University of Sussex
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D.A. Pennebaker and the politics and aesthetics of mature-period direct cinema

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posted on 2023-06-09, 04:17 authored by Frank Verano
In this thesis, I offer a reappraisal of direct cinema through a study of documentarian D.A. Pennebaker’s mature-period direct cinema. This is an unexamined period in Pennebaker’s career that offers new perspectives on an often-maligned form of documentary. The period under study ranges from 1968 to 1970 and encompasses a range of films, commercials, abandoned projects and personal works. I focus on three films: Eat the Document, Sweet Toronto and One P.M. By shifting the critical focus away from the early and classical period of direct cinema, as well as its ‘canonical’ films, I ask: How does direct cinema engage with the world in its later stages? What can be understood about direct cinema by examining works that do not circulate in ‘the canon,’ and how does this analysis change our perception of it? Two further questions guide my study of Pennebaker: What are the aesthetic properties and ideological preoccupations that characterise Pennebaker’s mature period? What is the political address of this set of films and how does that reposition the politics of direct cinema as a whole? Methodologically, I employ a close textual analysis of the films and an historical analysis of the period, conduct personal interviews with Pennebaker, and engage with intellectual debates within documentary studies to answer these questions. My study builds upon recent trends in direct cinema scholarship, which have opened up new critical horizons by returning the critical focus to the film texts themselves and the cultural and social contexts in which they were produced. I contribute knowledge to documentary studies by focusing critical attention on a neglected period in a key documentarian’s career. Additionally, I perform a textual analysis of the period’s films that focuses on the materiality of sync sound – the crucial, but largely neglected, aesthetic characteristic of direct cinema – as a means of investigating my ideological and political line of questioning. I also develop two key concepts: the performative documentary, which builds upon existing definitions by Waugh ([1990] 2011), Nichols (1994) and Bruzzi (2006; 2013) and furthers the concept through an application of Brecht’s alienation effect; and ‘kinetic progressions,’ which, I argue, is Pennebaker’s cinematic process of signification that exploits classical direct cinema’s emphasis on present-ness and found symbolism to further formally evolve the language of direct cinema in a way that fulfils its potentiality for political discourse.


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University of Sussex

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