When Life reporter Robert Drew approached John F. Kennedy in 1960 about making a short documentary on his Wisconsin presidential primary run, he promised a new solution to an old problem: How does a reporter act as a fly on the wall, observing and recording his subject, without turning into an elephant, pen in hand, making the room self-conscious?
How does he capture an event as it would happen if no reporters or cameras were present? “A theater without action,” Drew proposed. “A play without a playwright.”
Art culled from reality.
He pitched to Kennedy a documentary style far unlike the stagy TV sit-down chats that relied on interviews to tell a story and passed as nonfiction storytelling in the 1950s. He and cinematographer Richard Leacock would carry a small camera and a sound recorder, rather than the trails of cords and huge klieg lights usually needed. This unobtrusive new method, Drew insisted, would “drop word logic and find a dramatic logic in which things really happened.”
Amazingly, it did, more or less. While shooting that first film, Primary (Docurama, $24.95) - long difficult to find on video, now newly released on DVD to coincide with the 40th anniversary of Kennedy s death - Drew and his crew of soon-to-be-legendary-directors created cinema verite. Editor D.A. Pennebaker would go on to profile two seminal late-20th-century figures with the Bob Dylan film Don t Look Back and the Bill Clinton campaign movie The War Room. And Albert Maysles would later make Gimmie Shelter, the Rolling Stones at Altamont documentary. Less directly, four decades later, their innovations would serve as a rough blueprint to be perverted and dismantled and transformed into reality TV.
But at the beginning, cinema verite was beautiful to behold: a portrait of a place and a time and a man told through keen observation rather than just another interview. And the freshness of that approach still comes through in Primary. We hover just over the head of Kennedy as he passes through a crowd, and sit at Jackie s side as she smiles flatly though her umpteenth rendition of “High Hopes.” His stump speeches are heartbreakingly elegant but you can see him coasting through the room on his movie star wattage. Meanwhile, across town the relative munchkin Hubert Humphrey plays the underdog to a scary hilt. He barks at farmers in a basement meeting hall. Drew shows a kid not paying attention and empty seats, then an audience slowly connecting to the bitterness and rage in Humphrey s squeak.
Five decades later we know the eventual result of those primaries, and still, surprisingly, Primary is completely a work of suspense. Even more thrilling is Drew s follow-up, Crisis: Behind a Presidential Commitment (Docurama, $24.95). Happy with the results of Primary - and quite savvy about how the camera can become a tool of posterity - Kennedy allowed Drew and Pennebaker into the Oval Office in June, 1963, just as Alabama governor George Wallace was preventing two black students from enrolling at the University of Alabama. Again, the history is familiar (I hope) but you don t know the way Kennedy yanked at his cheek and stared into space. Watching the standoff unfold, from multiple perspectives, is almost quite literally to watch as a fly on a wall. A few months later, Kennedy was assassinated, of course, and that awful knowledge hovers over Crisis like an afterword, unwritten and eventual. Also included on the DVD is Drew s Faces of November. The filmmaker recorded the faces of people who came to Washington for Kennedy s funeral service, edited them together, and as simple as that sounds, the result is gut-wrenching.
Speaking of camera-savvy politicians: A long while ago, sometime after he d made his umpteenth million, Arnold Schwarzenegger bought the rights to his first film, a documentary about body builders called Pumping Iron. To put it another way: Don t expect to get his alleged comments about Hitler, reportedly made during the film s making, in the supplementary section of Pumping Iron: The 25th Anniversary Special Edition (Warner, $19.98). But there are plenty of outtakes and a new interview about the film with the man himself.
Still a smart sports movie decades later, what s startling is how much Schwarzenegger, at 28, already sounds like a consummate politician, measuring his words while simultaneously embracing his own rhetoric.
For another side of the Austrian superstar, try the fine new disc edition of Terminator 3 - Rise of the Machines (Warner, $29.95), if only because it s the only video release this week timed to coincide with its star becoming the governor of a state.
Here s a better reason: While entirely redundant (aside from its dark nuclear ending), I liked this second sequel more than even the previous two Terminator flicks. Director Jonathan Mostow (Breakdown) is maybe the least fussy or pretentious action director these days. He dumps unnecessary emotions and gimmicks and even plot, streamlining down to a handful of masterfully assembled chases.
A must-have music video (adults only; no young Jack Black fans need apply) is Tenacious D: The Complete Masterworks (Sony, $19.98), a new compilation of all things Tenacious, from the entire short run of their HBO series to a full London concert. (Love that cover of the cheesy Queen theme to the 1980 Flash Gordon remake - but, really, it was bound to happen.) If your introduction to Black was The School of Rock, you might be in for a shock. This two-disc assemblage has more creative cursing than four discs of The Sopranos. My suggestion is to start with disc two and head straight to the folk-metal duo s appearance on Comedy Central s Crank Yankers - or rather, their appearance as nude puppets who kill a grizzly with their bare hands. I promise, no curse words can describe it.
Until Crime Story (Anchor Bay, $59.98) came along in the mid 1980s for two television seasons, no one was quite sure Michael Mann could sustain his gun-metal smoothness for more than a couple of hours. There was Manhunter (the first Hannibal Lecter film) and the underrated Thief and his first TV series, Miami Vice, but Crime Story confirmed that Mann had a true movie director s vision. An extended cat-and-mouse chase between cop and robber, with Dennis Farina in a star-making role, it was the prototype for Heat, Mann s brilliant 1997 crime epic featuring a showdown between Robert DeNiro and Al Pacino. Across this five-disc set, which includes the series entire run, is more evidence of Mann s fine casting eye: watch for Ving Rhames, Gary Sinise, and an actress named Julia Roberts.
The Hired Hand (Sundance, $39.95) is one of those illuminating, obscure films that even knowledgeable movie lovers forget and hipsters later rediscover. Given a halfhearted release in 1971, Peter Fonda s directorial debut is a distinctly 70s find: an existential western with soft-focus cinematography courtesy of Vilmos Zsigmond and a supporting turn by Warren Oates. (If they all wore bell bottoms, that couldn t get more 70s.) The story, a rambling tale of violence and outsiders, takes a back seat to the beautiful photography and neo-hippie vibe, but that s really not a criticism. As for extras: Fonda provides a blab track and deleted scenes, while no less than Martin Scorsese stamps his approval in a special introduction.
NEW ON VIDEO: Dumb and Dumberer: When Harry Met Lloyd (Not a good idea. Or as they say around the Fine Line executive suites, Mistake and Mistakerer).
NEW ON VIDEO, NEVER PLAYED TOLEDO: Gerry (The first of two experiments with plotless movies from Gus Van Sant; the other is Elephant, his day-in-the-life high school film. The latter is the brilliant one (due soon), but this provocative Sundance hot ticket is worth a look: Matt Damon and Casey Affleck get lost in the desert, while the camera tags along in long unbroken shots that gather a real dread. Still, if your idea of dull is following a car down a highway for five minutes, in one shot, this is a must-avoid. You ve been warned.)