Look Ahead

D.A. Pennebaker doesn't make history, but he's captured so much of it

"It's crazy," says a clearly frustrated Pennebaker. One would think he would be beyond such exasperation: It took him two years to find a distributor for Dont Look Back, and though it broke box-office records for a documentary, most of Pennebaker and Hegedus' subsequent works have been confined to limited art-house runs or tiny sections on new-release shelves in video stores.

"Well, it's not my business," he says. "That's the problem. It's in the hands of fate. And it's really Joel and Ethan's film anyway, so we're just trying to get it out if we can, just because it's a shame to do all the work and not have it pay off somehow. Unlike filmmaking, where you have a lot of aberrant souls all obsessed by making a film no matter what it costs them in their lives, in distribution, it's basically a money business, and the people involved in it look to make money and sell popcorn. That's the bottom line for them, so it's sometimes a very tough gate to get through."

The 75-year-old Pennebaker, speaking in the soft, studied voice of a professor (he and Hegedus teach classes on documentary filmmaking at Yale), talks often of how there are few directors left who treat film as "literature." His voice contains barely audible hints of bitterness and disgust when referring to a system that treats documentary filmmakers as "the underclass," as a group to be ghettoized and dismissed. Why else, he asks, does the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences routinely hand out Oscars to documentaries rarely deserving of such a prestigious prize while ignoring other, far better offerings?

Look back, Dont Look Back: Bob Dylan, in a scene from D.A. Pennebaker's most famous film
Look back, Dont Look Back: Bob Dylan, in a scene from D.A. Pennebaker's most famous film

"You know they're not going to give it to something like Hoop Dreams," he says. "It's too good a film. They must give it to a film nobody will ever take seriously as a film. Then, nobody at the studios is going to be upset."

Pennebaker and Hegedus often talk of moving into the world of the fictional feature. They dream, every so often, of working with actors instead of subjects. But they dismiss such dreams and desires quickly.

"There's something so exciting about witnessing the real event and being with the real people," Hegedus says. "There's something so inspiring about them. Each person we've come across in these films has given me something in my life, and I don't think you can say that exactly about actors."

Yet Pennebaker, as a young man, never pursued a career as a filmmaker; he was as likely to pick up a camera as a man with no arms. He was an M.I.T. graduate with a degree in mechanical engineering; he served in the Navy during World War II, then came back to work on power stations around Texas. He started his own company, Electronics Engineering, that was responsible for developing American Airlines' computerized reservations system. When he began making shorts in the early 1950s, it was because he fell in with a group of experimental filmmakers--a group that would come to include the likes of Robert Leacock and Albert Maysles--and he suddenly found himself holding the necessary equipment. He thought to himself, Well, why not make movies?

"Back then, we were making one a week. I don't know why," he says. "There was nothing beckoning us toward the golden retreat. We did it because we had the equipment, it was cheap to buy the film, and that's what we were supposed to do. We saw ourselves as filmmakers. That we weren't able to sell any of them--not one of them--didn't seem to dawn on us that we were fighting a losing battle. It just seemed like what we had to do."

Pennebaker and Hegedus dispute the notion that they are historians; they insist they're merely students of history, observers capturing events as they hurtle down the timeline. They are the guardians of yesterday. Without them, we might never have seen the sad and sarcastic Dylan who, while reading newspaper articles about himself, said, "I'm glad I'm not me." We might never have seen James Carville breaking down in front of the faithful on election night. And we might never have seen Hendrix licking the sky while his instrument melted beneath his bended knee.

"They're all kind of the same film," Pennebaker says of his work. "I've been making the same film almost continuously, so I don't look at them as a painter might, seeing how you've advanced the art. When I look at them now, what I see is not the filmmaking--I don't get concerned about the filmmaking, though sometimes I think the editing could be more succinct--but I see if the history stands up. Were we right to do Jimi Hendrix? Were we right to do Ziggy Stardust? Were we right to do Dylan? Were we right to do Town Bloody Hall? When I see them, what I see is, usually, history has proven us right."

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