The verite documentary movement was a way of separating documentary film technique of new works from the previous era of sound documentaries from the 1930s and 1950s. Verite can be characterized by a greater dedication to realism in form, without the staginess and artificiality of previous schools of filmmaking. D.A. Pennebaker’s Don’t Look Back, about Bob Dylan’s concert tour in the United Kingdom, is an incredible work of cinema verite, with its stark realism and matter-of-factness in presentation of these events. Perhaps one of the most perfect examples of the ‘new grammar’ of verite as a filmmaking technique comes in the scene in which a British music reviewer dictates his review over a pay phone to his editors. Here, we see the perfect confluence of artificiality and reality, as the stark verite method of filmmaking serves to further highlight the fakery and artifice of the reviewer’s words, providing a voyeuristic look into the world of music journalism and Bob Dylan’s own reputation in England.
The shot occurs approximately 16:30 into the film, immediately after one of Bob Dylan’s concerts. The camera shoots an extreme closeup of a middle-aged American man, wearing a suit and a trenchcoat, standing in a phone booth gingerly holding a cigarette and the receiver in the same hand. The camera films the scene through the glass, offering a slight reflection of the camera itself (and the cameraman) over the journalist’s face. The camera maintains a fairly static shot on the man’s face, though it shakes and moves occasionally in order to get closer or keep up with the man’s head movements. The man’s head is downturned, not meeting the camera, as he reads from his notes. The first shot ends with the camera panning down to the journalist’s notes as he finishes his paragraph, “they are hip; they are with it.”
The filmmaker cuts to a medium shot of the journalist at this point, linking the notepad with the journalist himself, as we are now able to see both the man and the pad at the same time, confined within the wooden frame of the phone booth window. The camera movement gets slightly shakier, as the cameraman struggles to keep both aspects in frame, with the angle slightly canted as if the cameraman is holding it awkwardly on his shoulder. It is at this point that the scene ends.
This scene in particular is especially indicative of the new grammar of free cinema, given its dynamism, immediacy and intimacy. Lindsay Anderson explains that documentary “should be one of the most exciting and stimulating of contemporary forms,” as “the documentarist must formulate his attitude, express his values as firmly and forcefully as any artist.”To that end, the new grammar is highly intimate and auteur-centric, making the filmmaker just as much of a character in the film as the people on screen. This scene in particular evinces that, as the audience is continually aware of the cameraman at all times – from the shaky handheld camera movement that is indicative of the film grammar of verite, this shot in particular allows us to see most clearly the documentarian observing the events of the scene just as the audience does. In documentary, “we [filmmakers] are the audience, ” according to Leacock; by allowing the reflection of the cameraman to linger within the window of this scene, Pennebaker allows this aspect of verite cinema to be seen most clearly.
The blatant subjectivity of the scene is another important aspect that sets it apart from the sound documentaries of the 1930s to 1950s; whereas those films sought to find as much objectivity as possible, the documentarian of free cinema “describes to you those aspects that he finds to be significant and interesting.” This is certainly true of this scene in Don’t Look Back, as D.A. Pennebaker examines the journalist’s face in closeup, as he scans his notes, looking for the best way to relay to his publishers the majesty of Bob Dylan’s work. Contrasting his planned-out, purposeful prose with the stark immediacy of documentary filmmaking is a particular highlight of the scene, as this moment highlights the differences between what Pennebaker is doing (capturing a real moment in time as it is happening) and the journalist’s goal (to poetically sum up a concert that has already happened in a calculated way). As Leacock says, “the closer you can get to real time, somehow, the better the thing works” – Pennebaker’s style, therefore, evinces a greater sense of reality given its ability to linger on real events in real time. The use of the cut nonetheless showcases a slightly formal element to the scene, as it allows the audience to visually link the man to the notepad, then to combine the two in the cut to the wider shot.
“Free cinema” desires to show society “by watching how things really happen as opposed to the social image that people hold about the way things are supposed to happen.” In this scene with the journalist from D.A. Pennebaker’s Don’t Look Now, the free cinema movement toward real time, subjective immediacy, and the use of documentarian as a perspective character is most concretely shown. The new grammar of cinema verite is shown through the slapdash, handheld camera work, the almost invasive focus on the subject at hand, and the acknowledgement of the cameraman as a character within the scene. The use of the reflection to actually show the audience this cameraman character is perhaps the most important part of the scene, demonstrating to audiences of the film that free cinema was not afraid to tell you it was a movie; after all, the filmmaker is just as much a part of the audience as the audience is.
Anderson, Lindsay. “Free Cinema.” pp. 51-52.
Blue, James. “One Man’s Truth: An Interview with Richard Leacock.” Film Comment 3(2)
(Spring 1965), pp. 15-23.
Pennebaker, D.A. (dir.) Don’t Look Back.