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.
This seminal writer and cultural critic passed on early in January at the ripe old age of 90. Is Marxism, like Jazz, good for a long life, at least in relation to natural causes? I remember watching the original ‘Ways of Seeing’ programmes on BBC television and later on buying the book. I was impressed with the critical acumen on display, the effective and very up-to-date style and techniques in the programmes, and with John Berger’s taste in colourful shirts. The book remains a classic and over the years he added to this with fictional, documentary, theatrical and poetic works. It influenced my view and reading of art, photography, advertising and, indeed, film. And among all his other verbal and writing skills Berger also produced very fine screenplays.
The best known of these were produced in partnership with the Swiss film-maker, Alain Tanner. It is a sad reflection on British film that whilst Tanner continued working up until 2004 the last film that he directed to get a release in Britain was The Diary of Lady M / Le journal de Lady M (1993). Yet in my time as a film society member and regular at art cinemas I saw a number of fine films directed by him. One title that I only saw once but still wait to see again is Le retour d’Afrique (1973, West Germany).
Tanner and Berger collaborated on four films together, jointly working on the script with Tanner directing.. The first was a documentary, A City of Chandigarh (1966), the regional capital in the Punjab designed by Le Corbusier. I have never seen this film.
Le Salamandre / The Salamander (Switzerland / France 1974)) was the first feature collaboration between Berger and Tanner. I saw this film at a Film Society in the late 1970s and I have not been able to see it since. Shot in black and white it runs for just over two hours. The film is centred on a triangle. Pierre (Jean-Luc Bideau) and Paul (Jacques Denis) ‘investigate’ Rosemonde (Bulle Ogier). She is possibly involved / responsible for the wounding of her uncle. Inevitably both men are increasingly attracted to Rosemonde, an attractive and vital working class young woman. Bulle Ogier I remember as enthralling as Rosemonde. The two men are would-be writers who expect Rosemonde’s story to be their ticket to success. Whilst Rosemonde is both engaging and mystifying, [hence the title], the men are satirised for their bourgeois pretensions. A female voice-over provides both narration and comment. The film is shot in black and white, with a number of exterior free-wheeling camera sequences. The film also uses the popular music of the time.
Their next feature together was The Middle of the World / Le Milieu du monde (1974). The title referred to a town in the film where the Rhine and Rhone rivers meet. However, the ‘centre’ or ‘middle’ also referred to a restaurant of that name in the town. But the focus in the film is the self-centred world of the bourgeois protagonist Paul (Philippe Léotard). Paul is a successful engineer and manager. He is asked to run as a ‘non-political’ candidate for a bourgeois party in local elections. However, during the campaign he meets Adriana (Olimpia Carlisi) who works in a local café and begins an affair with her. Adrian is an Italian migrant worker, [also a widow], so the affair both offends susceptibilities about marriage and home and plays to prejudice about migrant workers in Switzerland. Paul’s self-centred complacency means that he allows the affair to disrupt his election activities and it quickly becomes public knowledge. But it also means that he fails to consider the situation of Adriana. Finally she ends the relationship, moves north and is last seen working as a machinist in a textile factory.
The film uses the form common in counter-cinema of the period, designed to disrupt linear narratives. A narrative voice, that of a woman (Claire Dominique) , both provides contextual information but also passes comment on the characters. The story sequences are frequently inter-cut with shots of landscapes. These are mainly rural and empty of people and animals. These sparse and empty frames , rather than fitting into the plot, seem to offer metaphors for the characters: Paul self-absorbed and Adriana isolated.
The issue of migrant workers is one that is found in other works by Berger, especially in ‘A Seventh Man: Migrant Workers in Europe’ (1975). There is also his sensibility to landscape, something that comes across in his fiction writing, his poetry and his works with other artists, especially photographer Jean Mohr with whom he worked with on the above book. It is also there in the scenes of sexual intimacy, Adriana is seen as partly or fully naked, not nude, a concept Berger interrogated ‘Ways of Seeing’. Most of all there is the view of the of the bourgeois class, no longer progressive but self-absorbed with personal relationship as liable to lead to alienation as to union.
Jonah Who Will be 25 in the Year 2000 (Jonas qui aura 25 ans en l’an 2000, (Switzerland / France 1976) was the third and final feature by the pair. The film follows four couples, eight characters, whose lives cross and intertwine. An important date in the story is May ’68 and one factor in several of the lives on-screen is how they continue when the radical options of 1968 have failed to materialise.
Marguerite (Dominique Labourier) and Marcel (Roger Jendly) run an organic market garden. Mathieu (Rufus) is n unemployed typesetter. His wife Mathilde (Myriam Boyer) works as a machinist. When Mathieu gets work at the market garden she is able to turn to having a baby. Max (Jean-Luc Bideau) works as a proof-reader on a Geneva paper. He strikes up with Madeleine (Myriam Mézière) from whom he learns of a development that threatens the market garden and he warns Marcel and Marguerite. Their neighbour is Marco who works, unconventionally, as a teacher in a local school. Marco develops a relationship Marie (Miou-Miou), a supermarket cashier who subverts the pricing policy at work,. The film carefully develops the interaction among these key characters, demonstrating a command and narrative complexity that rivals that of the US independent film-maker John Sayles.
Over the course of the film the characters politics and situations illustrate and comment on contemporary society. As in the earlier ‘The Middle of the Earth’ Marie is effectively a migrant worker who has to return to her resident in France every night. Her dereliction of the law and her work rules leads to a jail term. Marco offers the school students radical and political lessons which lead to his dismissal. Mathieu progressively opts out of work at the market garden and develops a ‘free school’ for his and Mathilde’s children, including Jonah of the film’s title. This leads to Marguerite firing him, though she allows him to retain the apartment that came with the job. Whilst these events develop the children constructs a mural on as wall at the garden which features the eight adult characters.
The film does not offer a solution to the post-68 society but is does offer a regrouping and a sense of a way forward: to be realised by Jonah in the titular year 2000. The sense of the alternative political world that is still on the agenda is signalled by the frequent references to important and radical thinkers, including Jean-Jacques Rousseau [whose statue we see several times], Pablo Neruda and Jean Piaget. And at one point we see Mathieu reading a copy of ‘Lotta Continua’.
Like the earlier films this production plays with narrative form. However here we see sequences in black and white rather than the film’s dominant Eastman colour, and these appear to present the characters’ thoughts, fantasies and alternative visions. They care carefully spaced through the film encouraging viewers to think through the characters situations and developments. This is a film that stands up to several viewings so, sadly, it is now two decades since I was able to see it at the cinema.
Berger had other credits as a writer and also one as a director of a short film: 12.Août.2002, a 12 minute short. His distinctive style and voice have been heard in range of television programme and documentaries and [to my surprise] in a video game. The most recent documentary John Berger: The Art of Looking [BBC 2016], produced for his 90th birthday, is still on the BBC I-Player.