Category: Directors

D. A. Pennebaker, 1925 to 2019

D. A. Pennebaker and Chris Hegedus

Donn Abe Pennebaker died last Thursday. So we have lost another of the outstanding film-makers whose work, particularly in the 1960s, both changed and defined cinema.  His series of documentaries were both acclaimed and widely influential. The US Library of Congress selected several of his films for the National Register and the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences awarded him a Lifetime Achievement Oscar in 2913.

The first film with which he was associated that I saw was Primary  (1960), made together with Robert Drew and Richard Leacock. This was a chronicle of a contest for the Democratic nomination for Presidential candidate between Hubert Humphrey and John F. Kennedy. There was intense interest in Britain, partly because of the importance of the USA, but also because Kennedy was seemingly a radical candidate for change. The film imbued the coverage of a Primary context with a freshness and élan that stood out. Years later I remember Richard Leacock describing a sequence of a haircut at the Barbers: possibly inconsequential but completely engaging. This was  a pioneer work in what became ‘Direct Cinema’. And Pennebaker was a key contributor in developing the lightweight camera and sound equipment that made immediate and often hand-held camera and sound possible.

In 1967 came Dont Look Back, combining observational cinema with the then young but musically charismatic Bob Dylan. The tour was famous for several reasons, including ‘treachery’. But the film bought a breath of life into the music documentary. Pennebaker later in life called his films ‘moments of record’ and this partly described the film. It was also equally applicable to the 1968 Monterey Pop. This, a record of a popular music festival with key stars of the period, was filmed by a crew of cameramen under Pennebaker’s direction. It stills stand out in what is now a crowded field. Its influence, like the Dylan film, is to be widely seen. Among those who have followed in the footsteps of the first is Martin Scorsese. One obituary remarked that the famous opening sequence of Dont Look Back, with Bob Dylan singing and presenting [not always in sync] his lyrics, was a pioneer of music videos. Very few of the latter have the panache of the Pennebaker original.

It was only in later years that I finally saw Daybreak Express (1953), presenting a New York elevated subway station with dazzling music from Duke Ellington. Pennebaker had a particular skill in working with popular music artists, which included Janis Joplin, John Lennon, The Who and David Bowie.

He also worked with Jean-Luc Godard, possibly still the most important film-maker in Western Cinema. However, Godard not being the easiest of collaborators no joint work appeared.

Pennebaker continued to film important aspect of political and cultural life. The 1979 Town Bloody Hall set in New York bought together a panel of feminists with the writer Norman Mailer. He had distinctive views on women’s liberation with some of the problematic male values. The debate is fascinating and offered illumination on the wider US political culture, a discourse that is sometimes seems baffling in Britain.

The 1993 War Room, filmed with Chris Hegedus, returned to political campaigning and that of the future US President Bill Clinton. Like the earlier Primary this both offered a portrait of lesser known aspects of Presidential campaigns and offered revealing portraits of the team aiming for the White House.

Pennebaker made some 40 odd films, all in some sense documentaries. They were not always easy to see in a Britain with a very limited distribution world. Presumably now, with the new emphasis on documentary, they would appear more regularly. They would certainly provide object lessons in how to present observational cinema in both an intelligent and absorbing manner. Many are studies of popular music and it culture. But there are the political studies and portraits of other aspects of US Culture. He was one of the key chroniclers of the four decades of the USA at the end of the C20th. Some of the TV channels are already revisiting his classic films. Let us home that some of these will also appear in cinemas in Britain.

Now on Release: Varda by Agnès (Varda par Agnès, France 2019)

Agnès Varda revisiting locations for Vagabond (1985)

Keith reviewed this film at Berlin earlier this year. Here are my thoughts on the film now in UK cinemas.

Agnès Varda’s last film opened locally with a ‘seniors’ morning screening. I wonder if many of those in the audience were watching their first Varda screening. All seemed to enjoy the show so Agnès judged her delivery well. She died earlier this year just a couple of months short of her 91st birthday, but as this film demonstrates she had lost none of her creative powers starting her tenth decade. In this personal statement about her own work she addresses us directly as part of the audience seated in several different auditoria. The film is an illustrated lecture taking us through nearly 70 years of work as a photographer, filmmaker and finally ‘visual artist’ (an English term she endorses). It isn’t a straightforward chronology. She jumps around a little but as far as I can see she covers all of her feature films and most of the shorts. The only disappointment for me was the short sequence on her photography (which preceded her first film in 1954) which comes towards the end of the film. I’d of liked to know a little more about this and how it informed her filmmaking. Her talk began with a statement about her three key ideas about filmmaking – here is how she describes them in the Press Notes:

INSPIRATION is why you make a film. The motivations, ideas, circumstances and happenstance that spark a desire and you set to work to make a film.

CREATION is how you make the film. What means do you use? What structure? Alone or not alone? In colour or not in colour? Creation is a job.

The third word is SHARING. You don’t make films to watch them alone, you make films to show them. An empty cinema: a filmmaker’s nightmare!

People are at the heart of my work. Real people. That’s how I’ve always referred to the people I film in cities or the countryside.

This gives you a good idea of how she set about ‘creating’ her story. In fact she made a statement at the Berlin press show when the film was screened saying that this film would now do her talking for her as personal appearances were becoming tiring. Varda’s presentation lasts nearly two hours and I could have taken double the time listening to her commentary and watching the clips. I’ve seen around half of her 23 features and now I feel more encouraged to seek out the shorter films, especially the earlier ones in California. The key to appreciating Varda is to tune in to her own fascination with the world and what she can do with her camera. Varda was true to the idea of the artisanal artist-filmmaker. She remains the definition of an auteur, developing her own company Ciné-Tamaris which has retained control of her films (and those of Jacques Demy and others) and re-released them on restored digital versions. She’s kept much of her filmmaking literally ‘in house’ with various production roles for her daughter Rosalie Varda and son Mathieu Demy and partnerships with a series of actors and crews. One of those who appears in this film is Sandrine Bonnaire, who reveals just how hard she was pushed as a 17 year-old in the lead role for Vagabond.

Varda on a beach of île de Nourmoutier, a location for several of her films

I would have liked to have seen a bit more about Varda’s marriage to Jacques Demy and how these two, in some ways very different, creative people bounced ideas off each other. She does discuss her documentary biopic Jacquot de Nantes (1991) made when Demy was very ill, but not the two documentaries she made after his death. The two were in California together during the 1960s but made very different films there.

Venice Biennale 2003:
“This triptych is in celebration of the world’s most modest vegetable: the potato. On the central screen: heart shaped potatoes breathe. They are old wizened crumpled potatoes but that have sprout. On the side screens, variations of sprouts. Roots, blossoms. On the floor, 700 kg potatoes.“

Varda adapted to the possibilities of new technologies and embraced the use of digital cameras. Varda by Agnès is presented in two parts so that the early career is ‘analogue’ and the later career is ‘digital’. The split is also one of 20th and 21st century practice. The revelation for me was the ‘installation’ work in the second period when Varda became a visual artist. I wish now that I’d made more effort in 2018 to get to the Liverpool Biennial where there was a photographic exhibition, a new installation and a season of her films. As far as I can see this is the only time that Varda was received in the UK as a ‘visual artist’ and we might never get to see some of the intriguing installations glimpsed in Varda by Agnès such as Patatutopia from 2003 or the Cinema Shacks she built from old cans of her celluloid films in 2013.

“My nostalgia for 35mm cinema turned into a recycling whim…
I build shacks with the waste reels of my movies. Tossed aside because no longer screened, the silver stock of the composite print itself becomes a shack. I build them on a metal structure and we carefully chose the images at eyesight level.
The last one made from a print of my film HAPPINESS is a greenhouse full of sunflowers.”

Agnès Varda was one of the great filmmakers, photographers and visual artists of the last 70 years. We will be lucky to see her like again. All I can do is to urge you to see this hugely enjoyable current release and to dig out any DVDs or VODs from her catalogue that you can find. There are some posts you might find interesting on this blog.

Agnès Varda, 1928 to 2019

So, finally, one of the most impressive and distinctive European film-makers has departed this terrestrial cinema. One imagines she has gone to another great auditorium where cancer is long gone, where abortions are unnecessary, everyone is a good Samaritan, no-one gleans either in the streets or in the fields and sun-drenched beaches stretch as far as the eye can see whilst cats purr in undisturbed contentment. She will leave an obvious void on all the screens in discriminating cinemas.

I have yet to see everything that she authored but I enjoyed regular treats at the cinema over the years. My first look at a Varda film was of a 16mm print of Cleo from 5 to 7 (Cléo de 5 à 7, 1962) at the local film society. The programme was regularly enlivened by the films of the several European new waves, but this was still a distinctive voice. It was only intermittently that I encountered the documentary shorts that followed.

One Sings, the Other Doesn’t (L’une chante l’autre pas, 1977) clearly engaged with actual political struggles in France. And Vagabond (Sans toit ni loi, 1985) confronted a deeply downbeat world with real humanity. Jacquot de Nantes (1991) had a rich sense both of the 1930s and of Varda’s fellow film-maker, Jacques Demy.

With The Gleaners & I (Les glaneurs et la glaneuse, 2000) one found the combined sympathy and empathy for ordinary people that runs through her career. The Beaches of Agnès (Les plages d’Agnès, 2008) was rich in the playfulness that seemed an increasing mood in her recent films. Faces Places (Visages villages, 2017), a journey with photographer J.R., reminds one of her early art work as a photographer, then in theatre rather than as here in rural France.

Varda created a real impression in her early work. Her reputation then fluctuated up and down but in recent years she has acquired a magisterial status. This was fortunate in that, with foreign language films increasingly difficult to seek out, her titles did receive national [if limited] distribution in Britain.

Her final film, Varda by Agnès (Varda par Agnès – Causerie, 2019) was produced as a TV series but is available as a theatrical title. Revisiting her career and her films it provides a worthy testament to the fifty years and fifty odd films she has left us.

Ex Libris: The New York Public Library (US 2017)

This is the most recent documentary from Frederick Wiseman. Since Titticut Follies in 1967 Wiseman has been a prolific and central figure in observational documentary: after all these years he is almost the definition of films that offer a dispassionate but detailed portrait, mainly of institutions. In this long film, 197 minutes, he examines both the famous landmark in Bryant Park on 5th Avenue (a key setting in the successful The Day After Tomorrow, 2004) and a number of the other libraries in the New York public network. I have been fortunate enough to visit the iconic central building and one of the pleasures of the film was how Wiseman explores both the parts I have seen and the less seen staff and machinery behind this.

The film opens with great style as we observe an event in the libraries main foyer; Richard Dawkins giving a lunch-time talk with all his eloquence and commitment. We see a number of such events, some like this less formal, and others in one of the library auditoria with a more formal presentation and a large audience. I particularly enjoyed the session of an interview with Elvis Costello. And we see smaller events, more open, at branch libraries. The most fascinating was a young black woman explaining the ‘southern ideology’ which criticised Northern capitalism from a right-wing standpoint; not quite as formidable as that by Karl Marx but an important component in the struggle over slavery. There are concert performances in auditoria but also less formal presentations and the odd amateur improvisation; not a part of the official library. Title cards identify performers and venues for the viewer.

Wiseman tends to wander around an institution and he records and presents his observations without comment. Seemingly these sequences are laid out in arbitrary manner. So along with the events we gets shots of the staff, both at the main library and at branches, occupied in their tasks, frequently involving library members and members of the public. One is a telephone enquiry service and we see and hear as an operator checks the word ‘unicorn’ on a computer and answers questions by a caller. This is one of those moments of sympathetic humour found in Wiseman’s films. We see staff checking in and out books and other library resources. Behind the scenes we see a group of male workers at a conveyor belt to sort books for return to their branches.

Wiseman offers repetition of groups and settings and the most frequent in this film are a series of meetings involving the library management. We see and hear them discussing the library finances: after some years of reductions 2016 saw a welcome increase in the budget allocated by the city. We also hear how important is the role of private funding for the library. And they discuss some of the processes in running the library, developments at particular venues and some of their longer-term goals.

Their discussions and the sequence of library staff and activity demonstrate how much wider than printed books are the resources of a modern library. British users of libraries will recognise this and both the parallels and differences in the library system. Certainly the New York Public Library network appears to have avoided the savage cutbacks experienced in Britain.

Whilst Wiseman presentation seems an ad hoc portrait of the public library the editing, in particular, provides a less formal and slightly ambiguous commentary. There are frequent touches of irony as Wiseman’s camera moves from one activity to another. One notable counterpoint follows a meeting of the management discussing (with liberalism) vagrancy and the problem of the libraries being used as a place of sleep rather than activity. Then we see a sleeping African-American user at a desk. This points up, (as do other parallels), that the management is also uniformly Caucasian.

As the film passes from branch library to branch library we get shots of New York streets and intersections. New Yorkers will probably place buildings in this way: less likely for British viewers. For me these felt rather more like the ‘pillow shots’ that fill films by Ozu Yasujiro, though Wiseman only provides natural sound.

The film is long but absorbing. However, I did find the last twenty minutes or so palled. This was not so much due to the length but to the repetitions. At the end we visit another management meeting, I forget the topic. Then we see a meeting of African-American women at a branch (Queens I think). They all talk volubly but briefly. The lengthy contribution comes from an African-American director of the Schomburg Center for Research and Black Culture. There follows a formal event in the main auditorium which fits into Pierre Bourdieu’s ideas regarding ‘aesthetic dispositions’.

There is clearly some irony intended here. But by this stage I felt we had had more of such events and of managers than of ordinary users and workers. I have not seen National Gallery (2014) again but my memory is that film had more of such moments; it certainly emphasised the ironic contrasts between British and North American staff at that institution. In fact we do not get a sequence where the ordinary workers in the public library discuss issues in the space offered repeatedly to managers. Nor do we see any Trade Union activity. I wondered if there as not an occasion where the workers of the conveyor belt seen earlier – the most repetitious and alienating activity in the film – had a gathering or talk. The managers are very liberal but by the end I felt that their behaviour was affected by their consciousness of the camera. I did not feel this with the ordinary staff.

The Sight & Sound, August 2018, review offers,

“Lofty idealism informs conversations about what kind of society the library wants to help to build, giving a surprising urgency to scenes of people sitting in rooms talking.”

From one angle this is true but I did not get a sense of what the pressures of budgets, routines , public demand and the compulsion of wage labour exerted on the staff/workers in the network. I suspect that they are there. Certainly one gets a sense of this in some of the other Wiseman documentaries.