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The US filmmaker D A Pennebaker – a pioneer of the documentary form – died on 1 August 2019 at the age of 94. He is perhaps best-known for his feature films Don’t Look Back (1967), a remarkable portrait of Bob Dylan while on a concert tour near the height of his fame, and The War Room (1993), which followed Bill Clinton’s run and eventual surprise victory in the 1992 US presidential election. Coming of age at a time when portable 16mm cameras with the ability to record sync sound on the fly allowed filmmakers newfound levels of freedom, Pennebaker was one of the first US documentarians to use the tools and aesthetics of cinéma vérité (or direct cinema), which emphasised recording reality with authenticity and representing stories truthfully.
With its frenetic pace, early morning hues, avant-garde touches, and playful use of shapes and patterns, Pennebaker’s first short, Daybreak Express (1953), made for a precocious debut. The sounds of an eponymous Duke Ellington composition form the film’s clattering backbone, as Pennebaker crafts an urban mosaic from Manhattan’s soon-to-be demolished Third Avenue elevated train line. While more experimental than much of the work he would be celebrated for later, Pennebaker’s career-long knack for kinetic editing, adventurous storytelling and skilfully marrying music and images still permeates nearly every frame. Today the impressionistic short plays not only as an ode to the dizzying dance of New York City transit, but the very power and potential of the documentary form itself.
Director: DA Pennebaker
The famed medieval map that stretched beyond Earth to heaven, history and myth
Earth science and climate
A biologist on the sorrows of documenting the Great Salt Lake’s collapse
Design and fashion
Household items are reborn in a ‘visual symphony of everyday objects’
As a pianist strikes a chord, visualisations of his notes appear in real time
Human rights and justice
Meet the man who uncovered the scandal of nuclear testing in South Australia
Thinkers and theories
Jeremy Bentham was consumed by creating a perfect prison. Here’s the result
The strange journey of the Parthenon Marbles to the British Museum
Animals and humans
Laura fights to protect the magnificence of wild horses running free
Film and visual culture
The old-time cinema experience endures in a quiet corner of Japan