Film Review: D.A. Pennebaker’s Dont Look Back

RTVF 4550 Cinéma vérité| Film Review

Spring 2012

Pennebaker and Dylan’s connection in “Dont Look Back” documentary

By Crystal J. Hollis

Before Bob Dylan’s first British concert tour, his manager called filmmaker D.A. Pennebaker and asked him to document the experience. Pennebaker agreed to do the project and filmed without script or direction. After the tour, Pennebaker produced Don’t Look Back (titled in the film as “Dont Look Back”), a Cinéma vérité style film about Bob Dylan’s first tour in London. It displays Dylan’s experiences and interaction with the people he encounters. Dylan as a musician is representative of the youth counter-culture movement, one of “cinema-verite’s great subjects at this historical moment” (Rothman 145). The cinema-verite style captured reality, but Dylan’s relationship with the camera and the aesthetic parallelism between him and Pennebaker gives the film a unique, interesting perspective on what kind of person Dylan is. Dylan, being a nonconformist during the counter-cultural era, is the kind of person who is not “particularly interested in having people understand him” (Pennebaker 191).

Bob Dylan’s attitude and approach to the presence of the camera influences him to put on an act. The film begins with a sequence where Dylan’s song is playing in the background and he stands in front of the camera, drawing cue cards with key words from his lyrics. The intentionally staged sequence does not follow the conventions of Cinéma vérité specifically, but it does play on Dylan’s approach as a nonconformist. According to Rothman, the purpose of this sequence is to announce that the film “is a collaboration in which filmmaker and subject are co-conspirators” (Rothman, 149). The idea that Pennebaker, a filmmaker, and Dylan, a folk musician, are “co-conspirators” shows a connection between the two. The connection is in relation to the parallelism between the two artists who use two different mediums to express distinctive art.

Like the way how Dylan is being a nonconformist by reacting to the camera, Pennebaker is nonconformist in his style of filmmaking. According to Saunders, both Bob Dylan and D.A. Pennebaker are artists who “explore less familiar territory and follow a course befitting their mutually progressive natives” (Saunders 61). Bob Dylan is a folk singer during the counter-cultural movement, possessing a “mischievous attitude” and being an “intellectual youth” (Saunders 63). Pennebaker builds on his filmmaking style, trying to distinguish from traditional documentary and the Cinéma vérité styles that were established by Drew Associates. His definition of a traditional documentary film is “a film that decides you don’t know enough about something” (Levin 234-235) but he believes that it is “possible to go to a situation and simply film what (you) see there…and let everybody decide” (Levin 235). Pennebaker is similar to Dylan because by using the direct cinema style he learned before leaving Drew Associates, he is able to be counter-cultural and take an aesthetic approach to filming this film (instead of journalistic).

Don’t Look Back does not really have a formal dramatic structure unlike the films produced by Drew Associates. The Cinéma vérité style allows the audience to observe the subjects. According to Mamber, story “movement is propelled by an anticipated crisis moment” (Mamber 115). The plot usually drives a story and when the characters go through crisis, the story is able to rise up until it reaches a climax and decline during conclusion. However, Don’t Look Back does not have a real crisis or plot. It is simply an observation of Dylan’s experiences during his London tour. According to Mamber, “while the subject is under considerable pressure…the lack of immediate win-lose alternatives is itself a form of purity in shooting approach…minimizes factors outside the subject-filmmaker relationship” (Mamber 184). Pennebaker remarks how the film is “purposely kind of abstract and tries to be musical instead of informational” (Levin 243) and that he thinks that Dylan is just “a guy acting out his life” (Levin 240). Bob Dylan continues to look “at the camera, commenting, pacing up and down, and working at a song” (Pennebaker 189). Throughout the film, Dylan reacts to the camera and Pennebaker continues to simply observe his reactions. According to Mamber, the “camera was an influence in a particular instance…served to encourage a ‘true’ representation of subject’s personality” (Mamber 181). The film paints a portrait of Bob Dylan’s staged personality and the audience is only able to watch the way he presents himself.

The film ends with a sequence where Bob Dylan is in his limo after a performance, silently looking out the window and watching his fans. According to Couchman, “Pennebaker ends with one of the film’s recurring motifs: the private Dylan confronts a public persona that others have created” (Couchman 100). It was an appropriate ending for an acting portrait of Dylan. Pennebaker was able to understand Dylan’s character and personality after filming and observing him. D.A. Pennebaker and Bob Dylan formed a connection during the production of Don’t Look Back. They are both non-conforming artists expressing themselves using their own unique mediums. Dylan rebels by reacting to the camera and presenting himself the way he wants the audience to view him. Pennebaker filmed Dylan, observing and understanding the folk musician as a character. Understanding the relationship between the filmmaker and his subject is important when analyzing Don’t Look Back and understanding its form and structure.

MLA References

Couchman, Jeffrey. “The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan.” Dec 2002: 94-100. Print. Levin, G. Roy. Documentary Explorations: 15 Interviews with Filmmakers. Garden City: Doubleday, 1971.

Mamber, Stephen. Cinéma vérité in America: Studies of Uncontrolled Documentary. Cambridge, Massachusetts: The MIT Press, 1974. Print. Pennebaker, D.A. Don’t Look Back and Monterey Pop. 189-198. Print.

Rothman, William. Documentary Film Classics. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1997.

Saunders, Doug. Direct Cinema: Observational Documentary and the Politics of the Sixties. London: Wallflower Press, 2007.

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