Final frame of the life story of Direct Cinema’s father

Decades before there was reality TV, there was reality filmmaking, and they are nearly polar opposites. The style of filmmaking Robert Drew pioneered was known as Direct Cinema in its early days, though now it is interchangeably referred to as American cinéma vérité. It was the purest form of documentary storytelling — letting life play out in front of the camera, the filmmaker would then find the story, the “truth,” in the footage. Drew preferred to call it “reality filmmaking.”

One of my favorite notions in my years at TIME was that Drew and his associates (filmmakers who would go on to greatness, like Ricky Leacock, Al Maysles and D. A. Pennebaker) developed the techniques, and produced the first films in the genre, in the very same building where I worked 50 years later. Most important was the development of the shooting rig — making a portable 16mm camera that could float with the subject, and had synchronous sound. Drew — a former WWII fighter pilot who afterward learned how to make photographs and went on to become a LIFE magazine picture editor — came up with the idea as a Nieman fellow at Harvard, then hit up Time Inc founder Henry Luce for money to develop it.

Robert L. Drew  Photo: Drew Associates
Robert L. Drew
Photo: Drew Associates

“It was my idea that television journalism should be more human and spontaneous and involving,” Drew said in Peter Witonick’s film “Cinema Verite: Defining the Moment,” about the movement he spawned. After making a film in 1954 for TIME with NBC, he decided he didn’t like the staid and formulaic way of making news documentaries. “The reason my program was dull,” he said, “and the reason all documentaries were dull, mostly, is that they were lectures.”

Drew built a camera/sound unit that would allow him and one other to follow a young senator from Massachusetts as he ran for the Democratic nomination for president in 1960.  The resulting film, Primary, about JFK’s primary campaign against Hubert Humphrey, was a seminal achievement in cinema and, as Drew called it in a 1960 interview, “a whole new journalism.”

“The real life never got out of the film of television set,” Drew said about previous documentaries. This new kind of storytelling would be a “theater without actors, plays without playwrights, reporting without summary and opinion. It would be the ability to look in at times on people’s lives and see a kind of truth.”

Today we’re spoiled by the many ways we can document the truth around us. Drew’s camera was the precursor to the camcorder, and I’m sure he marveled at the more recent technologies that came along — the DSLR that shoots video, the iPhone camera, the GoPro. I know I certainly marvel at all we have now, and I am equally in awe of what Drew made from scratch 54 years ago.

Robert Drew died yesterday in Connecticut. He was 90 years old.

It’s a classical concert thing; you wouldn’t understand

Severance Hall
The Cleveland Orchestra in Severance Hall during a rehearsal with pianist Rudolph Buchbinder on March 6, 2104

Franz Welser-Möst recently told me he doesn’t understand classical music.

That’s very surprising coming from the music director of one of America’s best orchestras and one of Europe’s great opera companies. But the maestro was talking about something bigger than just comprehending notes on a page. He was talking about the indescribable beauty that can happen in the concert hall when all those strings, reeds and brass tubes vibrate together.

“There’s something so magic about it,” he explained. “I know a lot about it, but it doesn’t mean that I understand it.” Welser-Möst was responding to a question I asked him for a video story that ran in May on the I wanted him to describe what a listener gets at a live performance that he or she can’t find elsewhere. Like any good Cleveland resident, he used a sports metaphor.

Franz Welser-Möst
Franz Welser-Möst, Cleveland Orchestra Music Director (Photo: Craig Duff)

“I can go to a sports game,” he said, “which I don’t understand, but if it’s an exciting game, I will get the excitement. And it’s the same here.” (This is the place where you can insert your own joke about the lack of excitement at most “sports games” in Cleveland lately.)

It’s true of many musical genres. “Have you heard them live?” is a question often asked by music fans, many of whom collect concerts the way Midwestern grandmothers collect Hummel figures. It’s why I love to see (and used to love to perform) live theater. But the draw of the live experience is especially true for an orchestra, whose un-amplified power in a concert hall is unmatched in any other venue.

Cleveland Orchestra patrons Tamar and Milton Maltz during my interview with them in the board room at Severance Hall.
Cleveland Orchestra benefactors Tamar and Milton Maltz during my interview with them in the board room at Severance Hall.

In another interview for that story, I spoke to Milton and Tamar Maltz, who donated $20 million from their family foundation to help the orchestra develop new audiences. “I’m rather short,” said Mr. Maltz. “I’m only five-foot-seven. But after a wonderful night with the Cleveland Orchestra, I feel ten feet tall.”

I was thinking of the excitement Maestro Franz described (and the elevated height of Mr. Maltz), when two friends were visiting recently, and we went to hear the great Chicago Symphony in its final subscription concert of the season. It was the first time the married couple had heard a live performance by a major orchestra and this one packed a wallop. The program included a popular symphony by Schubert (the Fifth) and ended with music director Riccardo Muti leading the CSO in Mahler’s First Symphony in D Major.

I first heard Mahler 1 in high school, and have studied the score (as much as my amateur knowledge of music would let me), so I know it fairly well. I’ve heard live performances of it by the L.A. Philharmonic with Gustavo Dudamel, and the Berlin Philharmonic with Zubin Mehta, and I discover something new about it every time I hear it. I also adored Michael Tilson Thomas’s vivid deconstruction of the piece in one of his Keeping Score specials on PBS.

So I prepped my friends at intermission, giving them some familiar cues to listen for: the opening notes sound like the beginning of Alexander Courage’s theme to the original Star Trek, then you’ll hear a lot of cuckoos and brass bands, followed by a variation on Frère Jacques and ending with hints of Handel’s Messiah. It’s much more than that, of course, but those are fun little surprises to listen for. Continue reading “It’s a classical concert thing; you wouldn’t understand”