Judge Bill Gibron likes his politics kicked old-school.
Our review of The Robert Drew Kennedy Films Collection, published August 21st, 2008, is also available.
Politics played the old-fashioned way.
The Date: April 4th. The Year: 1960. The Place: The back roads and big cities of Wisconsin. It's the last day of the statewide campaign for the Democratic nomination for President. Hubert Humphrey, Senator from the neighboring state of Minnesota, is battling for his political life against brash newcomer, John F. Kennedy, junior Senator from Massachusetts. This primary election is seen as a make-or-break for Kennedy's crusade. Hounded by questions regarding his level of experience, and haunted by his religious background (being Catholic, he is seen as having an allegiance to an authority "beyond" America…namely Rome), a weak showing in this preliminary event would—for all intents and purposes—spell doom for his chances of gaining the nomination at the national convention.
Humphrey, knowing that he plays better in the rural arena, goes on a barnstorming tour of outlying farm areas in hopes of cementing his support. Playing to his strengths, Kennedy rallies around the large metropolitan centers of the Dairy State, sparking a celebrity-like reaction among the young. Both candidates also utilize the burgeoning television medium to sell their image. Humphrey stages a live call-in Q&A. Kennedy makes a basic, professional appeal to the voter. As April 5th rolls around, and the citizenry heads for the ballot box, both campaigns are on edge. Humphrey needs the win to show his strength in the Midwest. Kennedy needs a victory just to stay alive.
Primary is a remarkable—if also rudimentary—film, a solid first example of cinema vérité that simultaneously champions and unmasks the documentary style's good and bad points. Innovator Robert Drew was one of the first fact filmmakers to simply allow the camera to capture the events "as they happened," with little narrative shaping or outside thematic pontification. This basic manner of moviemaking is the exact opposite of the methods of someone like Errol Morris, or better yet, Michael Moore. Both of these documentarians are modern artists who capture the truth and then "spin" it, making it conform to and with their overriding cinematic thesis. Drew believes instead in the power of the event and the people to deliver drama without shading or influence.
And he has a very valid point. In the 53 minutes Primary runs, we witness the exact moment in time when the cult of personality irreversibly reshaped American politics for all time. What little narration is present sets up the parameters perfectly: Humphrey is an old school member of Congress who's considered virtually indestructible in his home base of America's heartland. Wisconsin should be, more or less, a slam-dunk for his candidacy. Kennedy, on the other hand, is the dark horse, the brash youngster from a privileged family who wants to breathe new life into Washington and the White House. But instead of focusing on the strategies and circumstances that make or break a candidacy, this is a documentary about image and vision, a testament to how character and high recognizability (Kennedy) can, and would eventually, win out over issues and party political machine institutionalization (Humphrey).
Primary is not a compare-and-contrast of campaign styles so much as it is a bullish beauty pageant, a chance to see when issues started taking the back seat to ready-for-prime-time personae. Drew does an interesting thing throughout the course of the film. He constantly cuts to close-ups of both Kennedy and Humphrey's profiles, giving the viewer a chance to behold firsthand the iconic, aesthetic differences between the two men. Humphrey is seen as a sometimes goofy, grinning piece of granite, a façade chiseled out of bedrock by years of public service and little limelight. He has a Mount Rushmore quality to his nose and jaw line, a direct reflection of all his Establishment roots. Kennedy, on the other hand, is the movie star, the handsome hunk with a smile that seems to get bigger as he flashes it. He is style over substance and exuberance over experience. The near rock-star manner in which he is treated (women swoon and swear they'll never "wash" their Kennedy-shaken hand ever again) highlights what was either a natural magnetism or an acute political savvy heretofore unseen in the likes of national campaigning. From the soapbox moments, it is clear who the best orator is. Kennedy is all showbiz and very little essence, the first real practitioner of the well-considered sound bite. Humphrey, on the other hand, has the passion and polish of an old-fashioned salesman, able to get beneath the surface of a crowd and bring them to their feet. Yet Drew undercuts each speech with the specific circumstance surrounding it. Kennedy is playing to a packed house of worshipping fanatics who eat up each and every syllable he's saying. Humphrey speaks in a half-empty gymnasium, barely able to register a response from a group of farmers who just seem happy to be resting a spell.
This is why Primary is so powerful. It allows us that "fly on the wall" type of interaction with candidates for public office that we'd never witness in the modern media machine. Both Kennedy and Humphrey treat the camera as an inconspicuous spectator, never ever playing to or for it. Today, you could imagine the level of filmmaker-to-subject interaction, the contender never letting the lens forget who is in charge. For this unaffected look, Primary deserves its place in history.
But it is not a perfect film. There are other elements at play here, issues not dwelt on by the filmmakers. How a campaign is really run and the people behind it are more or less left in the background. There is never an attempt to introduce these phone jockeys and paper pushers, and perhaps that was the point all along. Aside from the amount of flesh that needs to be pressed and the grueling schedule that is required to maintain a national run for office, the gears and cogs needed to keep the engine running are rendered irrelevant. And as one of the first examples—if not the primary one—of the fledging "moving camera" (otherwise known as cinema vérité) style, some of the dogmatic requirements of such a shooting system haven't quite been worked out. There are brilliant shots (a POV following from behind Kennedy as he canvases the crowd before taking the stage, Humphrey nodding sleepily in his car as he travels to another engagement) and some masterful, mesmerizing moments. But occasionally, the "you are there" element leads to what usually occurs in real life—monotony. It's impossible to believe that anyone thought the "waiting for election results" hotel scenes were anything but time wasters.
It's the flaws, first time stumbles, and happy accidental moments that make Primary so important. Docurama, with obvious influence and input from Drew, has released this important first step in documentary making in an excellent package brimming with wonderful bonus material. Those hoping to hear from the filmmaker and his (now famous) fellow cameramen are given ample opportunity on this DVD. Primary was not the launching pad for Drew only, but his camera and sound crew included Albert Maysles (Gimme Shelter, Grey Gardens), D.A. Pennebaker (Don't Look Back, Monterey Pop, The War Room), and Richard Leacock. All four men appear on a supplement, a panel discussion from 2000, and their anecdotes about the making of this movie are excellent. Drew tells a particularly funny tale revolving around seeing a film about a circus tent. While trying to find out the name of the artist who shot the amazing footage, everyone only remembered the horrible (in Drew's mind) narration. All four men offer insights into the election, how they felt Kennedy and Humphrey came off for the camera, and the importance of their revolutionary work in the film. There are also amazing insights into the film's invention in the full-length audio commentary, featuring Drew and Leacock alone. Over the course of the alternative track narrative, the filmmakers discuss meeting Kennedy for the first time, their personal political ideals, and the hectic five-day schedule they maintained to shoot and edit the film. These behind-the-scenes stories showcase how novel their approach to the film was, and how much unsupervised access to the campaign these filmmakers had. Once you hear the bonus material, you instantly understand why Primary is considered such a profound forward step in fact-based filmmaking.
As for the sound and image, alas, Primary has not held up well. Shot on what were some of the first sound sync portable cameras (which these men had a big part in designing), the transfer is fuzzy, blurry, lacking significant contrast, and showing its 44 years of age. While it is not riddled with defects or scratches, it still looks like lost stock footage from a rotting box of ancient newsreels. Same goes for the aural offering. The sonic elements are far too tinny and distorted on occasion to clearly reflect the information captured, and the mics pick up far too many ancillary noises to help the ear focus on what is important. In the commentary, Drew discusses how the sync would occasionally have to be tweaked to match up with the mouth movements, and as with any young technology, the meshing was sometimes less than perfect. Purists best beware: Drew obviously values his product, so much so that a symbolic "RD" video bug icon is burned onto every frame of this presentation. So if you're hoping to get lost in some atmospheric old film, the modern ID stamp will always be present to drag you back to the 21st century.
Primary is indeed a time capsule to an America and a political system that are long dead. It showcases perhaps the last time national campaigns were fought on the local level, precinct-by-precinct, county-by-county, and state-by-state. Kennedy's candidacy changed all that, introducing the photogenic ingredient to the game of statesmanship. Primary is a good name for this film. It was the first, in so many very important areas: cinematically, historically, and journalistically.
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