D.A. Pennebaker has made a career out of finding unity within places where others only see chaos. For example, in Don’t Look Back, he helps discover the voice of a generation before it’s been officially anointed as such. When I spoke with the filmmaker, he was sitting at home, “looking at the sun falling all over the construction going on in New York.” Even his assessment of a city’s ongoing redevelopment is tinged with an eye cast toward the heavens. Usually the devil is in the details, but for Pennebaker, details are harmonious instances of chance to be discovered after the fact, gaining meaning only once they become “theater important,” as he puts it. Pennebaker’s knowledge of poetry and literature is extensive; he makes references to Lord Byron and theater arts as if they’re second nature. And in Bob Dylan, he believes he found a poet worthy of being deemed a “latter-day Byron.” On the occasion of the Criterion Collection’s newly released Blu-ray of Don’t Look Back, I asked Pennebaker to elaborate on the film’s enduring legacy, speak about his process for selecting film topics, and if he, even as a filmmaker, is engaged in a kind of ongoing performance.
I want to resist calling Don’t Look Back a documentary, because I know you’ve talked in the past about refraining from using that label for the film…
Well, that was just pure self-protection, because the minute you said documentary to a theater buyer or distributor they went somewhere else. It wasn’t an audience attractor, which was the problem. You know, the people who do things aren’t always entitled to name them. The people who use the films usually name them. It became a documentary because no one knew what else to call it. For me, I think of them as home movies, because they’re made by one person and not made with the expectancy of a large return. They’re made the way music is written, or books. It’s just one person’s take on what’s going on around them.
Sure, and since the film takes place with yourself enmeshed within these groups of people, there’s a feeling of being at home with them as it all unfolds.
Yeah, I think that’s true. That’s kind of the way I think films should be made. You shouldn’t be the adversary, with a lot of equipment to protect you. You should really be vulnerable just as the people you film are vulnerable.
Does that make the participants co-collaborators in a sense?
I don’t know. What I think these films do is use a language that’s still just getting invented. In 20 years or so, the technology will be used in ways we can’t even imagine now. What I’m doing isn’t really comparable to the Hollywood film. It’s a different kind of indulgence. I think what they show, when they work, is something everyone wants to know about.
I want to ask about your role in the making Don’t Look Now, because it’s conventionally discussed alongside Monterey Pop, because they’re both about music, but I’m more interested in the film’s commentary on the relationship between artists and the press.
Don’t Look Back and Monterey Pop have very little to do with each other, really. It took a couple of years for me to do Monterey, about a year after I’d done this, so people connect them, but Monterey was a bunch of vagabonds invading the palace grounds, and this was me, all alone—really all alone—with somebody that I started to see as a latter-day [Lord] Byron.
I’m fascinated by the relationship you have with a subject while making this kind of film. I imagine it could become slippery rather quickly, in this question of what your representation of someone gains for both the subject and yourself. In other words, you’re not necessarily making a portrait of Dylan so much as he’s assisting in making a portrait of himself, because there’s not that power relation.
That’s probably right. You know, I worked for Life magazine for several years with [Robert] Drew and I got to know a lot of people there very well. I really liked the place! It was not like Newsweek, or any other magazine that I knew. It had a family inside and you joined it for dinners and games and all kinds of things. It was sort of interesting because I never realized that large corporations operated that way. I kind of thought they were impervious to that. But as for this film, it was kind of just listening to Dylan tell what he thought he knew about the world. I thought that was interesting because many people think the same thing and they have no real evidence to go by to make it true. But Dylan had a funny street smarts. He was like a Kerouac kid. In some cases, he picked up information or he picked up a kind of attitude or insight that was kind of interesting and intriguing and, I thought, unusual. But there were a lot of times where he was very naïve. But that mixture was very interesting to me because so was Byron.
That mixture does seem important because, in the film, Dylan is very quick and sharp and able to consistently speak back to those speaking to him, in a manner that suggests he’s attempting to bridge certain gaps between himself and others, but those he’s speaking to seem to misinterpret some of his intentions. That certainly seems the case in the interaction or altercation with Donovan. I wonder about your role when shooting a scene like that. Is your filming of it truly as organic as it seems in the film or are you providing direction or staging in any way?
On no, no. I have no way of directing any of the people in that film, nor any of the films, really. I mean, for me to tell James Carville, “Please come through the door again,” would be ridiculous, even if I had a good reason for it, whether I was out of film or I wasn’t watching an important thing. Nothing is important in these films until it gets put into a piece of theater—then it becomes theater important. But when it happens, it’s not important.