Robert Drew's Primary reopens an old conundrum: does technological innovation drive cultural change, or does cultural need drive technological innovation? In other words, do inventors work in a cultural vacuum producing stuff people then find a need and a market, or are cultural niches filled by market-incentivized innovators? Whichever side you agree with, there's no question that Primary is a landmark in film history, marking a place where our expectations about what a film should be changed in tandem with the way we make them.
The innovation was a portable camera that allowed photographers to more or less unobtrusively immerse themselves in events, recording without distinction the mundane and the monumental. More or less because, in fact, though certainly smaller and lighter than previous pro-grade equipment, the cameras used by Drew and his gang of photographers looked like snub-nosed bazookas and probably weighed about the same.
The cultural niche that Primary was arguably the first to fill was a need for immersive journalism. Television had given viewers a taste they couldn't get out of their mouths, however rotten the taste would eventually become: the need to voyeuristically participate in the quotidian of other people's lives. The other person, in this case, was John F. Kennedy campaigning in Wisconsin against Hubert Humphrey for the chance to run as the Democratic candidate for president, making this first taste of American immersive cinema veritÚ irresistible.
The taste becomes rotten when you consider that portable motion photography made possible The Real World in the 1990s and the tsunami of reality TV after that. That's not Primary's fault anymore than Hunter S. Thompson's gonzo journalism is to its credit. Robert Drew and his collaborators moved primacy in the documentary filmmaking process away from the script and onto the camera, so it seems unlikely that anyone titillated by so-called reality TV, so heavily conscripted by the master narratives of spectacle, is going to find Primary watchable. Even to an ardent film lover, it's tedious in the extreme in only the way the na´ve beginnings of something (the steady uptick of on-the-spot news) we are now so sophisticatedly inured with can be.
For all that, Primary is essential, for historians and filmmakers certainly, but also for anyone concerned with the psychology of perception and the reception of images. For just as surrealism, in a more or less "secret history" kind of way, changed expectations about the presentation of still images (especially as used in advertising), so too did immersive journalism and portable equipment change the presentation of moving images.
Primary's contributing photographers Richard Leacock, D.A. Pennebaker and Albert Maysles are all pioneers of American documentary film style. Pennebaker went on to make Don't Look Back with Bob Dylan, Ziggy Stardust with Bowie, and the concert film Down from the Mountain that followed the Grammy-award winning soundtrack for the Coen brothers' O Brother, Where Art Thou? Albert Maysles, along with his brother David, made Gimme Shelter with the Rolling Stones, as well as one of the documentary genre's most touted examples of all around goodness, Grey Gardens (famous especially for its weird primary characters and gorgeous photography).
All three Kennedy films in the Drew collection are presented in rich context requiring two DVDs to present. Especially for aspiring documentary filmmakers and historians of the art and ethics of filmmaking, the commentaries by Drew and Leacock, along with two additional short films, provide a wealth of detail and insight that re-illuminate these early classics of immersive journalism.
Director and photographer commentary on Primary and Crisis; short features: 30/15: 30 Years of Robert Drew Filmmaking and The Originators; filmmaker biography and statement.
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