Friday, June 3, 2016

Primary and Crisis (screening June 5 at 1:30 p.m. at the Cleveland Museum of Art Morley Lecture Hall)

In honor of the upcoming presidential elections (and likely fiery destruction of Cleveland during the Republican National Convention; all you people who just thought the city would kind of go out of business and fall apart through entropy, aren’t you feeling silly now?), the Art Museum is showing two classic political short-feature documentaries by Robert Drew, Toledo-born landmark figure in the "direct cinema" style of documentary filmmaking.

Even though his techniques and subject matter have been as varied as the contents of a newspaper, via his company Drew Associates, he and a team of journalistically-oriented filmmakers have done nonfiction features encompassing the arts, science, politics, exploration and music. All a logical extension of Drew's early career as a photo editor at the classic Life Magazine.

PRIMARY, from 1960, was Drew’s groundbreaking scrutiny of the American political process. Drew largely dispensed with newsreel-style narration and reporter questions to follow candidates around, up close and personal, with a minimal camera setup, anticipating cinema verite. Nothing like this had been seen before in the cinematic format, and it still takes a while getting used to, but once you're involved you're hooked.

It helps to have the star power of this cast: John F. Kennedy and Hubert Humphrey, facing off in Wisconsin to be the Democratic nominee for the 1960 presidential elections. JFK has the charisma, the magazine covers and Jackie at his side (she speaks Polish to massage the ethnic vote in Milwaukee).

But listen to Humphrey's passionate, barn-burner of a speech to the dairy farmers who made up his core constituents. Who would you pick? And why don’t we have candidates of this caliber around today? It’s sad.

Drew subsequently made CRISIS (1963) within the Kennedy White House.
Robert Drew expressed interest in doing a similar look at a Washington administration functioning in the midst of an emergency. And, while Drew's cameras rolling during the Bay of Pigs and the Cuban Missile Crisis might have been extraordinary, the Kennedy White House refused his requests during high-stress foreign situations.

Finally, they gave Drew Associates the go-ahead during a charged June, 1963, domestic situation, when Alabama governor George Wallace threatened to physically block the entrance of the first two students of color accepted to the University of Alabama.

A similar confrontation had triggered riots at the University of Mississippi, and the Kennedy administration feared a repeat (although Wallace himself had filled the vicinity with troops to keep the peace). Drew placed separate camera crews with JFK, RFK, students Vivian Malone and James Hood, and, perhaps most illuminatingly, Gov. Wallace, a former boxer whose physical prowess causes some concern for the Kennedys; should he be carried away bodily, arrested, what?

In this cast (shocking to consider that the principles would all fall victim to assassins' bullets) Wallace is the major surprise, as he argues calmly and seriously for sovereign state's right and embodies the qualities of the Old South, both the good and the bad. He is served by negro domestics (many of them prisoners on work-release for good behavior) in the palatial governor's mansion, declares that segregation is good for both races, and echoes later Vietnam hawks by ascribing all the fuss to `outside agitators.'

Later James Hood himself (who transferred out of Alabama shortly thereafter) would shake University Circle liberal types to the core by saying he admired Wallace for standing up against government pressure (so much for Mr. Hood getting his own talk show on MSNBC). Wallace would sometimes invoke the lawbreaking resistance of Martin Luther King -- whom he otherwise derided as a communist -- as a precedent for his own defying the federal court order.

Though the 16mm picture and sound are fuzzy, keep in mind that this level of scrutiny of Presidential decision-making under duress had never been done before (and you have to wonder if it ever will again). And if it is, will it just all be as fake, staged and spun as one of Donald Trump’s reality-TV shows? It’s a pity.

With rioters poised to destroy Cleveland, I do hope the Art Museum has had the foresight to put into into a safe place all their paintings of dogs playing poker. I like those. (3 ¼ out of 4 stars)

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