performers, the best performances of music up to then that never seemed to be very important,” said Pennebaker. “Suddenly, in the way it was presented, it sort of fit in the whole anti-Vietnam mood, the whole feelings in this countryhere was something life and death and it wasn’t just to amuse you. This music was about something and [like Dylan’s music] you better listen to it.”
_Randy Ray stores his work at www.rmrcompany.blogspot.com