Dont Not Look Back
It’s a rare feat that I’ll sit down and watch the entire Academy Awards ceremony end to end, but that’s exactly what I did last evening.
I didn’t have an opinion one way or the other about Seth McFarlane as emcee going into the evening, but after seeing the reports of his apparent Twitter lynching, I’m sure glad I stayed off social media for the most part during the event.
Of the entire evening, I have to say I was laughing way out loud in my living room at the sock puppet rendition of the Oscar-nominated Flight. Coke sniffing, tequila swilling sock puppets flying a plane upside down? All they needed was the Pets.com sock puppet to fly in save the day (although we saw how well THAT worked out for Pets.com!)
I thought McFarlane struck a fine balance between properly insulting the Hollywood clerisy and appropriately celebrating the film arts.
On which topic, I wanted to debrief on a particularly notable celebration, the Honorary Awards, one of those awards that were awarded prior to Oscar night. This year, one of those awards went to D.A. Pennebaker, a pioneer and downright legend in documentary filmmaking circles.
Arguably, Pennebaker’s work, and the work of those he influenced, has had a resultantly more powerful historical impact than many of the celebrated filmmakers in attendance last evening.
Pennebaker, along with a small cohort that included the likes of Richard Leacock, Robert Drew, Albert and David Maysles (and a handful of others) in the form of Drew Associates helped to create the notion of cinema verite, or “truth in film.” In 1960’s Primary, Pennebaker and team documented John F. Kennedy and Hubert Humphrey’s campaigns in the 1960 Wisconsin Democratic Primary (and which resulted in one of the most famous “stalking” shots in cinematic history of then candidate JFK).
With this film, Pennebaker and crew also demonstrated the power and impact that could be brought about with the synching of film and sound (using the then relatively-new Nagra tape sound recorders) on the move — that is to say, where the documentary filmmaker could “follow” their subject in the field.
Pennebaker has also been a pioneer in making a record of musical performance, starting with his filming of Bob Dylan’s 1965 English tour, entitled Dont Look Back, but also other important artists including Jimi Hendrix and David Bowie.
Dont Look Back was the first draft of the basic script for music videos nearly 20 years before they exploded onto the scene with MTV.
And love him or hate him for it, Pennebaker helped paved the way for what came to be known as “reality TV” — one could pretty easily connect a straight line from Pennebaker’s cinema verite work to Cops — although Pennebaker’s contributions to the documentary medium have been much more substantive in terms of subject matter and thoughtfulness, and it’s a shame that the medium hasn’t evolved more broadly with the promising foundation that Pennebaker and his associates laid down fifty plus years ago.
If you’re interested in checking out his work, I would certainly encourage you to screen Primary and Dont look Back. There’s also Monterey Pop and Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars.
And, of course, that ever campaign-insider flick, The War Room, which took us inside the first Bill Clinton presidential campaign “war room,” where the likes of James Carville and George Stephanopolous worked to keep the Clinton campaign spinning and vibrant.
To steal from that early campaign slogan: “It’s the documentary, stupid.”