On D.A. Pennebaker's Daybreak Express
The landmark documentary director D.A. Pennebaker passed earlier this month, and as an homage to him and a service to their subscribers, The Criterion Channel quickly put together a suite of his films right at the top of the page. At the risk of stating the obvious: Go have a look, even if you think you already know — maybe especially so if that’s the case. Pennebaker’s stuff was so essential to the film education of so many people that I bet there’s a lot of us who hadn’t looked at his stuff for a long time.
No surprise: It holds up. And while I’ll leave the complete rundowns to those more equipped, I would like to point your attention to to Pennebaker’s first film ever, the 1953 short (short enough to, yes, stop reading, just watch it!) called Daybreak Express. Set to the song of the same name by Duke Ellington, and shot in beautiful amber 16mm Kodachrome, it’s a truly playful short about people going to work. (In this case, in New York City, more specifically along the now-demolished Third Avenue El.) The editing of it, set in a pacing that’s elegant and cartoonish at once, is so deeply delightful -- especially against this Ellington track -- that it feels a little bit otherworldly. Pennebaker is doing with subway trains here what Busby Berkley did with a chorus line.
But something else you notice is how eternal Daybreak Express feels. That light, that commute, that music and energy are still happening in cities all over the world, but they’re almost never sung to with the romance that Pennebaker brought to them. That electricity would follow him through his entire career. It’s available to us every morning.