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Do Look Back: Examining the Life and Career of DA Pennebaker

By Cynthia Close

D.A. Pennebaker
by Keith Beattie
From the Contemporary Film Directors Series
Edited by James Naremore
University of Illinois Press 2011
192 pages

Editor's Note: Although the book uses periods after the initials in Mr. Pennebaker's name, he himself doesn't use the initials, so we have followed that style choice accordingly in the text of this review.

This slim volume (176 pages, including filmography, bibliography and index) is a welcome addition to the Contemporary Film Directors Series, published by the University of Illinois Press and edited by James Naremore. The author, Keith Beattie, has given us the first book-length study of the film work of DA Pennebaker, which is the 30th in the series and joins such well-known figures as Albert Maysles, Joel and Ethan Coen, Lars von Trier and Steven Soderbergh, covered in earlier editions.

Beattie informs us right off the bat that he is using the phrase "performing the real"--first coined by the researcher John Corner--as the key concept around which he builds his case for viewing and understanding Pennebaker's approach to his film work. By page 2, Beattie tells us that Pennebaker does not consider his own films to be documentaries, "because I'm really interested in film as drama, rather than film as information"--thus confirming that the filmmaker would concur with the author as to his analytical approach.

Performance, the effect of the presence of the camera and what that means in the context of documentary, cinema vérité and direct cinema, is the touchstone that Beattie returns to time after time throughout the book. I found his comparisons to the films of Andy Warhol in the period from 1964 to 1966 most illuminating in this regard.

While the book does not pretend to be an inclusive, tell-all biography, we are informed about some basic facts of Pennebaker's life, such as DA stands for Donn (with two n's) Alan. He was born on July 15, 1925, in Evanston, Illinois, and his parents were divorced soon after he was born. He served in the Naval Air Corps in World War II and graduated from Yale in 1947 with a degree in mechanical engineering. He married, started an electronics company (where he worked on projects concerned with computer applications as early as the 1950s) and, not long after that (in what I thought was a very early indication of his creative talent and risk-taking), sold the company and tried a new career path as an artist-namely as a writer and painter. Evidently this was just another step in his road to becoming a filmmaker. Beattie credits the influence of Pennebaker's friendship with filmmaker Francis Thompson as the key element leading to his first film, Daybreak Express, shot in 1953 and completed in 1957.

I was more interested in the relationships Pennebaker had with his many collaborators, rather than the theoretical analysis of Pennebaker's films. This was driven in part by the fact that my company, Documentary Educational Resources, was preparing to release the collected film work of Richard Leacock on DVD, and I wanted to have a clearer idea of how the Leacock/Pennebaker partnership had come to be, when Robert Drew appeared and what Pennebaker's role was in the late 1950s in helping to form Drew Associates, which produced films for various television outlets, including Time-Life Broadcasting and the ABC Network.

In spite of the widely acclaimed release of the film Primary, about the 1960 Democratic presidential primary leading to the nomination of John F. Kennedy, the partnership with Drew was not a match made in heaven. Beattie provides the theoretical and creative evolution in Pennebaker's approach to his filmmaking that led to the schism in their relationship.

Pennebaker and Leacock left Drew Associates in June 1963 and started their own company, Leacock Pennebaker Inc., which lasted until the early 1970s, and was arguably one of the most productive periods of Pennebaker's life. Clearly the relationship with Leacock had a freeing effect on how Pennebaker approached filmmaking. Dont Look Back, his iconic Bob Dylan film, was released in 1967. The following year, his groundbreaking concert film, Monterey Pop, was enthusiastically received. All during the late 1960s, Pennebaker continued to collaborate with such notables as Norman Mailer and Jean-Luc Godard. Beattie does an excellent job of describing the dynamics of these working relationships in the section of the book he designates for Collaborative Filmmaking.

Photographs (there are, unfortunately, few in this book) of Pennebaker from the 1960s and 1970s help to explain why he had no problems attracting women. There was a string of marriages and divorces up until 1976, when Chris Hegedus joined his independent filmmaking company. This seems to be the point at which Pennebaker was able to combine his personal, private life with his career. He and Hegedus worked on a string of successful films, starting with Town Bloody Hall (a snapshot of the feminist revolution in the making), followed by The Energy War in 1978. Beattie tells us the couple shared camera and sound work during the early years of the relationship.

In 1982, they married, and went on to produce many works together, including the Academy Award-nominated film The War Room, about Bill Clinton's 1992 campaign for the presidency. The War Room resonates with Primary and seems to bring Pennebaker's life and work full circle. But the filmed stories continue through the release of The Kings of Pastry in 2009 and The National in 2010. We can refer to the book's extensive filmography to fill in the gaps in the years between. 

The final section of the book includes an interview conducted in March 2006 by Jonathan Marlow during a tribute to Pennebaker at the Documentary Film Institute in San Francisco. After reading the interview and Beattie's modest, but illuminating attempt to explore Pennebaker's life and career, I am quite convinced that there is much more left to discuss and debate, as DA Pennebaker does not appear to be disappearing from the scene anytime soon. 


Cynthia Close is president and past executive director of Documentary Educational Resources.