26 August 2008

Primary (1960)

d. Robert Drew / USA / 60 mins.

Primary is a film caught in a historical vortex. In 1960, upon its initial release, it was a highly informative and bold breakthrough, yet today it feels like a rudimentary film in contrast to our contemporary, over-saturated, ever pervasive media. The film was tremendously influential on the nascent documentary form of cinéma vérité, although at times it's a little too tedious for its own interests.

Overseen by Robert Drew and shot by Richard Leacock and future documentarians Albert Mayles and D.A. Pennebaker, Primary chronicles the hard-slog week before the 1960 Wisconsin Democratic primary election in which Sen. Hubert Humphrey of Minnesota and Sen. John F. Kennedy of Massachusetts fought each other in the handshake-by-handshake style of politics.

It might sound simple to say, but Primary must ultimately be considered a real treasure for fulfilling a singular purpose: capturing a particular moment and preserving it for future generations. It just turns out that the moment came at a turning point in American life and the process of capturing it revolutionized how Americans would see their potential leaders. It wouldn't have worked in any other election year; it had to be 1960 and it had to be JFK, a man of enduring charisma regardless of your political affiliation. Although the film evenly splits its time between Kennedy and Humphrey, although there is an undeniable aura that it favors Kennedy.

Why? Well, first of all, Kennedy won – not only the state of Wisconsin, but the 1960 election, the respect of the American people, and their remorse upon his death. Secondly, even if Kennedy gets equal time, he looks better in Primary than Humphrey, much like he looked better than his Republican challenger, then-Vice President Richard Nixon. Presidential campaigns changed after Kennedy, who maximized his suave demeanor and good looks to help propel his candidacy through the growing mass media; 1960 was the first year for televised presidential debates, and what Primary shows us is not only how the people in his presence reacted to him but how we, in the theaters or at home, feel about his aura as it resonates in moving images and sound.

As it is, the film doesn't look or sound all that great – even though it's on a relatively new DVD, the equipment Drew and his crew used was the earliest portable cameras available. The picture is fuzzy and the sound is quite shoddy, but if sheer audio and visual quality were the only goal of the filmmakers, ironically Primary would not have worked as well as it does. The close proximity more than makes up for the want of quality. The audience needed to ride in the car with Humphrey, to follow Kennedy as he moved through throngs of people and climbed onto the stage of a packed auditorium, first seeing the man then seeing what he saw.

In terms of its entertainment, Primary captures the audience's attention, and mercifully it's less than one hour long (by the end it does feel not only repetitive but monotonous). The important point is that Drew and his associates brought us closer to our candidates and captured this pivotal moment in American history on film.


MovieMan0283 29 August, 2008  

Sounds like you were somewhat underwhelmed, despite the 4-star rating. What do you think of cinema verite in general - and the Maysles in particular (I know they didn't direct this one but obviously their involvement was substantial).

I haven't seen Primary but I love the Maysles and Pennebaker works I've seen - even the ones that (like the Beatles doc) essentially just follow interesting people around in their day-to-day monotony which is, of course, much more interesting than your or my day-to-day monotony (I assume). Maybe this one is a little more dull, though.

Pertinent post though - this has certainly been a politically interesting week - not to stray too far from the movie-focus of my online blogging...

T.S. 29 August, 2008  

Primary is a really interesting film, even though it feels like it might be maybe 15 minutes too long (the final 15) when the film comes off the campaign trail and lingers around interiors as Kennedy and Humphrey wait for the returns to be counted. It is undoubtedly part of the story, but 48 years later it feels like it drags a bit because the results don't seem as fresh as they must have been in 1960 (even knowing then who had won the primary). While the two are out on the campaign trail, it's about as informative and entertaining as vérité can be. Definitely more entertaining than my life; agreed.

I like cinéma vérité a lot, and agree on Pennebaker and Maysles. One of my regrets is that I haven't posted reviews of more documentaries, but Salesman and Gimme Shelter are on the short list of possible reviews soon. I haven't seen Grey Gardens (I know, I know, I'm an awful person), but I'm excited to see it.

MovieMan0283 30 August, 2008  

You're right, you're an awful person. Grey Gardens is, well it's...damn, actually I've never seen it either. But Gimme Shelter is one of my favorite films of all time - and a half-hour interview/press junket with Brando (which I caught on TV once) was fantastic, but I don't think it's on DVD.

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