Required Viewing: Richard Leacock and the Essentials of Direct Cinema

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.