The pioneers of Direct Cinema are about gone. D. A. Pennebaker hangs on at 91 years of age, looking remarkably spry. But Robert Drew, Albert Maysles, and Richard Leacock have all passed on. There was a time in the early 1960’s when these men, along with a stable of others known as Robert Drew & Associates, were at the cutting edge of a new kind of documentary film-making, Direct Cinema, an American version of cinéma vérité, which purported to show people and events as they were, as if the camera were not present, as it the camera were a “fly on the wall.” This movement preserved two remarkable films about John (and Robert) Kennedy, Primary (1960) and Crisis: Behind a Presidential Commitment (1963).
The language of Direct Cinema is something that we all take for granted today. To fully appreciate how different it was from what came before, one must go back to old movie newsreels and compare. The old newsreels have an often propagandistic voice-over narrative, bombastic music, and a sense of everything being directed and choreographed. Direct Cinema purports to show things as they are without the camera crew intervening in events, minimal (if any) voice-over narration focusing on the facts without editorialization, and usually ambient sound. One can debate how effectively the main players can ignore the camera, but Robert Drew maintained in his interviews that he was able to achieve that. Drew talks about JFK being comfortably unaware of the camera until the conversation drifted to sensitive topics and his staffers having to remind him to send the cameras out of the room for a spell. Drew’s goal was to have the principle players in the events he was recording tell their own stories by their own unscripted words and actions.
Primary (1960) follows John F. Kennedy and his opponent Hubert Humphrey during several days leading up to the Wisconsin Democratic primary election of 1960. The film is not very interested in fleshing out the politics of each candidate and their differences. Instead, the film is about the day-to-day mechanics of one stage in the long slog to the White House. Even though Kennedy won the primary election in Wisconsin, the film portrays the result as a draw which was less than a decisive victory for either candidate. The message is just to witness the chronicle of how two men go hard at work to get votes. Some of the shots in this film are iconic, and have been widely imitated by other films, both fictional and non-fictional, in the years since.
Crisis (1963) is arguably the greater of the two films, but it raises more questions than it answers about the validity of the “fly on the wall” philosophy behind Direct Cinema. You have to ask how much the editing becomes the film-maker’s way of injecting himself into the reportage. Crisis chronicles the “stand-off at the schoolhouse door,” when Governor George Wallace of Alabama defied the federal court order demanding him to allow two black students to matriculate at the University of Alabama. While you sense that the film-makers are trying very hard to remain objective, Wallace clearly comes off as the villain and John & Robert Kennedy are the good guys. Perhaps that impression only comes about because Wallace really was the villain, and so his own portrayal of himself leads the viewer to that conclusion. On the other hand, maybe the editing has conned us into arriving at the conclusion that Wallace is the villain in the film. It is a point worth debating.
Early in the film, Robert Kennedy is enjoying breakfast at home surrounded by his children in an obviously loving family environment. In stark contrast, George Wallace is seen in a vast, austere mansion clumsily trying to play with a child, as if he was just doing it for the camera, and then he shows off portraits of dead southern civil war heroes, which is even more off-putting to the audience. Did they edit the film and play off those two scenes as foils to each other in order to highlight the warm Kennedy against the cold, harsh Wallace? Or is that just the way those two men happened to be in reality, and the film-makers, totally objective, just captured that reality?
Still, the film does maintain a certain objectivity about the events by letting each side tell its own story. And, even though you know the outcome (the two black students were ultimately allowed to enroll), the film builds up a lot of suspense. It is not what happens that really matters as you watch Crisis—instead, it is how it happens, and the way in which the characters involved get through what happens. George Wallace turns the events into a last-ditch stand on states’ rights vs. the evil behemoth of federal tyranny, as if it were the last battle of the Civil War. Listening to Wallace in this film, you get a capsule civics lesson in all the arguments that died with the Old South about states’ rights and “separate but equal” with regards to blacks and whites. Robert Kennedy in this film is just trying to uphold the rule of law without starting a riot or a race war. John Kennedy, the President, is portraying the crisis to the American people in a TV announcement as an issue of morality, harking back to Jefferson’s maxim that “all men are created equal.” The two black kids are just trying to enroll in college, but they are keenly aware that they are pawns in a bigger battle. The come off as heroic, rehearsing their roles on camera, rising to the challenge of all the weight that is being thrust on their shoulders.
When Robert Drew and his colleagues decided to film the Kennedy White House in a crisis, they did not know it was going to be this particular crisis. In interviews, Drew talked about several crises that they had to pass on, usually because they involved sensitive international events where this type of cinéma vérité (literally “cinema of truth”) might be too revealing of confidential information or even embarrassing to another country. The Alabama crisis, being a domestic crisis, was therefore perfect for the film. The way that they surround the crisis on all sides, with cameras on George Wallace, Robert Kennedy, Kennedy’s deputy secretary, the President, the two would-be college enrollees, is inspired.
There is a sense of honesty that comes out of these films, despite our latter day analysis of how the camera may have influenced events, or how the editing may have helped shade the audience’s view of the players. Frankly, I suspect that Drew & Associates did not intend to use the editing of the film to reflect poorly on Wallace. It just worked out that way, because Wallace was just on the wrong side of history, espousing an antiquated point of view (even in his day), so Wallace ended up looking bad on his own merits. I truly believe that Drew & Associates were trying to deliver an objectively neutral piece of film. Their interest in editing was more an interest in the art of documentary, patching seemingly unrelated “slice of life” moments on snippets of film into a coherent narrative.
Check out FilmStruck, the new streaming service from the Criterion Collection, and also the Criterion Channel, which just premiered this month. The Kennedy Films from Robert Drew & Associates are available for streaming, plus a panel discussion paying homage to these great departed documentarians.
Primary and Crisis were both admitted to the American Film Registry of the Library of Congress in the early 1990’s, which should guarantee their preservation for future generations of Americans. This is some of the best close-up footage available of JFK and RFK, and it is fascinating to watch them go about their daily but rather extraordinary lives.