Our hearts are heavy with the news that D.A. Pennebaker, our friend and master filmmaker, has died. His passion to capture life on film, without artifice or interference, led him early in his career to three others who had similar visions: Robert Drew, Richard Leacock, and Albert Maysles. That team invented a new form of storytelling that lives on as a staple of today’s documentary form, called American cinema verité.
These pioneers had to literally invent the equipment that could allow stories to be told the way they envisioned. And the on-the-ground problem-solving required both genius and grunt work. For example, for the groundbreaking film “Primary,” about the 1960 Kennedy-Humphrey primary election in Wisconsin, Pennebaker used his engineering training to set up special equipment for the team to collaborate in editing the unique footage. The team was trying out a custom-built, cut-down camera linked to a portable tape recorder so they could record visuals and synchronized audio while moving with the characters they were filming – which had never been done before. But they discovered that nothing was in sync. The magic cable apparently had broken. The filmmakers had to spend weeks working around the clock with a “resolver” – with Penny turning a crank that could either speed up or slow down the film to match up with the audio.
This new form of cinema required both vision and practical skills. It took people like Penny who knew how stuff worked, who could help fashion new equipment and fix it when it broke, to capture and deliver on the dream. Of course, Pennebaker’s talents as a young filmmaker went far beyond the technical. In films like “David” and “Jane,” his long camera holds and penetrating closeups made for deep viewer bonding with the films’ characters. That distinctive style is part of the art in “Crisis: Behind A Presidential Commitment.” Pennebaker and Greg Shuker, one of the film’s co-producers who also took sound, are the only two independent filmmakers to ever candidly film a president inside the Oval Office making real decisions.
Pennebaker’s legendary films – Dont Look Back, Monterey Pop, The War Room (which he made with his wife and filmmaking partner extraordinaire Chris Hegedus), and so many others—are treasures of the form. He was a giant of filmmaking and he will be sorely missed.
To watch “Primary,” go here
To watch “Crisis: Behind A Presidential Commitment,” go here