Required Viewing: Richard Leacock and the Essentials of Direct Cinema

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Documentary fans the world over are mourning the passing of the great Richard Leacock, who died yesterday at 89. Leacock, known as “Ricky” to his friends and colleagues, was best known as one of the founding fathers of the “direct cinema” movement. Direct cinema (often conflated with cinéma vérité, though there are subtle differences between the two forms) was the groundbreaking documentary technique that utilized handheld cameras and portable sound recording equipment to create observational, fly-on-the-wall works — films that “directly” captured their subjects, without the interference of the filmmaker.

This might sound like a no-brainer, since the direct cinema style has become our most immediate notion of what a documentary is, from the films of Leacock and his contemporaries right down to the reality shows of today. But before these groundbreakers, most documentaries were just talking-head-and-archival-footage jobs — films that explained the past, rather than capturing the present. The direct cinema directors and cameramen saw the development of lightweight 16mm Arriflex film cameras and Nagra’s mobile audio gear in the late 1950s and early 1960s as a way to shake all of that up. In the process, they created a vital new film form. In honor of Leacock, join us after the jump for a look at a few of the touchstones of the movement.

Primary/ Crisis

Primary, a behind-the-scenes look at the 1960 Wisconsin Democratic Primary battle between John F. Kennedy and Hubert Humphrey, was the breakthrough picture of the movement, as well as a collaboration between several figures who would define it together and individually: Robert Drew produced and directed, while Leacock, Albert Maysles, and D.A. Pennebaker were among the photographers. There is a low-key intimacy to Primary that is still remarkable, even after all of these years of imitation; we see (seemingly) unguarded views of the candidates glad-handing, hand-shaking, and signing autographs, and (via the hand-held camera) we follow them to photo shoots, TV shows, and public appearances (including a famous shot that seems right on Kennedy’s shoulder as he goes from the sidewalk, through a mob, and onto a rally stage). Thanks to the mobility of the crew, it feels like we are there, in those rooms and in those cars and at those rallies with Kennedy and Humphrey. How close they got to the real men, we may never know. But it feels mighty honest.

Having earned the trust of the Kennedys, Drew and his crew were given the opportunity to shoot a follow-up documentary in the Kennedy White House. Crisis: Behind a Presidential Commitment covers 30 hours in which Kennedy has to make major decisions about the degree to which he will involve himself in the civil rights movement. Drew’s access is astonishing, and as a result, Crisis is even more engrossing than Primary — the stakes are higher, the strategies are more complex, and the inter-cutting of the multiple crews at multiple locations creates a momentum and suspense in the storytelling.

HBO recently aired A President to Remember: In the Company of John F. Kennedy, which repurposed both films with new narration (by Alec Baldwin). Pennebaker revisited the campaign trail 30 years later and made the remarkable film The War Room, which tracked the Clinton campaign.

Don’t Look Back

D.A. Pennebaker was approached by Bob Dylan’s manager, Albert Grossman, in 1965 and given the intriguing opportunity to document the singer/songwriter’s upcoming U.K. tour. Pennebaker accepted, and created one of the most durable and fascinating documentaries of all time. From its iconic opening sequence — an oft-imitated, pre-music video “performance” of “Subterranean Homesick Blues” — through the endless press conferences, interviews, hotel room tedium, and (oh yeah) music performances, Don’t Look Back captures an artist on the verge of changing the world (by the time it was released in 1967, he had already long “gone electric”), and does it with admirable candor. It is not an altogether flattering portrait of Dylan, who often comes off self-important and downright cruel to those around him.

The following year, Dylan hired Pennebaker, solely as a cameraman, to document his notorious follow-up tour of England, in which he and hard-rocking backing band the Hawks (later The Band) were jeered, heckled (“Judas!”), and booed by British fans. The resultant film, Eat the Document, was edited by Dylan himself (with Howard Alk) and was slated to air as an ABC special — until the network saw it. They rejected it outright (it’s not hard to see why; Dylan did a lot of things masterfully, but filmmaking wasn’t one of them) and to this day it’s never been officially released, though bootlegs are easy to find and clips from it were used in Martin Scorsese’s invaluable Dylan doc No Direction Home.

High School

For more than 40 years, Frederick Wiseman has produced and directed lean, crisp documentary studies, many of them focusing on social institutions and organizations. His first directorial effort was the powerful, groundbreaking Titicut Follies. He followed that with High School, which peered inside Northeast High School in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. Wiseman was, to many, the ultimate direct cinema filmmaker — his camera is always impassive, and he never narrates or comments. He merely observes events, like a fly on the wall, and the results are often shattering; Pauline Kael wrote that High School “is so familiar and so extraordinarily evocative that a feeling of empathy with the students floods over us.”

Wiseman’s other films include Basic Training, Hospital, Meat, Juvenile Court, Missile, Ballet, Public Housing, State Legislature, and a 1994 sequel to High School. His most recent film, Boxing Gym, played in limited release last year.

Monterey Pop

After the critical and financial success of Don’t Look Back, Pennebaker was next hired to film the 1967 Monterey Pop festival. He brought along Maysles and Leacock, among others, as cinematographers. The results were explosive; their cameras captured breakthrough performances by Janis Joplin, Otis Redding, Jimi Hendrix (and his sensual, guitar-burning climax), and the Who, as well as documentary footage of the event coming together (including a great shot of Michelle Phillips working the phones) and of the festivalgoers. At a mere 79 minutes, it’s frustratingly short, but Monterey Pop is an essential documentary nonetheless, beautifully capturing one of the watershed moments of the Summer of Love, and of ‘60s rock culture in general. More importantly, in style and form, it paved the way for…

Woodstock

Michael Wadleigh’s Woodstock is a gloriously living, breathing film, a pulsating document of one of the most remarkable moments in all of pop culture: the Woodstock Music and Art Fair, three days in August of 1969 when 400,000 people came together as one to hang out and hear some music and celebrate life and hope for peace. Wadleigh brought a team of 16mm cameramen to shoot everything — the music, the people, the mess. It was edited, from 120 miles of raw footage (they shot most of the weekend, and sometimes had over a dozen cameras going), by a team headed up by a young Martin Scorsese and his future editor, the great Thelma Schoonmaker. The result is one of the most brilliantly edited films ever seen, cut to the rhythms of the music, with a variety of visuals and a proximity to the players that is stunning. The exhilarating split-screen editing may have become a cliché in the years to follow, but it is so effectively done here, it gobsmacks you.

But Woodstock is more than a great concert movie; it’s a documentary as time capsule. “Watching the film today,” Roger Ebert wrote in 1995, “for someone like me who also saw it on the day it was premiered, inspires meditation as well as joy, dark thoughts as well as hopeful ones…Woodstock is a beautiful, complete, moving, ultimately great film, and now that many years have come to pass and the Woodstock generation is attacked for being just as uptight as all the rest of the generations, it’s good to have this movie around to show that, just for a weekend anyway, that wasn’t altogether the case.”

Gimme Shelter

And then came the darkness. Albert Maysles, David Maysles, and Charlotte Zwerin directed this stunning picture, which was intended merely to document the end of a Rolling Stones tour and ended up capturing a murder. The Maysles, Zwerin, and their camera crew (including a young George Lucas) filmed the Stones performing at Madison Square Garden, recording at the Muscle Shoals Sound Studio, and putting together a free show at the Altamont Speedway. That show went horribly wrong, with the Hells Angels (hired as stage security) clashing with the crowd and even the performers, all parties under the influence of drugs and drink. The Grateful Dead don’t even go on because the scene has grown so ugly. The Stones do take the stage, but during their set, 18-year-old Meredith Hunter scuffles with the Angels, pulls a revolver, and is stabbed to death on camera. The events of Altamont are often pinpointed (along with the Manson murders) as the end of what we think of as “the s’60s”; the Maysles’ cameras were there, and the evidence remains shattering.

Grey Gardens

The Maysles Brothers are perhaps the best-known practitioners of the direct cinema style. They were responsible for not only Gimme Shelter but also Meet Marlon Brando, Showman, and the incomparable Salesman. But their most immortal film is Grey Gardens, the 1975 profile of two very strange women: Edith Bouvier Beale and her daughter, “Little Edie,” relatives of Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis, who became tabloid fodder in the early 1970s when it was discovered that they were living in squalor at their East Hampton summer home. The two are fascinating characters; the mere rhythms of their conversations are funny, to say nothing of their wild New England accents and charmingly scrambled manner of speech (“I’m pulverized by this latest thing!” Little Edie proclaims at one point; at another, she announces, “I only care about three things: the Catholic Church, swimming, and dancing”). Their interactions with the filmmakers, who are trying their best to remain detached, also provide humor (Little Edie all but screams to her mother, about a particular photograph, “I WANT TO SHOW IT TO AL!”) and pain (when Little Edie tells a story that Big Edie disagrees with, she proclaims to the camera, “You’re wasting that thing on this, because that’s just nuts”).

The film would become a cult sensation in the years to follow, prompting a follow-up outtakes film (2006’s The Beales of Grey Gardens), an acclaimed Broadway musical, and an HBO film of the same name, starring Drew Barrymore and Jessica Lange.

Harlan County, USA

Barbara Kopple’s 1976 documentary focused on the strike of 180 coal miners in Harlan County, Kentucky. The filmmaker embedded herself with the striking miners and their families, even putting herself in danger of harm from the energy company’s armed goons, who fired at the strikers and physically assaulted not only the workers, but Kopple and her cameraman. Kopple maintains that the goons planned to kill them, telling Roger Ebert, “they wanted to knock us out because they didn’t want a record of what was happening.” The strikers ultimately proved victorious — with some attributing their success to the presence of the crew. For her trouble, Kopple won an Oscar for Best Documentary. She returned to the topic of labor in her 1990 film American Dream.

Brother’s Keeper

Joe Berlinger and Bruce Sinofsky met at Maysles Films, where they worked in producing and editing before striking out on their own in 1991. Their first feature directorial effort was Brother’s Keeper, the shocking story of the Ward brothers — William, Delbert, Lyman and Roscoe — rural farmers in upstate New York. The film is primarily centered on William, who is found dead in what appears to be a mercy killing by Delbert, though the truth is ultimately far more complicated and unknowable. “It’s as exhilarating as watching a theatrical courtroom trial,” raved The Washington Post. “Errant disciples of the movement that produced Salesman, Don’t Look Back, and other cinéma vérité classics, Berlinger and Sinofsky leaven truth-gathering, objective-camera techniques with Hollywood values.” The duo would find an even more compelling story in the years following Brother’s Keeper when they made Paradise Lost, the riveting story of the so-called “West Memphis Three.” (That 1996 film was followed by a 2000 sequel; a third part has long been in the works).

Hoop Dreams

Producer/director Steve James and co-producers Peter Gilbert and Frederick Marx originally intended to spend three weeks shooting a 30-minute film for PBS about the kids at a basketball court. Instead, they spent eight years shooting over 250 hours of raw footage in order to craft the 170-minute story of William Gates and Arthur Agee, two promising young basketball players drafted for high school and later college teams. The result was a stirring, personal, heartbreaking, and brilliant picture, selected by Siskel and Ebert (and many others) as the best film of 1994 and by the latter as the single best film of the decade. “By keeping their cameras in close over such a long period,” Variety’s Todd McCarthy wrote, “the filmmakers have also rendered a remarkable portrait of growing up in the city today, of the fragility and resilience of the family, of the difficulty of escaping the ghettos and projects, of the negative pressures on decent people applied by society and criminality, of the perception of successful athletes as something other than normal human beings.”

Pressure Cooker

Directors Mark Becker and Jennifer Grausman’s 2009 documentary focuses on Wilma Stephenson, the tough-as-nails Culinary Arts instructor at Philadelphia’s Frankford High School. Frankford is what tends to be politely called an “inner city” school; it’s a little rough, and most of the students are black kids from lower-income families. Mrs. Stephenson doesn’t cut anyone a break, though: she speaks distastefully of the “ghetto palate,” she calls her students out (loudly) when they make mistakes, she expects them to come in before school and over spring break for extra class. She sounds like Jaime Escalante from Stand and Deliver with a whisk instead of a slide-rule. The powerful Pressure Cooker is the story of her and a group of students that she helps find their way to a real future. It doesn’t have quite the same epic scope (or length) as Hoop Dreams, but it’s cut from the same rich cloth; it is a warm and intimate picture, and its closing scenes are indescribably moving.