"If I think about the future of cinema as art, I shiver" (Y. Ozu, 1959)

D. A. PENNEBAKER

Wednesday, 05 February 2020 22:19

Yorgos Tsourgiannis

 

D.A Pennebaker often spoke of Powell & Pressburger’s “I know where I’m going!” as his favourite film in the world. Many others have loved it; Linklater, Hegedus, Scorsese, Chandler, Rivers. Novelist James Agee, responsible for “Let Us Now Praise Famous Men”, a literary masterpiece and chills-producing specimen of deeply evocative, affecting and ripe with dignity observation on human life, yet not one to mince his words when it came to film criticism, praised IKWIG describing it as an “unobtrusively remarkable study of a place and its people” in his 1947 review of the film. Sensitive misty photography, ingenious use of both sound and music, lively and fleshy dialogue coming out the mouths of nuanced characters and stunning performances are matched by the inherent openness and curiosity of the filmmakers. The result is an astutely authentic evocation of place and its effect on people. Plenty documentary like instances of the Hebrides life and folklore are offered; the céilidh dance, the seals’ singing, the Gaelic banter, the locals’ gossip or the Corryvreckan maelstrom legend.

 

Yet this is not why Pennebaker absolutely loved this film to the point of wanting to “hug it somehow!” He marvelled instead at how fantasy is balanced with realistic scenes, how for instance real Scots are incorporated into the story and at how Powell dealt with the reality of what he found there. “…he (Powell) was turned loose in a place that he kind of knew about, but didn’t know—and that, to me, kind of speaks to the future somehow….I’m sure that all of the good dramatists that have ever lived have thought of that… hundreds of years later. Can it still work? All those people in my head, can they come out and live for somebody else? This is what woke me up!”

 

This quote in some way epitomises Mr Pennebaker’s philosophy and the creative process behind a lifetime drenched in film. 

 

Sort of like taking the dog out for a walk, never quite knowing what exactly will happen. Scavenging for camera worthy, theatre important, “interesting” moments and gambling on  his sometimes ordinary, sometimes extraordinary subjects performing themselves and gambling on himself dancing around them with his camera, performing with them to somehow capture the real. In a language that speaks to the future. But not with a lot of words.  

 

Ever since that 3rd Avenue elevated train departed for one of its numbered journeys in Manhattan, D.A Pennebaker on board with Duke Ellington from the loudspeaker has graced us, (for the most part together with his creative partner Chris Hegedus) with a multitude of such moments.

 

Say,

his three year old daughter strolling on central park, Diane Arbus at the back of a car on the way to Timothy Leary’s marrying to Ms Schlebrugge, Uma Thurman’s mom, Tom Moore casually discussing Feydeau farce on the ride back from the airport. Carol Burnett’s class act in keeping a Broadway audience aroar with laughter whilst backstage repairs are underway. A bare-chested Dave Gahan singing over a flipper or later reflecting on his killing impulses because of pent up stress. Germain Greer’s eye-rolls to a patronising Norman Mailer or Susan Sontag calling him out for his misinformed gallantry. George Stephanopoulos trying to trim half a second, maybe a whole second off Bill Clinton’s speech. Clinton calling Hillary his “Valentine’s Day girl”. Producer Rocco Landesman wondering on camera if his director was the one to be split in half. Chef Pfeiffer discussing the fou fou of creampuffs or an embarrassed Regis Lazard lamenting the breaking of his almond cookies in front of his bemused wife. Ziggy singing “Time takes a cigarette…” at the Hammersmith or Allen Ginsberg skulking around as Dylan flips cards.

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