‘It Is An Art That Cannot Live By Looking Back’: 'Dont Look Back', Performance, and the Revision of Direct Cinema

Keith Beattie


Alexandre Astruc, in his brief manifesto ‘The Birth of a New Avant-Grade: The Camera Stylo’, emphasized the development of the portable 16mm camera as the essential element of his formulation of the ‘camera as pen’ and the emergent individual filmmaking that he envisioned would blossom from this development. Echoing Astruc’s emphasis on the mobile camera, portable camera and sound recording equipment occupy a privileged place in histories of direct cinema, the mode of observational filmmaking deployed in the US in the late 1950s. Interestingly, a crude technological determinism functions in many such histories, one that argues, in effect, that new portable camera technology created the new form of documentary. Notably in this relation Richard Leacock, one of the founding practitioners of direct cinema and an inventor of the portable camera technology used by many direct cinema practitioners, refused to reduce the development of the form to the new equipment. While he acknowledged that the new camera technology made possible a new mobility in filming, Leacock also recognised that ‘far more was involved [in the development of direct cinema] than the technology of portable equipment.’ In this relation, as the film theorist Stella Bruzzi has astutely suggested, ‘perhaps it is the ground-breaking performances in these films and not merely the arrival of lightweight cameras that revolutionised documentary.’ This paper is concerned with the relationship of performance and direct cinema, and the ways in which the foundational premises and extant styles of direct cinema are revised within and through performances within D.A. Pennebaker’s landmark direct cinema work ‘Dont Look Back’ (1967), a record of Bob Dylan’s concert tour of England in May 1965. The analysis also makes reference to a number of works other than, though in varying ways associated with, ‘Dont Look Back’.

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