It’s not often that Barnsley and New York are mentioned in the same breath. But I found myself doing precisely that last weekend after reading Ken Loach’s fascinating interview with The Yorkshire Post.
As I caught up with the director’s musings on Kes – part of the build-up to the 50th anniversary of the movie’s release in London – a friend told me that legendary documentary filmmaker D A Pennebaker had died at the grand old age of 94. Which prompted a flashback to a double-bill screening I attended back in the 1980s.
I used to love double-bill screenings. This two-for-the-price-of-one format has been in decline in the 21st century, although it appears, thankfully, to be making a bit of a comeback. Last summer, for one night only at an outdoor cinema in Barnsley, you could compare the relative merits and demerits of Grease and Dirty Dancing.
Clearly, this inspired Martin Scorsese to run next week’s festival of double features in New York City.
Joking aside, Scorsese explained that as a young filmgoer he “almost always saw movies paired as double features. Sometimes the pairings made sense, sometimes you’d wonder why they were being shown together, but it was a great way to experience cinema – two films back-to-back start a dialogue, and they illuminate each other”.
This is how I felt when I watched Kes and Pennebaker’s classic Don’t Look Back as a student in Brighton. At first glance, they seem an odd pairing. The former, a gritty masterpiece of social criticism, is about a Barnsley schoolboy from a mining community who trains a kestrel. The latter is a music documentary about an enigmatic American singer-songwriter’s eventful tour of England.
The reason, I believe, they were shown together is that they each capture a pivotal moment – not just in the lives of their protagonists but also in the history of post-war cinema.
It will be pointed out that Billy Casper is a fictional character and Bob Dylan, the subject of Don’t Look Back, is not. This ignores the fact that, as Ian McMillan once observed, you could (still can) find a Casper on every street corner in Barnsley. It also the ignores the fact that Dylan was, to some extent, an invented character, a version of Robert Zimmerman, and as Pennebaker pointed out,“he is sort of acting throughout the film”.
Through his mastery of a book on falconry Billy hopes, like his kestrel, to soar in the sky. In Don’t Look Back, His Bobness is shown furiously typing away while Joan Baez wails in the background, writing new pieces which will transform him from an acoustic folk singer into a lyrically-complex, fully electrified, rock-n-roll poet.
Both directors were bewitched by the new form of direct cinema (or cinema verité as we used to call it before Brexit) emerging in continental Europe. Both used naturalistic photography to redefine the language of cinematography.
They were not part of the same movement but, as one Pennebaker obituary noted “direct cinema was the culmination of eclectic, overlapping changes”. Loach’s pre-Kes output, including drama-documentaries like Poor Cow and Cathy Come Home, were indeed eclectic but overlapped with Pennebaker’s freewheeling, rule-breaking films about John F Kennedy. Barry Ackroyd, the northern cinematographer who worked with Loach on Riff-Raff, Raining Stones and Ladybird Ladybird, cites Pennebaker as a huge influence.
“Kes has become our town’s creation myth,” wrote McMillan, the Bard of Barnsley. “Our Great Gatsby.” In F Scott Fitzgerald’s novel, the main character, like Our Billy and His Bobness, is fixated on reinventing himself. It is this desire for metamorphosis which, in my mind at least, links Barnsley to New York – where Pennebaker was pioneering a new form of fly-on-the-wall documentary – in the late 1960s.
At this moment in time, both Casper and Dylan were, in their different ways, on the cusp of freedom. “The magic of the book,” Loach said, “which we tried to capture, is the central image: the boy is set on a course of semi-skilled manual labour, the bird is soaring in the sky. Why is the boy not allowed that freedom?”
As the maestro sang in Don’t Look Back: “He not busy being born is busy dying.”