Robert Drew, who died in 2014 at the age of 90, revolutionized political coverage in 1960 with his film “Primary. But it didn’t seem so revolutionary at the time.
Recently re-released as one of four films in Criterion’s “The Kennedy Films of Robert Drew & Associates,” “Primary” at first mostly confused the people at Time-Life who had commissioned it. They found his newfangled direct-cinema coverage of the campaigns of Hubert Humphrey and John F. Kennedy during the Wisconsin Democratic primary confusing, discursive, and overlong.
What were viewers to make of extended sequences of Hubert Humphrey, chatting blandly in a car as he is driven from one Wisconsin farm town to another, or shaking hands with weather-beaten old men in overalls? And why the long, handheld, traveling shot of the candidate’s feet as he trudges a sidewalk seeking hands to shake?
When intercut with shots of JFK stirring hundreds of autograph-seeking young women into a pre-Beatlemania frenzy, or having the sleeve of his suit jacket adjusted so exactly one quarter-inch of his impeccable shirt cuff could be seen for his photo portrait, the point is clear: The earnest old Liberal warhorse was destined to lose to the flashy upstart.
As was the dynamic new cinema verite destined to eclipse the dull dinosaur that the documentary genre had become. As Drew explained in a 1962 interview, he wanted to “drop word logic and find a dramatic logic in which things really happened.”
By then, the shock of his new approach to nonfiction films was giving way to avid imitation, and not just by documentarians. He was embraced by the UK’s New Cinema and by the French New Wave, and imitated by Jean-Luc Godard.
Later auteurs would also draw on “Primary.” The now-familiar motif of a celebrity’s long walk through a corridor to a stage in front and an audience originated in that film. D.A. Pennebaker would use it in “Don’t Look Back” (1967). Martin Scorsese would relocate it to a restaurant in “Goodfellas” (1990). And Rob Reiner would parody it in “This Is Spinal Tap” (1984).
Even Ridley Scott, the creator of such special effects extravaganzas as “The Martian,” says that the brief time he spent as an employee of Drew Associates in the 1960s was the most formative experience of his life.
“Primary” also influenced one of the subjects of the film. Kennedy liked the way he looked in it and saw that its poignant intimacy suited his image. He invited Drew to make more documentaries in the White House. They include the unremarkable made-for-TV “Adventures on the New Frontier” (1961) and the intense “Crisis: Behind a Presidential Commitment” (1963), in which Kennedy goes head-to-head with Alabama Governor George Wallace over desegregation.
In the fourth film in the Criterion set, JFK is achingly present by his absence. The short film “Faces of November” (1964) shows how cinema has the power to make fresh a terrible grief that was first suffered more than five decades ago.
“The Kennedy Films of Robert Drew & Associates” is available on Blu-Ray ($39.95) and as DVD ($29.95) from Criterion. For more information go to www.criterion.com/films/28907-the-kennedy-films-of-robert-drew-associates.Peter Keough can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.