808 The Kennedy Films of Robert Drew & Associates

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808 The Kennedy Films of Robert Drew & Associates

#1 Post by swo17 » Fri Jan 15, 2016 6:24 pm

The Kennedy Films of Robert Drew & Associates

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Seeking to invigorate the American documentary format, which he felt was rote and uninspired, Robert Drew brought the style and vibrancy he had fostered as a Life magazine correspondent to filmmaking in the late fifties. He did this by assembling an amazing team—including such eventual nonfiction luminaries as Richard Leacock, D. A. Pennebaker, and Albert Maysles—that would transform documentary cinema. In 1960, the group was granted direct access to John F. Kennedy, filming him on the campaign trail and eventually in the Oval Office. This resulted in three films of remarkable, behind-closed-doors intimacy—Primary, Adventures on the New Frontier, and Crisis—and, following the president's assassination, the poetic short Faces of November. Collected here are all four of these titles, early exemplars of the movement known as Direct Cinema and featuring the greatest close-up footage we have of this American icon.


• New 2K digital restorations of all four films, with uncompressed monaural soundtracks on the Blu-ray:
1960 • 53 minutes • Black & White • Monaural • 1.33:1 aspect ratio
1961 • 52 minutes • Black & White • Monaural • 1.33:1 aspect ratio
1963 • 53 minutes • Black & White • Monaural • 1.33:1 aspect ratio
1964 • 12 minutes • Black & White • Monaural • 1.33:1 aspect ratio

• Alternate, twenty-six-minute cut of Primary, edited by filmmaker Richard Leacock
• Audio commentary on the Leacock edit of Primary, featuring Leacock and filmmakers Robert Drew and D. A. Pennebaker, recorded in conversation with film critic Gideon Bachmann in 1961
Robert Drew in His Own Words, a new documentary featuring archival interview footage
• New conversation between Pennebaker and Jill Drew, Robert Drew's daughter-in-law and the general manager of Drew Associates
• Outtakes from Crisis, along with a discussion by historian Andrew Cohen, author of Two Days in June
• New conversation about Crisis featuring former U.S. attorney general Eric Holder and Sharon Malone, Holder's wife and the sister of Vivian Malone, one of the students featured in Crisis
• New interview with Richard Reeves, author of President Kennedy: Profile of Power
• Footage from a 1998 event at the Museum of Tolerance in Los Angeles, featuring Drew, Pennebaker, Leacock, and filmmaker Albert Maysles
• PLUS: An essay by documentary film curator and writer Thomas Powers

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Re: 808 The Kennedy Films of Robert Drew & Associates

#2 Post by Oedipax » Fri Jan 15, 2016 6:38 pm

Finally, no more of those ghastly watermarks from the DVD releases.

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Re: 808 The Kennedy Films of Robert Drew & Associates

#3 Post by jsteffe » Fri Jan 15, 2016 7:08 pm

Oedipax wrote:Finally, no more of those ghastly watermarks from the DVD releases.
I'm hardly the first person here to say this, but watermarks just punish the people who buy their DVDs honestly.

In any case, I'm really looking forward to this new set! It will be essential for anyone studying documentary film.

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Re: 808 The Kennedy Films of Robert Drew & Associates

#4 Post by fdm » Fri Jan 15, 2016 7:29 pm

Almost got the dvd set after watching some of these via TCM last Nov/Dec, probably when the set was on the verge of going out of print, or maybe it already had. Somewhere between why did they go out of print and the meh quality of what was broadcast and no idea whether the dvds would be much better led me to hold off. So glad the rumors were true.

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Re: 808 The Kennedy Films of Robert Drew & Associates

#5 Post by domino harvey » Fri Jan 15, 2016 7:31 pm

I've only seen Primary but it's a classic and I'm looking forward to the other films in the set. Nice work, Criterion!

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Re: 808 The Kennedy Films of Robert Drew & Associates

#6 Post by Minkin » Fri Jan 15, 2016 7:44 pm

Primary is fantastic. Here's my previous, very brief comments:
Primary was a rather great film / hilarious (watched it with someone from Wisconsin). Be prepared to hear the awful "High Hopes" campaign song, and lots of awkward Hubert Humphrey moments (especially with him trying to play down the inherent rivalry between Minnesota and Wisconsin). Plus you get to learn just how the candidates love / think farmers are so important to America.
Im very glad Drew & Co selected the Wisconsin primary, as it represents such a contrast to what we remember Kennedy - rural and farm concerns. Its already obvious while watching it that Kennedy is the clear frontrunner and almost seems like The Beatles when he shows up to the venues - but all that momentum seems to come crashing down as he has the penchant to lead everyone into another rousing chorus of High Hopes -which you get to hear numerous times. Humphrey, being from Minnesota tries to play up his farm connections (despite being a pharmacist by trade) - and woo the (small) crowds with awkward humor and grandfatherly advice. Everyone looks like they showed up to the Humphrey townhall by mistake, expecting Kennedy to be there as well. My greatest take from the film was how all this local wooing immediately gets forgotten once they leave the state (as though Kennedy would remember some farmer's irrigation project, as he's handling the Cuban Missile Crisis). Although I suppose not much of any of this has changed since then.

Its a brilliant film, I can't wait to dive into the rest of the set.

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Re: 808 The Kennedy Films of Robert Drew & Associates

#7 Post by Minkin » Fri Jan 15, 2016 8:03 pm

Wait, what?
New conversation about Crisis featuring former U.S. attorney general Eric Holder and Sharon Malone, Holder's wife and the sister of Vivian Malone, one of the students featured in Crisis

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Re: 808 The Kennedy Films of Robert Drew & Associates

#8 Post by Ribs » Fri Jan 15, 2016 8:21 pm

Er, yeah, wow, that's a pretty big coup.

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Re: 808 The Kennedy Films of Robert Drew & Associates

#9 Post by Numero Trois » Sat Jan 16, 2016 5:47 am

I think The Faces of November which covers the JFK funeral is about as haunting a short as one could come across. I felt chilled by it even though I was born a decade after the events and have no emotional stake (or interest) in his mythology. The mourning one feels is just palpable. You'd be hard pressed to find a doc of similar length with such an impact.

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Re: 808 The Kennedy Films of Robert Drew & Associates

#10 Post by knives » Sat Jan 16, 2016 2:06 pm

This definitely seems like one of the best thought out releases we'll come by this year. Not only is getting these films together, and finally in good editions, but the extras also seem so thoroughly considered. Crit are really knocking it out of the park this year.

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Re: 808 The Kennedy Films of Robert Drew & Associates

#11 Post by Adam » Sat Feb 13, 2016 9:50 pm

We just screened Faces of November last November 22 at Filmforum, having gotten it from Janus, with materials they had just received. So I learned that they would be doing something, but couldn't say anything. I'm amazed it has come together so quickly. Faces of November is quite beautiful. This will be a fantastic set.

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Re: 808 The Kennedy Films of Robert Drew & Associates

#12 Post by chucktatum » Tue Mar 29, 2016 2:52 pm

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Re: 808 The Kennedy Films of Robert Drew & Associates

#13 Post by hearthesilence » Tue Mar 29, 2016 3:25 pm

Pretty stunning to think that a documentary filmmaker could once get this type of access. Probably has to do with the novelty and the physically cumbersome process of mobile filming as well instead of being the instantly accessible process it's become (shoot on a phone, upload to YouTube).

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Re: 808 The Kennedy Films of Robert Drew & Associates

#14 Post by movielocke » Mon Jul 11, 2016 4:07 am

This is an incredible set and I haven't even delved into the extras, other than the commentary.

The commentary itself is a repurposed interview from the era, and it is rather brilliant and combative, involving the three major players. I listened to it while playing a game on my phone, mostly, as it isn't scene specific, but there are a ton of great insights into their different approaches, Drew thinks what they're portraying is reality, Pennebaker thinks there's a nuance to that, in a sense, anything they decide to film becomes a little more unreal because of that decision to film the moment. the epic shot following Kennedy through the crowd, onto the stage is used as an example. Pennebaker says they WANTED a shot like that, and made sure they had the opportunity to get that shot; Drew says the event would have occurred as it happened even if they weren't filming so it is totally real. It's quite the fierce debate there and extremely apt to the film itself so it works rather brilliantly as a commentary.

Primary itself is instantly recognizable as a classic of the early form of documentary, sort of like watching Casablanca for the first time, you sit there going, 'yup, this is definitely what one calls a classic, no way around it, wow,' but for all that vitality the film has, it doesn't quite punch, it's just a little bit too low key.

Crisis is the gobsmacking masterpiece of the set. About Robert Kennedy, rather than JFK, it shows him intricately developing and then implementing a plan of action to circumvent George Wallace without making him a martyr, without the federal government losing face and while forestalling a potential riot if things go pear shaped and escalate out of control. The nimble knife's edge he walks to accomplish this, including persuading an extremely skeptical JFK that he can pull off this impossible feat is just stunning to watch.

Adventures on the New Frontier is wholesome, bleh television, all the life has been sucked out of this. There is some amazing editing going on, they 'walk behind' a lot of different people, such as walking behind JFK down a hall of the whitehouse, then they CUT to a 'walk behind' shot with basically the same framing/lens/blocking on a different subject. My favorite was cutting from JFK to a peasant in Africa, thematically potent, and a little bit amusing too. The other bit of note in this film is the shots of West Virginia. And people say the War on Poverty was not a success, this sort of thing is one of the major pieces of america poverty wiped out since that initiative, and largely, this is what politicians of the era were often talking about, we only remember it today as an urban initiative, but it was anything but.

looking forward to delving into the extras. So far it's the set of the year.

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Re: 808 The Kennedy Films of Robert Drew & Associates

#15 Post by teddyleevin » Wed Nov 08, 2017 12:13 am

I was really struck by certain elements of Adventures on the New Frontier, (despite generally agreeing with movielocke that it is "wholesome, bleh television") and wrote the following on Letterboxd.

"The party is winding down. There is sobering work to be done by the intellectuals of the new administration. Professor Galbraith draws historian Arthur Schlesinger, Jr. into serious conversation about the problems their president will face on the new frontier after the ball is over."

What is "the new frontier?" The film makes no effort to contextualize the expression, knowing full well that the audience of 1961 was intimately familiar with Kennedy's slogans of 1960. But it's hard to watch this film without considering the intervening years, particularly 1963, particularly 1967, '68, '69. It may not be readily apparent based on what we see on camera why 1961 should feel like the advent of "the new frontier," besides the fact that the campaigning politician told us so and the spirit and title of the firm affirm it. Even the camera's secondary subjects aren't sure: elite, but generally intelligent men (women figure all-too-briefly in these environs and never during political cigar-talk) unaware of how severe the "opportunities and perils" of this "new frontier" might actually be.

There is nothing about this microcosm of maxipower (consisting of economists, whips, congressmen, advisors, and diplomats; the roster of hangers-on is surprisingly functional by 2017 "standards") that reads "the sixties." The most fascinating (and archaic) scenes surround the inauguration. After the film pads some time with re-runs of the earlier Kennedy film, Primary, we head to the snowy inauguration morn: a bizarre hearse-mobile with a fully-glass rear-quarter ("bullet-proof?" this 21st-century citizen wonders) brings in JFK accompanied by outgoing President Eisenhower (mentioned, but neither seen nor heard). The film shows smatterings of Kennedy's speech but only recalls "Ask not what your country can do for you..." in narration - these words, like "new frontier," clearly already a part of American Legend in the few months following their utterance (the film saves the actual clip of Kennedy saying these words for its finale).

More pressing for the picture are smatterings of conversation surrounding the event including a post-speech conversation where John Steinbeck (who, though he outlived JFK, always seems to my generation as someone who would never overlap with "the sixties") bandies with John Kenneth Galbraith and their wives, dissecting and musing upon Kennedy's speech down to the minutest and most fastidious details of grammar and economy. To call their badinage dry would be the understatement of the decade. This is rhetorical analysis of an order that we mistily remember; so startling was their recall, one may feel shocked that they remember exact quotes from the speech after only hearing it once. As in Primary, this is an old frontier in which political and legal oratory was valued and evaluated in an older fashion (i.e. by an legendary and oppressively intelligent wordsmith in the twilight of his life musing in the back of a luxury vehicle).

This leaning on "the old frontier," so to speak, is firmly apparent in the following sequence which paints a hazy view of the inaugural ball. We don't get a glimpse of Kennedy (the film even attempts humor, or at least some authorial presence, when it presents Galbraith's point-of-view at the party's main event: hundreds of yards from the blurry patch that is, allegedly, where Jack is), but we do see the new whipped whip and lovably hapless primary also-ran (despite eventually being Vice President of the US, but no one could see the future from 1961) Hubert Humphrey walking through the crowd, "Good to see you"-ing people left and right, as if carrying on the vestigial congeniality of his heart-to-heart walk-throughs in Wisconsinite middle-America (or, perhaps, he can't act any other way).

The telling truth of how blithely unaware this sector of the upper crust is of the new tumult approaching the nation comes at the party's close. We hear a swing band, having previously played 19th-century bangers "The Yellow Rose of Texas" and "Hail to the Chief," now playing, for the benefit of the tipsy dregs, a swing rendition of "I Could Have Danced All Night," sounding so unbelievably like a tune of the '20s that you would never guess that the song debuted just 5 years earlier. Here we have an era where the inherent quality of a "legend" (be it a speech, a song) is completely apparent out the gate and, being such, is encased in amber directly to prevent it from aging or, in this case, to cause it to age backwards into an earlier decade, canonizing it as a standard after its time. To this bubbly refrain, we see a woozy geezer and a young blonde woman wearing his top hat, he dancing awkwardly whilst holding her (at arms length) with the pull of his scarf around her waist, neither of them seeming remotely aware of the country, to say nothing of the camera. The nearly-emptied crowd betrays a sight of all sorts of top-hatted old men, surely the last generation to dress like this in earnest (or at least out of pomp and ritual): the generation that saw three-and-change terms of FDR, followed by practically two of Truman and two of Eisenhower (and a host of other old men that followed in the decades since the only president to start his term younger than JFK: Teddy Roosevelt). The generation that, perhaps overreacting, would see the sight of a fresh-faced president as a sign of a new day dawning for someone. For right or wrong? (I'm sure Nixon had an interesting opinion on this, assuming he hadn't yet re-evaluated the benefit of wearing makeup under television lights).

As these old men slowly make their way in circles on the emptying dance floor (I'm convinced this ball is still going on, and old guard purgatory in the depths of D.C.), we hear the narration quoted above as Galbraith calls over Schlesinger, a nebbish-out-of-his-social-element stereotype if ever there was one, for a private conference. Of course, the narration is probable circumspection: over-zealous filmmakers adding sizzling, if forced, context onto silent B-roll of a party scene. I'm not convinced anyone would ask that question (i.e., the one proposed in the narration) with the phrase "new frontier" in quotes unless they were being deliberately derisive.

But the proof of some new age, or the expectation thereof, is in the pudding. Look around their periphery: the ball was ending. The ball is over. What are they to do besides drunkenly grab the nearest historian they can find and ask, "Is this like anything we've seen before? Is there any frame of reference on what to do?" Earlier, Steinbeck is asked how long he will support Kennedy. The author deadpans, "24 hours.... I automatically become opposition within 24 hours." Why change? Keep the cycle going, checks in balance and balances in check.

The rest of the film offers a less profound, less revealing glimpse than one would hope. Paltry, dry discussions in the White House and side-trips to Africa and West Virginia, exploring the results of Kennedy initiatives offer a evocative but shallow look behind the curtain, lacking the substance and context to be as indelibly insightful as the inauguration material.

More powerful, however, are the shots of the calm before the storm, namely for this family - so soon to face seemingly endless heartbreak - this accessible and likable family that was doomed to fulfill their American Legend on the tragic side of Greek theater. To see Bobby Kennedy, clever and vibrant in front of a campaign crowd, can only conjure thoughts of a kitchen floor in The Ambassador Hotel. To see Jackie, smiling while entertaining a crowd of Polish-speakers with a few words in their native language, can only bring to mind the thought of a wife clinging to the back of a limousine in Dallas. Maybe this really could have been a "new frontier" after all, at least in America, but after November 22, 1963, the integrity of this promise was to remain unexplored territory. Global destiny was hurtling toward different frontiers, very few of them earning the glib title of "adventures."

Life wasn't easy. It never was, it isn't now, and it probably never will be. A single president cannot change the face of humanity, society, or their country (despite campaign slogans) no more than they can change the complete make-up of the other branches of the US government that stand in their way. The future is stronger than they. New frontiers barrel towards us, decimating "personalities" with each acre; we cannot fathom how they will operate until we reach the wise vantage of hindsight. New frontiers are too large to see and understand in real time, unless we view them from the hundreds of thousands of miles in the sky.

Well, maybe that guy was on to something when he said, "We choose to go to the Moon."

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Re: 808 The Kennedy Films of Robert Drew & Associates

#16 Post by filmyfan » Sat Apr 10, 2021 5:32 pm

This is a fantastic set.

Watched all 3 films and extras over the last few days.

I had seen Primary before but Crisis is the pick of the bunch - really excellent and superb extras.

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