D A Pennebaker’s pioneering filmaking – Daybreak Express (1953) Don’t Look Back (1967)

The US filmmaker D A Pennebaker – a pioneer of the documentary form – died on 1 August 2019 at the age of 94. He is perhaps best-known for his feature films Don’t Look Back (1967), a remarkable portrait of Bob Dylan while on a concert tour near the height of his fame.



Coming of age at a time when portable 16mm cameras with the ability to record sync sound on the fly allowed filmmakers newfound levels of freedom, Pennebaker was one of the first US documentarians to use the tools and aesthetics of cinéma vérité (or direct cinema), which emphasised recording reality with authenticity and representing stories truthfully.

A poet of the mobile sync-sound camera, Pennebaker’s raw, quicksilver portraits of performers from JFK to Dylan showed us unscripted truths worth waiting for, as the veteran observational documentarian Roger Graef remembers: “I was a young theatre director at the time. I had been an observer at the Actors Studio in New York, and had been fascinated by the task of conveying a sense of reality on stage. That was the goal of the Method, taught to many film stars and directors by Lee Strasberg. Seeing my first cinéma vérité films made me realise that this was the best possible way of capturing reality, and conveying it to an audience. I switched from directing plays to making documentaries, thanks to those films. One of the first was Primary (1960). Pennebaker and his colleagues completely blew open several forms of filmmaking. Their first political film was for the Time-Life film unit headed by Drew. It was shot during the battle for the Democratic party presidential nomination between John F. Kennedy and Hubert Humphrey. Unlike the polished and prepared normal coverage of politics and current affairs, it showed real people engaged in a real and chaotic struggle – raw, obviously filmed as it happened, with all the unexpected excitement of knowing that neither the filmmakers nor the participants would know what was going to happen next.

That remains the secret ingredient of observational filmmaking. It can turn ordinary life into drama, knowing it is real and unstaged. As a director and cameraperson, you give up the control normally available, the power to decide and compose each shot carefully, and light it if necessary. You give up the chance for retakes, or the ability simply to stop when things go wrong and resume where you were before. Your task is simply to keep going wherever the action you are following takes you. It is a high-wire act, especially when following fast-moving and fast-talking characters like politicians running for office. And without properly audible recorded sound, you have nothing. In pure vérité films, not having synch sound renders the pictures worthless – no matter how poetic they may be.”

With its frenetic pace, early morning hues, avant-garde touches, and playful use of shapes and patterns, Pennebaker’s first short, Daybreak Express (1953), made for a precocious debut. The sounds of an eponymous Duke Ellington composition form the film’s clattering backbone, as Pennebaker crafts an urban mosaic from Manhattan’s soon-to-be demolished Third Avenue elevated train line. While more experimental than much of the work he would be celebrated for later, Pennebaker’s career-long knack for kinetic editing, adventurous storytelling and skilfully marrying music and images still permeates nearly every frame. Today the impressionistic short plays not only as an ode to the dizzying dance of New York City transit, but the very power and potential of the documentary form itself.

Director: DA Pennebaker





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