PRIMARY

 1960; directed by Robert Drew; 53 mins

In this most terrifying of election years, it’s interesting to go back and check out this documentary which details the Wisconsin Primary in 1960, in particular the contest between senators Hubert Humphrey and John F. Kennedy, both canvassing on the campaign trail to be elected as the Democratic candidate for the presidency. This was a pioneering documentary which overturned many of the conventions of the format. Creator Robert Drew developed a lightweight camera rig so that a crew could film and record sound simultaneously on the go. This meant that they could capture events as they happened with the candidates being themselves.

These films have probably increased in stature as historical documents because no history book or even contemporary news article would think to capture half the stuff that we see here. The moment when Kennedy gets dissed by a sarcastic, gum-chewing kid is priceless. That kid might still be alive now, thinking; “Great! I slagged Kennedy!” or “Shit! I met Kennedy once and I totally slagged him off!” Whilst there is narration still, the film throws out formal interviews which means that, although we see Humphrey and Kennedy’s public personas on display, the fact that we’re watching them do that in public makes us more aware of it and somehow makes the whole venture more truthful.

This film also shows, more than most, the power of the close up. Whether it’s the camera following Kennedy through the crowds onto stage, ordinary people listening intently to the candidates or Jackie looking back out at the crowd. That same face would look heartbreaking three years later in Drew’s short doc, Faces of November, about Kennedy’s funeral and makes you realise that Natalie Portman’s got some responsibility on her shoulders for Jackie. The intimacy of these moments not only gives you an emotional understanding of such historical figures but lends to that sense of being there and understanding the climate of the times as opposed to today’s hysteria.

Richard Leacock and Albert Maysles‘ handheld, 16mm Black & White cinematography looking grainy and gorgeous, looking out of car windows across the rainswept Wisconsin farmlands or smoke filled back rooms as the two sides await results. The sound is a little disconcerting as some stuff doesn’t match up but the roughness the production kind of lends it a lot of charm. You get the feeling of filmmakers just having a go.

Primary started a movement known as Direct Cinema and many of it’s most prominent creative voices worked on this film, including D.A. Pennebaker who’s own 1993 documentary The War Room would depict a presidential campaign far removed in nature from this but nothing as insane as what we have today. There’s more contemplation in a pro-wrestling arena than the melee we’re watching play out before November. If Primary feels like an honest-to-goodness depiction of what America and politics was like back then then it shows up a certain dignity that has been lost, not just in the politics but in us aswell – the baying mob.

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3 thoughts on “PRIMARY

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