Riff Raff

Real Life Rock "An obsessive sport" is what D.A. Pennebaker calls cinema verite documentary filmmaking, a line of work he's indulged in for some 40 years. Many of the documentaries that get attention today have missions journalistic (Brother's Keeper) or didactic (Waco); Pennebaker is from an earlier school -- one that includes such notables as Richard Leacock, Albert Maysles, and Pennebaker's wife and directing partner, Chris Hegedus -- specializing in an intense style of fly-on-the-wall documentation that lets a story emerge out of long and patient filming. "I'm not really a director," Pennebaker told Riff Raff during a recent stay in San Francisco. "I don't fool myself. Our job is just to adjust to the subjects. Whatever they do, that's the story." The Manhattan-based filmmaker's works include Monterey Pop (the concert doc that includes searing footage of Jimi Hendrix setting his guitar aflame); Bowie, the Ziggy Stardust concert film; The War Room (the Oscar-winning documentary on the 1992 Clinton campaign); and, perhaps most notably, Dont Look Back, the celebrated, unblinking portrait of Bob Dylan during a 1965 tour of Britain. (The movie returns to the Roxie for a two-week run next Friday.) Pennebaker, mischievous-eyed and pleasantly professorial, has the look of a man two decades younger than his 72 years; a conversation with him produces casual but penetrating references to the likes of Yeats, Stendahl, and Byron, and personal reminiscences of Samuel Beckett, Jane Fonda, John Lennon, Bob Dylan, and many others. Pennebaker gave up a career as an electronic engineer for a new one that didn't promise much moneywise; he compromised by trying to make unusual movies about famous people. After a few years of respected work his reputation was such in 1964 that he got a call from Albert Grossman, then Dylan's manager. The famous portrait that resulted, Dont Look Back (with no apostrophe -- "I was trying to reform the English language, like Shaw"), begins with a very funny early music video (to "Subterranean Homesick Blues") and continues as a piercing portrait of a star in extremis. Despite the subject, Pennebaker had a difficult time getting national distribution ("Most of them wouldn't sit through the first reel"), but the film eventually found its audience: He recalls proudly that the documentary played at S.F.'s Presidio theater for months on its original run. In Dylan Pennebaker sees Byron, who "established a new paradigm for the artist. Until then, the artist was given a house to live in, he entertained at birthday parties, and he tried not to get too drunk and fuck the master's wife. Byron put his finger right up in the sky and said, 'Fuck you!' That's always fascinated me." Dylan, he notes, took it a bit further: "Back then [the '60s], no one mistook pop music for art. Everyone knew that opera was art and this was foolishness. Dylan changed all that forever." (He drew the admiration even of Beckett, who, Pennebaker says, referred to Dylan as "the poet.") His films can be trenchantly, even unattractively, revealing, but Pennebaker says he's never run into serious trouble: The subjects, he says, "understand their role." The War Room was of course delicate work -- behind the scenes as candidate Clinton coped with, among other things, the Gennifer Flowers crisis. The film was originally envisioned as a profile of the candidate -- "It was supposed to be about a man becoming president" -- but Clinton balked. "We said, 'Oh, shit, what do we do?' " Fortunately, aides James Carville and George Stephanopoulos agreed to go on. "People assume you think it all out," he says. "You don't. You just throw a big switch." His and Hegedus' newest effort is Moon Over Broadway, which watches Carol Burnett return to the Broadway stage; Pennebaker will be back in town in April for its local premiere at the Roxie. (B.W.)

Splitting by the Dock of the Bay Nudged by the small wake of the bay on a Thursday afternoon, a white-and-black crab trawler called The Marie gently sways as Paul the Fisherman berths it at the rickety dock just off China Basin Street. A pair of feral cats, scared by the vessel's groaning 2,000-horsepower engine, abandon their perch on two overturned picnic tables that once belonged to the Mission Rock Resort. As regulars of the ramshackle, sprawling bayside bar and sometime nightclub already know, the Mission Rock closed a month ago, shut down by the city for code violations. The site, however, is still littered with evidence of the late nights clubbers spent in its labyrinthine halls and the sunny days when all kinds of people lazed on its decks. Mission Rock was a place for those who didn't need an attitude with a pint of beer, and a home for Paul the Fisherman and owner Norma Wahl. It was also a great nuisance to the Port Authority. Back out at the dock, the unshaven fisherman tosses a rope, tying off on the battered marina. The dock, a sad mess of half-submerged driftwood, was just one of a dozen problems city officials cited when they canceled Wahl's lease last April. It wasn't close to the worst. The full Port Authority list reads like a rap sheet: "Failure to maintain the facility in good sanitary conditions, delinquent in rent, failure to maintain the marina, failure to comply with insurance, failure to keep adequate financial records, and failure to obtain proper building permits." Paul the Fisherman brushes the problems aside. "Since [Wahl's] husband died she's been running it on her own," he says. "All she needed was a little help to fix up the deck and manage the place and she would have been OK." It's crab season now and Paul talks of moving north to a port just off San Pablo's Point Molate, where the fishing's good offshore and the docks are filled with the hustle and bustle of different people making temporary homes. Paul says he might come back to Mission Rock, but he's doubtful. The feel of the place is in the hands of new owner Jim Kelly, former owner of Pat O'Shea's Mad Hatter on Geary. Beginning April 1, just three months after Wahl was forced to shut the rusty chain-link patio door for good, the building will be demolished. The Examiner's Rob Morse reported that Kelly plans to erect a restaurant for a new group of San Franciscans to discover. As contractors make way for the new Giants stadium and developers scheme over big plans for the China Basin area, it's unclear that there'll be a place for people like Paul the Fisherman. There wasn't one for Norma Wahl. (R.A.)

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