Lost in the Movies (formerly The Dancing Image): Primary & 4 Days in November

Sunday, October 19, 2008

Primary & 4 Days in November



To kick off the electoral leg of my series, why not start with a primary? And not just any primary, but one which was part of a turning point in American history (to call it a turning point in and of itself would overestimate the importance of primaries in the pre-'68 era, but still). And one which is also quite reminiscent of the Democratic race we saw earlier this year. Oh, and the film which commemorates it also happened to revolutionize film history too. Not bad for a 53-minute documentary about a seemingly minor contest in Wisconsin, of all places. And alongside Primary, I'll be looking at its darker twin. Four Days in November, a documentary released four years later to commemorate the Kennedy assassination, is the formal and thematic opposite of Primary, a grim bookend to the New Frontier.


But first, the good news. Primary could be said to represent the birth of modern American political coverage, with the camera following candidates (in this case, Hubert Humphrey and John F. Kennedy) everywhere they go, catching them in unguarded moments, recording their interactions with regular voters. But what's most notable from today's standpoint is how far the world of Primary seems from contemporary political coverage, even if it was (in part) the starting point. First of all, one (or, admittedly, a couple) cameras and some low-rent sound equipment is nothing compared to today's batteries of cameras, busloads of reporters, and huge rallies. Even at a quieter event, where the voters get a more personal look at the candidates, there are bound to be a dozen or more people with cell phone cameras recording away.

Furthermore, it's harder (though clearly not impossible) for candidates to be caught off-guard now: Humphrey and Kennedy may not have been playing to the camera, but with 48 years worth of water under the bridge, candidates are generally pretty aware they're being filmed all the time, and act accordingly (with, of course, the occasional lapse). But in 1960, candidates weren't quite used to this contrast and the gap between old-school portraiture and the more candid nature of cinema verite (and with it, TV) is humorously illustrated as a photographer laboriously arranges candidate Kennedy's hands on a desk. Meanwhile, the filmmakers stand off to the side and get a better glimpse at Kennedy the man than the overwrought photographer will ever attain.

Those filmmakers form a kind of all-star band of 60s documentarians: Robert Drew, Richard Leacock, Albert Maysles, and D.A. Pennebaker, among others. For those of you unfamiliar with these names, it's roughly the equivalent of discovering that John Lennon, Mick Jagger, Eric Clapton, and Keith Moon were in a group together back in 1960 (don't ask me who corresponds to whom). Truthfully, I found Primary more of a trial ground than a successful work on its own merits - largely because the sound was hard to decipher and the editing didn't quite seem to flow. Later works of verite/direct cinema were to grow stunning fruit from this seed (and the DVD contains some brilliant discussions of the technique and philosophy involved, but as I'm focusing on political content now, we'll deal with that another time...suffice it to say a focus on verite, one of my favorite cinematic movements, is overdue on this blog). Anyway, there's definitely a fascination to watching Kennedy and Humphrey, relatively unguarded, standing on the cusp of the media-saturated age we now live in.

Interestingly, Kennedy - the candidate whose onscreen charisma helped him win the election - seems less guarded, less self-aware, than Humphrey. Maybe that's why Kennedy came across so well - Humphrey is always "on," but hence he seems more the typical politician, always putting on a show and not quite to be trusted. Sound familiar? Forty-eight years ahead of time, Kennedy v. Humphrey lays out all the themes and dichotomies we were to see explored in the Democratic primaries this spring: the young golden boy vs. the hard-working Washington hand; the "elitist" vs. the average Joe ("Jo?") who connects with the working class; the outsider, due to religion or race vs. someone a bit more familiar (though clearly Hillary's gender was a departure of its own); but also the natural vs. the one who always seems like they're trying.

I'm obviously not the first to draw this connection, though others posited it as Kennedy vs. Nixon or even Mac vs. PC. Anyway, as far as Obama goes, the whole Camelot vibe was heightened when Teddy and Caroline endorsed him, and had already been in the air...well, pretty much since his convention speech. However, nobody wants to push the JFK connection too far, for obvious reasons, which brings us to our second film. Four Days in November is a very conventional, very "official" recap of Kennedy's assassination, complete with a voice-of-God narrator and even some reenactments. It was released, I would presume theatrically, in 1964 and perhaps at the time it was surreal and effective for audiences to see their recently shared experience digested in such authoritative tones. Today, it just feels like too much got in the way of the raw emotion and uncertainty of the moment, which is what most interests us now.

There are passages in the film, prior to the fatal motorcade, where narrator and editor step aside and let sequences unfold with the voices of reporters and anchors (unaware of what's to come) providing the soundtrack over handheld footage of what were still just run-of-the-mill political events. It's these passages which are the most fascinating, and eerie. Watching Kennedy give a speech, crack jokes with local officials, compliment his wife on her clothes which will soon go down in history for the blood splattered on them...all of this feels real and unsettling. What is less effective is the narrator's descriptions of Oswald's concurrent activities, accompanied by b-roll footage of the book depository and Dallas streets, devoid of the assassin or anybody else.

What's so notable about those four days in November (the assassination, the ascension of LBJ, the arrest of Oswald, the murder by Ruby, the funeral in D.C.) is the way that events unfolded in the public eye. By mixing the public record with information that we're not privy to - except by what the omniscient narrator tells us - an uncomfortable juxtaposition is created. I don't know how I feel about the single-shooter theory, but watching this movie it's easy to see how one could turn to conspiracy theories faced with the discrepancy between a) the immediacy of Kennedy's presence and the violence that destroyed him and the palpable shock which ensued and b) the sketchy, calmly conveyed, officially sanctioned, but intangible story of Oswald's seemingly implausible actions.

Anyway, the film's form, despite some graceful touches (like the presentation of the 50-gun salute in the beginning) feels wrong. Where's Cronkite rubbing his eyes? Instead we get a narrator who knows everything that's going to happen before it happens, and hence misrepresents the shock of November 22. Besides, this style of documentary already feels old-fashioned for 1964. That was the year of the Beatles, the Rolling Stones, the Freedom Summer, the Berkeley Free Speech Movement, the Gulf of Tonkin, and the emergence of Ken Kesey & the Merry Pranksters. In other words, America was already becoming unpinned, the center was not holding, and ironically, it was the cameramen who captured Kennedy at the dawn of his presidential career who would have been most suitable to record its poignant sunset - along with the intimations of a dark, uncertain night to come.

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