“It comes as no surprise that Dylan, who has made a career out of dodging tidy classifications and labels, would be involved with a film that exhibits traits of both schools of cinéma vérité, rendering it as one of the most challenging and important works of the 1960s.”
To understand how the American public initially interpreted the motives of cinéma vérité, one need only look to the site of Dont Look Back‘s (1967) premiere. The Presidio, a small porno theater in San Francisco, played the surprising hit film for a few weeks in the spring of ’67. Filmed with handheld 16mm cameras and portable sound equipment, Dont Look Back [sic] chronicles every aspect of Bob Dylan’s 1965 tour of the United Kingdom, from his concert performances and numerous run-ins with the British press to the drunken after-parties and casual backstage conversations between his manager and fellow musicians. At first, distributors found the film completely uncommercial, going so far as to call it “ratty, badly focused . . . a disaster” (Director’s Commentary). It was not until the owner of a porno theater chain, attempting to expand his audience base, expressed an interest in the film that Dont Look Back finally secured an official American release. Justifying his reasons for premiering the film, the owner simply stated, “It looks like a porno but it’s not” (Director’s Commentary). Indeed, D. A. Pennebaker’s mostly unobtrusive camerawork creates the illusion of a behind-the-scenes unscripted reality that provokes the same kind of voyeuristic thrill experienced by the viewer of pornography. However, it is this claim of depicting “the real” that has been the subject of numerous debates within the cinéma vérité filmmaker community. Two schools of thought, the French school and the American school, arose from these debates, both employing vastly different conventions to achieve the same goal. It comes as no surprise that Dylan, who has made a career out of dodging tidy classifications and labels, would be involved with a film that exhibits traits of both schools of cinéma vérité, rendering it as one of the most challenging and important works of the 1960s.
There is a scene early in Dont Look Back in which Dylan, while reading a news story about his alleged daily consumption of eighty cigarettes, sarcastically exclaims, “God, I’m glad I’m not me.” The statement, obviously meant for laughs, also drips with an eerily spot-on hint of irony. Constantly under both the public’s and the camera’s watchful gaze, Dylan “had much to lose personally (his nurtured mystique) by speaking the truth” (Saunders 77). Though it was his manager Albert Grossman who had made the arrangements for Pennebaker to document the singer’s London tour, it was Dylan who had the final say on how he would portray himself on screen. Instead of destroying that mystique, the singer, hiding behind his black Wayfarer sunglasses and tuft of unruly hair, only furthers his mysterious persona by presenting the audience with multiple incarnations of Bob Dylan.
Under the guise of the supposedly objective, “fly-on-the-wall” style of cinéma vérité’s American school, Pennebaker also implements a few French school concepts by echoing Dylan’s determination to distort the audience’s perceptions of reality. He claimed, “We felt as if we were out conning the world in some kind of guerilla action and bringing back the stuff that nobody recognized as valuable” (Beattie 98). The filmmaker wastes little time establishing Dylan’s role as his co-conspirator in the film’s highly influential opening scene. Accompanied by the soundtrack of one of his first electric songs, “Subterranean Homesick Blues,” the film opens in an alley with Dylan filling the right side of the frame, cradling a stack of cue cards containing snippets of the song’s lyrics. Some of the cards feature playful misspellings based on Dylan’s warbled vocals, such as “pawking metaws” and “suckcess.” The tongue-in-cheek lyrical wordplay is a prelude to Dylan’s self-reflexive performance in the film, introducing him “as collusive in the filmmaking process . . . setting out his terms from the outset” (Saunders 59). On the far left of the frame, Dylan’s friends Bob Neuwirth and the Beat poet Allen Ginsberg, who is dressed like a “Blakean Jewish prophet,” huddle together in casual conversation (Wilentz 157). All the while, Dylan looks directly at the camera. A subtle smirk spreads across his lips. This mischievous smirk, coupled with the presence of the notorious Beat poet, hint at Dylan’s dismissal of the conventional and his arrival at a destination “closer to the [incendiary iconoclasm] of Allen Ginsberg” (Wilentz 157). Regardless of Pennebaker’s allegiances to the American school of cinéma vérité, Dylan is completely aware of the implications of the camera’s presence. As a result, the viewer becomes suspicious of any notion of witnessing the “real” Bob Dylan.
Though both schools differ in their methodology, they derive from a similar history. Jean Rouch first coined the term to describe the style of his film Chronique d’un Été (1962). The term was an obvious tribute to the Russian filmmaker Dziga Vertov. In 1922, Vertov developed his “theory of Cine-Eye and produced a series of newsreels called Kino-Pravda, the equivalent of ‘cinéma vérité’ in the Russian language” (Issari 6). It could be argued that the roots of cinéma vérité can be traced even further back to the turn of the twentieth century and the short documentaries produced by the Lumière brothers; however, the film style was not fully realized until the end of World War II. Newsreels depicting the horrors of the war caused audiences to reject Hollywood’s sanitized fantasies, resulting in massive studio cutbacks and the rise of the independent filmmaker (Issari 4). With the development of portable sound equipment and smaller, quieter cameras in the late ’50s, cinéma vérité was finally equipped with the proper tools to capture reality.
After a 1963 conference held in France consisting of the leading filmmakers of the cinéma vérité movement, the disagreements between the two schools came to a forefront. The French school preached the idea that the camera’s presence is more important than the reality it captures. They believed that the subject’s awareness of being filmed gives him “a feeling of importance and a new insight into [his life], providing an emotional outlet” (Issari 106). It is also not uncommon to hear the filmmaker question his subjects in on-camera interviews. Moreover, the filmmaker will respond to the subject’s actions and provoke dramatic situations. Pennebaker admitted that Dylan’s friend Bob Neuwirth was instrumental in helping to incite filmable drama involving Dylan. The filmmaker noted, “[Neuwirth] understood instantly the theater of what we were doing . . . Without ever saying or doing anything, he would create scenes as if just for his own interest” (Director’s Commentary). What results is a type of fictionalized reality in which situations are elevated to their dramatic potential by the filmmaker and the camera’s subjects.
On the other hand, the American school considered the chronology of events to be sacred and that it should remain true to how it actually occurred during the shoot. Richard Leacock, a leading advocate of the American school, declared, “The material must be allowed to unfold itself rather than be forced into a mold, so that the viewer can feel what the film-maker experienced when photographing the event” (Issari 16). In the production notes for Dont Look Back, Pennebaker seconds Leacock’s claims, stating, “I edited the material as I believed it should appear, but with the absolute conviction that any attempts to distort events or remarks would somehow reveal itself and subject the whole to suspicion” (Pennebaker 5). Yet, even with his critical theories so firmly entrenched in the American school, Pennebaker once again reverts back to the practices of the French school in regard to some of his editing choices in Dont Look Back.
This particular moment occurs during an early scene set in Dylan’s hotel room. Dylan is sprawled out on a sofa reading a newspaper when a British journalist is escorted into the room. The journalist, conducting an interview for the BBC, begins with the basic question of how it all began for the singer. Dylan hesitates for a few seconds, weighing the question with a sincerity that was missing in his snarky confrontations with the other British media personnel featured in the film. Suddenly, the scene cuts to archive footage of a younger Dylan performing the civil rights themed “Only a Pawn in Their Game” at a 1963 voters’ registration rally in Greenwood, Mississippi. Pennebaker admitted to being stuck during the editing process, not knowing where to cut to after the journalist’s question about Dylan’s origins. He had received a reel of unused Dylan footage earlier in the production from a filmmaker friend, and in an act of desperate experimentation he decided to cut the footage into the film. Pleased by the effect of the sudden break in continuity, Pennebaker noted, “I never cut a frame out [of that clip] . . . It was like I was meant to find it at that moment” (Director’s Commentary). Nevertheless, the cut is more reminiscent of the editing conventions of a theatrically staged narrative film than American cinéma vérité. Once again, Dont Look Back manages to hybridize the two schools and further complicate the presentation of the “real” Dylan.
Pennebaker’s formal choices along with Dylan’s elevated role as co-conspirator result in a multifaceted display of the singer’s persona. We see Dylan the protester and civil rights activist, Dylan the world-renowned musician, Dylan the mischievous counterculturist, Dylan the young intellectual with an acerbic wit. None of the singer’s manifestations can claim to be more truthful than the other since they all have been compromised by his conspiratorial collaboration with the filmmaker. Yet Dont Look Back‘s hybridization of both schools of cinéma vérité may have been the only feasible way to depict such a contradictory figure.
Pennebaker’s formal innovations proved to be highly influential not only on the rock documentary genre but also on elite filmmakers like Jean-Luc Godard. Only a year after Dont Look Back‘s successful release, Godard premiered his own rock-and-roll cinéma vérité film — his collaboration with the Rolling Stones, Sympathy for the Devil (1968). In it, Godard combines fly-on-the-wall footage of the Stones composing the titular song in a recording studio with highly stylized, politically charged segments, including a vignette in which the Black Panthers recite revolutionary texts in a junkyard. More importantly, the concept of cinéma vérité belonging to certain national schools was being eliminated. Pennebaker found no problem in taking his American crew to London to make a film about one of the most iconic American figures. Godard aimed his sights at the corruption of American capitalism by structuring his film around the creation of a British rock anthem. Toward the end of Dont Look Back, a drunken fan accuses Dylan of being nothing more than “a big international noise.” Even though he woefully underestimates Dylan’s staying power as a world-class musician, his words still ring a resounding truth. Dylan, along with Pennebaker, had created a new form of cinéma vérité, one that was unrestricted by national barriers.
Beattie, Keith. “It’s Not Only Rock and Roll: ‘Rockumentary,’ Direct Cinema, and Performative Display.” Australasian Journal of American Studies 24(2), 2005: 21-41. Web. 1 April 2012.
Dont Look Back. (Director’s Commentary). Dir. D.A. Pennebaker. Perf. Bob Dylan. Docurama, 1967. Film.
Issari, M. Ali, and Doris A. Paul. What Is Cinéma Vérité? Metuchen, NJ: Scarecrow Press, 1979. Print.
Pennebaker, D. A. Dont Look Back. New York: Ballantine Books, 1968. Print.
Saunders, Dave. Direct Cinema: Observational Documentary and the Politics of the Sixties. London: Wallflower Press, 2007. Print.
Wilentz, Sean. Bob Dylan in America. New York: Anchor Books, 2010. Print.