Emily J Weitz
Sitting at the kitchen table of DA Pennebaker and Chris Hegedus, you can feel a sentiment that is decidedly Sag Harbor. The worn wood of the walls, the low ceilings, and the narrow staircase all hearken back to the time when whalers’ families would crowd around the table in these cramped quarters. But the art on the walls and the books on the shelves establish this couple as a powerhouse creative team of this century. The past and the present, the history and the art, mingle Sag Harbor style.
No place has the ability to capitalize on this unique identity quite like the Sag Harbor Whaling and Historical Museum. Traditionally devoted to the history of Sag Harbor, this summer the regal old building has been host to some of the greatest living artists of our time, many of whom call Sag Harbor home. Pennebaker and Hegedus, who live on Garden Street, just a few doors down from the Whaling Museum, are two such artists. From front row documentation of legendary performers like Jimi Hendrix and Janis Joplin in their concert film “Monterey Pop” to probing looks at American presidencies in their documentaries “The War Room” and “The Energy War,” the two have captured their America on film, and what they’ve found will be on display as part of “Life As It Is — Unscripted,” a new show opening at the Whaling Museum this Friday.
“I made a collection of clips from music films,” says Hegedus. “It’s about an hour and a half, and will be running in the gallery space during the reception. Another monitor will show a 20-minute sample of films that aren’t music films. We strung together trailers in the room where they’ll serve the drinks. It will be a sampling of our work.”
Looking at their work will not only lend viewers an understanding of the cultural history of our country, but also a history of film itself.
“Penny [DA Pennebaker] started in the 1960s when there was no handheld camera,” says Hegedus. “He pioneered the idea of making a camera that you could carry around with you.”
Pennebaker nods, recalling his need to change the way these films were made.
“Documentaries were stories someone told to you,” he says. “They had a narrator and elegant music, and they told you a story. It seemed to me, the thing movies offered was an opportunity to watch the story happen instead of being told a story. And people didn’t know how to do that.”
Hegedus adds, “The ability to take a camera and shoot a real life story just like a fiction film, this was novel. Penny was one of the originators of that.”
On display at the Whaling Museum will be one of those original cameras, along with a splicer and other tools the team used to use in the creation of films. Hegedus starts to laugh.
“The splicer!” she says. “You actually used to cut the film and take a piece of tape and put it back together. It seems prehistoric now.”
The film itself, while in some ways obsolete, also exists in a more permanent way than anything digital can. Thousands of feet of footage lie in a big hollowed out mountain in Connecticut, a mountain whose humidity and temperature were adjusted to what Kodak believed was ideal for film.
“That film is going to survive a long time,” says Pennebaker. “And you can still put it up to the light and see the picture.”
The first film that Pennebaker and Hegedus really collaborated on was “The Energy War.”
“It was in 1977,” says Hegedus, “and we shot a five hour series for PBS where we followed all the people involved from the Secretary of Energy to [President] Jimmy Carter to the lobbyists on all sides of the issue trying to pass Carter’s natural gas bill.”
“At that point I had a camera,” says Pennebaker, “and I made one for Chris. Hers had a green thing on it and mine had a red thing. That’s how we told them apart. One of those cameras will be on display at the Whaling Museum.”
Another film that was really interesting for Hegedus was “Town Bloody Hall.”
“It was a huge women’s liberation debate,” she says. “Norman Mailer was the moderator, and the audience was full of New York intellectuals and writers. That’s one for the space capsule.”
It is also featured in the 20-minute sample.
When it comes to making documentaries, the couple stressed that as a filmmaker, you don’t get to plan what is going to matter and what won’t. You just have to be there, ready, with camera in hand.
“There have been times I just had a feeling that something big was happening,” says Hegedus. “I think when Penny did ‘Monterey Pop’ he felt that.”
Pennebaker nods, remembering the filming and the ensuing hours, days and weeks of editing footage. He would arrive first thing in the morning to start the editing, and Eric Clapton would be waiting outside the door, ready to sit and watch the entire thing beside him.
“All the musicians would hang out,” he recalls, “staying up all night with toke in hand, watching footage. The place just smelled of grass. Jimi was funny about Eric — he said he had to loosen up a bit. Eric was shy. And Dylan. Dylan was the master to Jimi. We have clips of Jimi in there, talking about Dylan, how he could fling himself loose fearlessly. Jimi was hooked on Dylan.”
The musicians were there because they wanted to see what other people were doing. They couldn’t just check out a concert they had missed on YouTube. If they missed it, it was gone. Until DA Pennebaker.
“As far as I knew,” he says, “no one had made a film about any live concert. People didn’t know how to sync up the picture with the sound.”
When he heard about the concert, he knew it would be major.
“At that time, every young kid was dreaming of getting out of high school and going to California. Drugs and music — it was nirvana for them to find California. So of course I wanted to do a film about a concert out there,” says Pennebaker. “It was complicated technically to do, but once you’ve got it figured out, you just think about the interesting incredible voices of people.”
It’s that quest for the real voices of people that has brought Chris Hegedus and DA Pennebaker to the front lines of American culture, and has compelled them to document it for the rest of us, so that it might never be lost.
“Life As It Is — Unscripted” will be on display at the Whaling Museum at 200 Main Street in Sag Harbor from August 2 through August 21. There will be an opening reception on Friday, August 2 from 6 to 8 pm. For more information, call 725-0770.