25th August 2016

Primary framegrab with Jackie and John Kennedy during Wisconsin primary, 1960

The 1960 documentary Primary is something of a tonic in a media world dominated, unaccountably and unacceptably, by the toxic D*n*ld Tr*mp. Here’s how the excellent Richard Brody described the film recently for The New Yorker:

The modern documentary was born in 1960, by way of that year’s Presidential campaign. The producer Robert Drew, a Life-magazine editor who wanted to make television documentaries as fluid as photo-reporting, oversaw the development of lightweight synch-sound cameras and recorders. He put the equipment to the test in Primary, an up-close account of the two rivals for the Democratic nomination, Senators John F. Kennedy and Hubert Humphrey, as they hustled for votes in the April 5 election in Wisconsin and then awaited the results.

And here’s an evocative clip courtesy of The Criterion Collection:

Primary is one of those documentaries that routinely makes its way onto those lists of ‘best-ever docs’ (I may even have voted for it myself) and is the focus of an extensive literature about truth and non-intervention and objectivity and realism and the real. But as Jeanne Hall suggests in her 1991 essay ‘Realism as a style in cinema-verité’, much like other documenataries of the time, Primary has been consistently written about but not always carefully watched. ‘To see the early films of Drew Associates for the first time today,’ Allen writes, ‘ is to be amazed at how remotely they resemble their descriptions.’ And in part, this was because it was so hard simply to access Primary and other films from its moment.

Now, thrillingly, we can all (or at least those of us who have a Region 1 DVD player) watch the film repeatedly thanks to a recent DVD box set from those wonderful people at The Criterion Collection. The Kennedy Films of Robert Drew & Associates includes Primary as well as three other films made between 1960 and 1963: Adventures on the New Frontier, 1962, Crisis and Faces of November, both 1963 (and I’ll return to these in a future post), plus a number of archival interviews. Festival organiser and curator Thom Powers also contributes an elegant and informative booklet essay.

I’m not going to attempt a full review of Primary, but rather I want to recommend the Criterion set as warmly as I can and also point to a handful of online articles that illuminate it:

• The go-to place for the films of Robert Drew is the Drew Associates web site, which has good background and images on the making of Primary and other films of the early 1960s.

Interview – Robert Drew: Nicholas Rapold spoke with Drew in 2012 and published this in Film Comment after Drew’s death.

Robert Drew obituary: by Ronald Bergan for the Guardian in August 2014.

• The Kennedy Library remembers filmmaker Robert Drew: a fascinating blog post by Laurie Austin reproducing correspondence between the Oval Office and Robert Drew.

• 1960 A Revolution in Documentary Film Making as seen by a participant: at the website dedicated to Ricky Leacock (which has many other interesting articles), this is a piece by Leacock written in 1993.

• There’s a useful detailed analysis of Primary at the Documentary/Film website from the University of Colarado at Boulder.

And then I want to add a couple of reflections. One is that Primary frequently resembles nothing as much as a series of animated Walker Evans photographs of the mid-West. The small town streets, the advertising hoardings, the faces have the artful immediacy of Walker’s signature images. Another intertextual reference is Theodore White’s ground-breaking book The Making of the President 1960, which I suspect is little-read nowadays, but which at the time introduced many of the techniques of what became known as ‘new journalism’ to political reporting. Apparently, White can be glimpsed in the Primary sequence in Kennedy’s hotel room as he waits for the results on election night.

There’s no sense in the film of the issues on which JFK and Humphrey are campaigning, or of what distinguishes them apart from Kennedy’s then controversial Catholicism. But at the same time it puts across a vivid contrast between the dynamic, youthful JFK and his slightly lumbering opponent. Also, one of the strongest senses you get from the film is of the centrality of hands: Humphrey giving out cards, both candidates shaking, shaking, shaking hands with voters, Kennedy having his hands arranged during a photo-shoot, Jackie nervously wringing her hands behind her back as she waits to speak at a rally.

Much of the film has an innocence and a simplicity, which is why it’s so pleasing to watch today, but there’s also a knowingness in the way in which it puts the media of the moment at its heart. Kennedy is seen being photographed in a studio, Humphrey takes part in a radio show and later answers phoned-in questions in a TV studio. In each case, the production processes and the potential for manipulation are foregrounded, even if this is only a matter of JFK having his hands re-positioned.

So why are these scenes so prominent? I think Jeanne Allen in the article mentioned above is pretty spot-on:

[Robert Drew] always saw his work as a kind of journalism – but a new and better kind of journalism than had been possible before. Primary illustrates this belief by implicitly comparing cinema verité methods with those of still photography, television, radio and newspapers.

Jeanne Allen’s ‘Realism as a style in cinema-verité’ is included in a compendious new anthology edited by Jonathan Kahunga for Oxford University Press, The Documentary Film Reader: History, Theory, Criticism. The table of contents here should give you a sense of quite how essential this volume is.

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