There’s a scene late into Primary, as John F. Kennedy sits in a hotel suite awaiting the results of the 1960 Wisconsin primary, that synthesizes the film’s theme and technique. While Kennedy sits, he smokes a cigar and taps it into the nearby ashtray, as aides and family members scurry around the room. In any sense, the camera trained on Kennedy observes nothing much, insofar as an action, a notable facial expression, or even a comment. A few moments later, however, after hearing potential bad polling results, Kennedy utters an audible “well, fuck.” Suddenly, the scene’s meaning comes into full view. While the entire impetus informing Primary is a desire to gain access to a politician’s life in motion, the documentary is as much about how the filmmakers allow certain elements to inform the narrative as a whole. Put another way, hearing and seeing a man vying to lead the United States utter a word that was still banned in films by the Production Code (that wouldn’t be laid to rest until 1968) refutes any such culturally sanctioned representation of the decorum unified with leadership. Kennedy said “fuck” and it’s there, on tape, on film.
If one takes director Robert Drew at his word, he placed a small microphone inside of Kennedy’s ash tray minutes before the president sat down, in an effort to record as much sound as possible. Thus, it was Drew’s efforts that made the recording possible in the first place, given that he and fellow “associates” like D.A. Pennebaker, Albert Maysles, and Richard Leacock filmed without boom mics or other, standard-issue sound equipment. As the film unfolds, however, that fact necessarily remains invisible. That is, unless one knows Drew’s tactic, the moment springs forth naturally, without calling attention to it’s coming into being. But, of course, Kennedy’s curse word still had to be brought forth, both as an act and an idea. As the former, his utterance is commonplace and unremarkable, though perhaps notable because of who’s saying it. As the latter, however, Drew and his associates haven’t merely captured a point in time, but redefined both what “point” and “time” mean by bulldozing the wall that previously kept sacred the loose-tongued asides of important men. With Kennedy’s “fuck,” no longer could anything remain invisible. And not, especially, filmmaking technique, which that very year brought with it Breathless, an object lesson in cinematic vandalism by way of genre play and disjunctive editing.
Funny, then, how Drew Associates, Robert Drew’s photojournalism company, came to be heralded as progenitors of Direct Cinema, a movement affiliated with objective truth and an observational style. It’s easy to see why that tag has stuck for so many years; a famous, high-angle shot from a handheld camera just behind Kennedy’s head seems an optimal reference point for proving the status of a present-tense cinema. But these were not live broadcasts, despite how ubiquitous the style has become with the emergence a 24-hour news cycle. Primary is a work of laborious construction and precision, with the recurring campaign anthem “High Hopes” routinely working its way between diegetic and non-diegetic sound tracks.
Crisis, despite being structured around an impending deadline and seemingly unfolding in real time, crosscuts between Robert F. Kennedy and the front lawn of the University of Alabama with a precision that could only come from meticulous editing sessions capable of considering shot scale and rhythm. Nor could a villain like Governor George Wallace be made as evil as he’s understood to be here without careful rhetorical plotting. Wallace is first seen inside his home, showing off his acquired paintings of Confederate heroes and defending their valor. He turns to the camera and condescendingly remarks: “That might not mean much to you folks.” Though the film in no way acknowledges the governor’s address, the meaning is clear: You folks are the filmmakers, those looming behind the equipment mediating Wallace’s hate speech. In other words, the camera of Drew Associates can find real psychopathology, but to locate it one has to acknowledge the very spatio-temporal quality that continuity editing sought to conceal: dissonance. That is to say, sometimes, characters speak back.
The films of Drew Associates deal almost exclusively in a formal myth busting on par with narrative filmmakers from any of the New Waves throughout the ’60s. Look at Faces of November, a wordless chronicling of JFK’s funeral. It’s not that words couldn’t have expressed the grief that faces often can; it’s that speech couldn’t be trusted. To speak was to lie, just as to edit according to some phony laws of maintaining space and time was to lie. “Tracking shots are a moral choice,” Godard would soon say. The films of Drew Associates teach us that microphone placement is too.
Nearly every film in the collection appears to be in excellent condition, with clear image and sound at all points. Restorations were performed using the 16mm fine-grain positives (excepting Faces of November, struck from the original 16mm A/B camera negative), and quality is high throughout, with minimal scratches or image deterioration. Where filmic artifacts, like dirt or debris, are present, they’ve been minimized to almost imperceptible levels. Clarity and focus are as they should be throughout; there’s no fuzziness to the image, nor any perceptible edge enhancement. The monaural soundtracks have been remastered removing almost all instances of cracks and pops. Considering the materials used, this restoration job is nothing short of a triumph.
Featuring equal parts film and political history, these supplements rank among Criterion’s best work within the past year. There are two cuts of Primary, each tailored to either a half-hour or full-hour television broadcast. An audio commentary on Primary features excerpts from conversations between Leacock, Drew, and Pennebaker about the film’s development and production. A wonderful documentary titled "Robert Drew in His Own Words" chronicles the filmmaker in both his home and at work, compiling archival footage and discussions had in the years prior to his death in 2014. There’s a delightful new conversation between Pennebaker and Jill Drew, Robert Drew’s daughter-in-law, who prompts Pennebaker to recount the film’s production and reception. While there’s a bit of overlap between extras, as is the case with footage used from a 1998 event in a separate featurette, the real treat is seeing images/footage of these filmmakers at different stages of their lives and careers. Also included are several outtakes from Crisis and a conversation between former U.S. Attorney general Eric Holder and Sharon Malone, Holder’s wife and the sister of Vivian Malone, one of the students featured in the film. Finally, there’s an interview with Kennedy biographer Richard Reeves and an essay by film curator and writer Thom Powers.
Cinephiles and historians should be thankful that The Kennedy Films of Robert Drew & Associates are still in viewable condition at all, much less the pristine presentations found in the Criterion Collection’s miraculous Blu-ray collection.