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Ten Masterworks in Reality Filmmaking by Robert Drew

Highly Recommended

Distributed by Distributed by Drew Associates, P.O. Box 1702, Sharon, CT 06069
Produced by
Directed by Various Directors
DVD , color, 88 min.

Sr. High - General Adult
Japan, Popular Culture, Music Trade, Singers

Date Entered: 06/04/2013

ALA Notable:
Reviewed by: Reviewed by Oksana Dykyj, Head, Visual Media Resources, Concordia University, Montreal

Ten Masterworks in Reality Filmmaking by Robert Drew is a 10-disc DVD collection consisting of Primary (1960), the first film documentary in which a sync-sound camera moved with the people it was capturing during events they were living, and 9 subsequent films, which will now surely take their place in the canon of non-fiction filmmaking. Robert Drew, as producer and director, worked with cameramen/filmmakers and editors who went on to also greatly contribute to what was becoming known as American Cinema Vérité. They included Richard (Ricky) Leacock (Lulu in Berlin), Al Maysles (Grey Gardens), D.A. Pennebaker (Don’t Look Back), Joyce Chopra (Smooth Talk) and others. The accompanying 47-page booklet provides Drew’s insight into the films in the collection as well as his philosophy of filmmaking. It is also available in pdf format.

This archival collection is exceptional in many ways. It brings to light films that had essentially lingered in obscurity, allowing scholars an access that has not been available for many years. These are indeed exceedingly important films, as most of them broke new ground in terms of motion picture technology, or approach in revealing the subject matter, or even in the subject matter itself. Topics like heroin addiction were not common in the television broadcast world of the 1960s and Broadway actors were not laid bare for scrutiny. Robert Drew and Associates changed the face of documentary and influenced much of non-fiction and reality television today. The films’ credits reveal early works in the careers of influential filmmakers. Many of the credits remain completely undocumented and uncredited on internet filmographic sites today but with the distribution of this collection perhaps the omissions will now be rectified.

Primary (1960, 53 minutes) is the best-known Drew work and is the only one of the set that has been previously available on DVD. It was the first Drew film on the life of John F. Kennedy, the first of his more than 60 documentary films, and an icon of Cinema Vérité. The film even influenced Jean-Luc Godard’s Breathless (1960), won numerous awards but was broadcast after the election, on November 20th on the Bell & Howell Close-Up program. The booklet outlines the difficulties in getting to work with the Kennedy people and all the technological issues that arose in this ground-breaking film. The film crew “lived” with John F. Kennedy, day and night, for nearly a week during the climax of his 1960 Wisconsin presidential primary run against Hubert Humphrey. Their novel approach turned out to be a cinematic experience unique in the history of film and a template for the other films Drew would later shoot in the Kennedy White House.

A President to Remember: In the Company of John F. Kennedy (2008, 75 minutes) is narrated by Alec Baldwin and is comprised segments from Primary, Adventures on the New Frontier, Crisis: Behind a Presidential Commitment, and Faces of November as well as other archival footage from the period. Kennedy is followed from the time of his campaign, through the early days at the White House, making hard decisions in the Oval Office, and ending with the sorrow following the assassination. HBO broadcast the film in 2011. Who can forget Jackie Kennedy nervously fidgeting with her gloved fingers behind her back, or carefully tucking her skirt under herself after sitting down? She was the first First Lady to understand the power of the camera and the need to learn how to behave in front of it. The re-editing of all the original footage affords a new way of looking at the events of the Kennedy presidency and Drew’s decisions make for an incredibly powerful and moving film even though we are by now completely familiar with the imagery. The fact that this film is so powerful almost 50 years after the assassination is the mark of the influence Drew’s images have had over time.

On the Pole: Eddie Sachs (1961, 61 minutes) is a portrait of Indy driver Eddie Sachs before, during, and after the 1960 and 1961 Indianapolis 500 races. It is comprised of two segments that would have been broadcast separately, one, On the Pole (1960 B&W) was broadcast on CBS and Eddie (aka Drive) (1961 Color) was on the syndicated series The Living Camera also on CBS. The film sets the bar for what would later become sports profiles and as such, the recent documentary on Formula I racer Aerton Senna, Senna (2010) that owes a great deal to this film. Sachs wins the pole position (first in the start-up line) for both races. We follow him as he talks about his motivation, his challenges and watch his interactions with his crew and his wife. We become aware of the limitations of automotive and racing technology during this period and the dangers they presented. We also become aware of the advancement in filming technologies even in the one year between both races with Drew’s decision to shoot in color in 1961. Beyond the grit, the suspense and the heartbreak is a facet of humanity and determination that are rarely captured on film and are timeless.

Mooney vs. Fowle (1961, 63 minutes) was originally broadcast as part of the Living Camera syndicated series on November 25th, 1964 WOR-TV Channel 9. High school football’s importance is highlighted in this film about two rival coaches whose Florida teams play against each other. The two coaches have different personalities and approaches to coaching, one of the teams is the sure bet and the other the underdog and we watch as they prepare for their ultimate showdown at the Orange Bowl attended by 40,000 spectators. The editing is intensely effective at conveying the journey to the final victory and defeat. The cinematographers of activities include D.A. Pennebaker, Richard Leacock and Claude Fournier.

The Chair (1962, 78 minutes) was originally broadcast as part of the Living Camera syndicated series on October 7th, 1964 WOR-TV Channel 9. The film was a winner of the Jury Prize at Cannes and has been preserved by the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences Film Archive. The film begins at Chicago’s Cook County Jail five days prior to the planned execution of Paul Crump. All legal avenues had been exhausted and lawyers Louis Nizer and Donald Moore plan to make a last-ditch argument to prevent the execution by arguing a new kind of case for the commutation of the death sentence. As such, it is unprecedented in American law. The filmmakers work the suspense very effectively, particularly in their decision to silence the sound when the warden gets the phone call from the Illinois Governor. His face reveals nothing and we must wait until he addresses the press to hear the news. This technique serves as a model for so many contemporary television and film documentaries. Among the crew, D.A. Pennebaker appears as filmmaker, Richard Leacock as both filmmaker and editor and Joyce Chopra co-edits with Leacock.

Jane (1962, 69 minutes) was originally broadcast on October 21, 1964 as part of the Living Camera series on WOR-TV Channel 9. It depicts a time in Jane Fonda’s life that she probably would like to have forgotten. The film revolves around the Broadway opening of the play, The Fun Couple directed by her then-lover Andreas Voutsinas. We are taken behind the scenes and what we see of the Fonda/Voutsinas dynamic reveals a somewhat unhealthy personal/professional relationship. Voutsinas perhaps sees himself as a kind-hearted Svengali, but comes across as an ego-maniacal pimp. Fonda is 24 and vulnerable yet ultimately resilient. She is beautiful, overly thin but determined to not let anyone down, including the filmmakers. Her stress is visible but her maturity does not allow her to fall apart. She accepts Voutisnas’ gifts whole-heartedly yet matter-of-factly, as if knowing presciently that he is a mere stepping stone in her career. Lee Strasberg makes a brief appearance right before the opening and delivers the line, “I don’t think I’ve ever seen so much material looking for a play.” The play has an out-of-town try-out and we watch the rehearsal process. Dyan Cannon and Bradford Dillman are Fonda’s cast members and their camaraderie stands as sheer optimism against the tide of awful material and bad direction. Then, after misguided re-writes, the play goes to New York where it has one preview on October 25th 1962 at the Lyceum Theatre, opening the next night, and closing on the following night following horrific reviews. The audience anticipates the reviews after watching the theatre-goers exiting the play: They look tired, bored and annoyed. Walter Kerr’s review from the Herald Tribune is read out loud by an exhausted Fonda back at the Fonda/Voutsinas apartment following the traditional post-opening night foray to Sardi’s. It is not unexpected. Kerr later expresses on camera what he wrote in the review, that no matter what the circumstances, actors are trained not to die of embarrassment on stage. He calls the play one of the five worst plays of all time. The actors pull it together for the closing night and Jane and Andreas walk into the rainy night. The filmmakers include D.A. Pennebaker, Hope Ryden (who also produced) and Richard Leacock.

Blackie (1962, 53 minutes) was originally broadcast as part of the Living Camera syndicated series on October 28th, 1964 WOR-TV Channel 9. The film is a perfect blueprint for the much later original format of CBS’s 48 Hours in 1988. It takes place over 2 days in the life of Harold “Blackie” Blackburn as he pilots the final flight of his career from Rome to New York on his 60th birthday. It weaves in segments of his life and establishes the unexpressed sadness of having to stop doing the job he loves because of his age. D.A. Pennebaker and Bill Ray are the filmmakers while Joyce Chopra co-edits.

Susan Starr (1962, 53 minutes) was also part of the Living Camera series and was originally broadcast on December 23, 1964 on WOR-TV Channel 9. The film begins on the night of the first Dimitri Mitroupoulos piano competition at the Metropolitan Opera House in New York where Susan Starr is to compete against the other finalists for the $5000 prize announced by Arthur Rubenstein in December 1961. Her back-story is then presented followed by the climax and aftermath. This format serves the subject matter exceedingly well. Susan Schwartz became professionally known as Starr at the age of 7. Her father was a violinist with the Philiadelphia Orchestra and her mother is shown in the role of manager/stage mother. There is also footage of two other finalists, Marta Pariente and Agustin Anievas, who like Susan, went on to very good careers in music after the competition. The film manages to focus on the relationship between Susan and her mother and highlight Susan’s decision to rebel when the opportunity arises. It comes under the guise of Kenneth Amada, a pianist eliminated in an earlier competition the previous day. He is invited to lunch, unsure how to pronounce Susan’s name. We can see that Susan is anxious to spend time with him and that she appears to be smitten. The camera captures her face as she is clearly falling in love. However, they have lunch with her mother and then her mother invites herself to come along on their first date, as if the film crew were not enough! Less than two months after the competition, we watch the couple get married on February 14th, 1962 when Susan was 19 and Amada was 30. Public records are very easy to consult and the fact that the marriage was short-lived is not surprising, but at the time marriage was the only way to escape the clutches of stage parents. It is fascinating to observe how this precursor to reality television manages to convey the emotions of Susan and her rivals in the competition when few individuals understood the great power of documentary. Charlotte Zwerin, a frequent collaborator on Maysles Brothers projects, is an editor on this film, Richard Leacock shot the competition activities while D.A. Pennebaker shot Susan Starr. It is important to note that these credits, as is the case for most of the films in this box set, do not appear in the Internet Movie Database, or many other filmographies.

Storm Signal (1966, 53 minutes). According to a September 2, 1966 Life magazine article by David Martin, Storm Signal was to be nationally telecast over 100 different local channels, including New York’s WPIX, between September 6th and 9th, 1966 under the sponsorship of Xerox. The idea grew out of a two-part Life article on drug addiction in 1965. Xerox was interested in funding documentaries on controversial topics and sponsored it, but the major networks rejected the film, even though it won First Prize at the Venice Film Festival. The producer-narrator-cinematographer James Lipscomb lived with Helen and Jim and their son Jimmy for several months as they accepted him into their lives and he documented their descent into heroin addiction. At the start of the film we see a happy, attractive, middle-class family on an outing. Helen, a beautiful young woman with a penchant for extremely elaborate hairstyles is 21 and married for 4 years to Jim, who’s 33. They have a toddler and live in an apartment in the Bronx. Jim is supporting an increasingly expensive heroin habit and Helen has recently joined him as an addict. They are articulate and charming but their $30 a day habits are more than Jim’s shady dealings and Helen’s welfare check can maintain. The impact of both Jim and Helen’s addiction spirals out of control when Jim is jailed and Helen must decide on whether she should try shoplifting or prostitution to support her habit and child. The close-ups of her nodding off after injecting heroin are as gripping as any contemporary shots of junkies. Helen voluntarily checks into a detox unit at Manhattan Hospital, which has 350 beds for addicts. She emerges a few weeks later, clean and hopeful. This film put a face of normalcy on addiction and thus promoted compassion for an affliction that had previously been dismissed or condemned.

Man Who Dances (1968, 54 minutes) was broadcast on NBC’s Bell Telephone Hour March 8, 1968. The film’s main focus is Edward Villella, then a principal dancer at the New York City Ballet, whose November 19th, 1967 collapse during a matinee caused him to evaluate whether to dance the evening performance of Balanchine’s Rubies. Villella is comfortable on screen talking about his work process and is very eloquent about the complexity of what he does. He did not begin dancing as a small child, instead combining it later with other things: he was a welterweight champion and had a baseball scholarship to university. When we are shown a talk he gives at his old high school we are also shown how the originally cynical cool kids are won over by a man who dances ballet. The issue is his overly booked schedule. He is a dancer in demand who often takes over for other dancers in addition to his own performances. This, on top of daily 90-minute classes, and followed by rehearsals, then by sometimes two performances a day, have caused him to overwork his muscles and injure himself. His rehearsal for Gluckiana, directed off-screen by George Balanchine, is followed by a performance deemed “near-perfect” by a dance critic. He decides to dance the evening performance of Rubies and the camera captures both his performance and his almost debilitating and excruciating pain off-stage between dances. His hard work and dedication to his craft are pitted against the pain it engenders.

Every film in this box-set is highly recommended, either as a significant documentary about topics in the arts (theatre, music, dance), or as archives of political events, amateur or professional sports (racing, football coaching), the legal system, social issues, or aviation careers. As a collection of American Cinema Vérité, it is an essential asset to both academic and public libraries to be discovered or rediscovered and appreciated for paving the road and fueling the passion for non-fiction film. The importance of these works to the history of media, film and television histories cannot be overstated.