University of Illinois Press, 2011
(Review copy supplied by University of Illinois Press)
The image on the front cover of an edition of the University of Illinois Press’s popular series on Contemporary Film Directors (edited by James Naremore) features a still of Jimi Hendrix from D. A. Pennebaker’s concert film, Monterey Pop (1968). Gaudily appareled in orange trousers, frilled yellow shirt, and black waistcoat, Hendrix, kneeling on the stage over his guitar, seemingly appears trapped in some kind of hoodoo trance – half dancing, half casting a spell. For most, this still is quite a familiar image, as is this particular performance by Hendrix. (Midway through ‘Wild Thing’, he stripped himself of his guitar, doused it with lighter fluid, set it ablaze, and then smashed it, creating a sensational cacophony of distortion and reverberation. A great moment of rock lore indeed.) Whether one has seen just this concert performance – exhausted across documentaries, the internet and anything attached to Hendrix’s lore – or Monterey Pop in its entirety, one has seen a Pennebaker film.
A premise applied to Pennebaker’s entire filmography, Beattie posits him as a cameraman-auteur, rather than just a director-auteur. One such example is certainly Bob Dylan’s debut, and only directed tour film, Eat the Document (1972). This tour of Europe was Dylan’s first proper ‘rock’ tour, backed by The Hawks who would later be rebranded as The Band. Unlike Dylan’s previous ‘folk’ tour – the subject of Pennebaker’s self-directed Dont (sic) Look Back (1967) – here Pennebaker was hired solely as a cameraman. As Beattie reports, Dylan not wanting a ‘concert film’, and nonsensical abstract concepts (one scene involved characters passing through a wardrobe to find themselves dressed in completely new outfits) frustrated the disobedient Pennebaker who shot footage of the concerts anyway. Barely used in Eat the Document, Martin Scorsese wove his film around them in his 2005 Dylan documentary No Direction Home. As Beattie opines, Scorsese’s reliance on Pennebaker’s footage from both Dont Look Back and Eat the Document produces more of a joint-collaboration between these directors, rather than what PBS advertised exclusively as a ‘Martin Scorsese Picture’. (In light of Scorsese’s recent rockumentaries – the lackluster Shine a Light (2008) and mundane George Harrison: Living in a Material World (2010) – a strong argument could be mounted that without Pennebaker’s footage his Dylan documentary would be yet another example of this once great director’s demise into mediocrity.) But more than trumpeting Pennebaker’s cultural influence and value (Todd Haynes plaudits Pennebaker as one of the ‘Great film directors’) Beattie detours it from hagiography by unpacking Pennebaker’s filmic influences – Truffaut, Powell, Antonioni – as a means to spread him beyond the limiting canon of documentary filmmaking and into the elastic parameters of film history. The performative nature of Monterey Pop, for example, is discussed as an inventive reworking of Powell and Pressburger’s Red Shoes (1948). (‘The scene changes: the ballet becomes a rock concert, ballerinas are replaced by musicians, Vicky morphs into Janis…’)
In addition to the rockumentaries, however, Beattie discusses Pennebaker’s camerawork for Jean-Luc Godard (One AM, 1971) and varied Norman Mailer films (Wild 90 (1967), Beyond the Law (1968) and Maidstone (1970). The section on Maidstone is most interesting for Mailer’s own directing methodology complemented Pennebaker, who also concentrated more readily on screen performance. Beattie understands that Mailer’s crude experimental approach to filmmaking, and drug-fuelled and alcoholic despondency, were behind his logic to give (the sober and more experienced) Pennebaker carte blanche to set up the scenes and improvise as to how ever he pleased. An example used to rout this point is the infamous fisticuffs scene between actor Rip Torn and Mailer: “Pennebaker, maintaining the directorial investment made in him refuses to cede the camera or to relinquish creative control, and he continues filming. Mailer recognized the value of what Pennebaker had filmed during the assault and included it in the final version”. (67-68) David James in Allegories of Cinema trumpets this scene as “one of the Great moments of American cinema”. Was it set up? What reality is being captured? Was it exploitative? Mailer and Pennebaker both cagily evaded answering such questions.
Whether it is Pennebaker’s directed or cameraman-for-hire projects, Beattie’s focus is what he delineates as the “performed self”. This takes the argument away from the concept that observational filmmaking relies on the pretence that subjects are not aware of the camera (in spite of the paradox of a movie camera’s physical intrusiveness). An awareness of the camera is something that Pennebaker’s actors make no intention to hide. Dylan’s famous ‘Subterranean Homesick Blues’ cue-card sequence to open Dont Look Back, of him staring straight at the camera lens (in a music video even before such a thing existed) is the obvious example here. Characters in his other films – Primary (1960), Jane (1962) and Daybreak Express (1953) – all make the camera’s presence obviously known. David Bowie in Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars (1973) even uses it as a prop during the concert footage; backstage it becomes another of his entourage, constantly on the move to find space in the cramped and cluttered dressing room. In one delicious example illustrating Bowie’s vanity, he uses the reflection of the camera’s lens to gaze at his naked torso.
Whilst the blueprint of Beattie’s book is to survey every one of Pennebaker’s films – a requirement of this publication series and a feat that he manages to squeeze in despite the limited scope of the 127 pages – this book delves much further to essay not just the documentary, but filmmaking practices of one of cinema’s most inventive and seminal figures. Successfully collapsing the borders between documentarian/fiction filmmaker-camerman/director, Pennebaker deserves his applause as one of the great filmmakers of this modern era; Beattie deserves his own for mining this fascinating, yet terribly neglected, field of contemporary film history. This book will become an important resource for anyone interested in Pennebaker’s oeuvre as well as contribute to conversations around the blurring of on-screen and off-screen performance.