The Boston Phoenix
Review from issue: January 6 - 13, 2000

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US 1

The independence of Robert Kramer

by Chris Fujiwara

"MAN WITH A MOVIE CAMERA: ROBERT KRAMER," At the Harvard Film Archive January 7 through 18.

Robert Kramer Robert Kramer, one of the most important American independent filmmakers, died in November at age 60, leaving a body of work that is legendary, among those who have been privileged to follow it, for its originality and lucidity. In showing some of this work over the next two weeks, the Harvard Film Archive is offering an opportunity that's generally denied Americans, for whereas Kramer's films are known and prized in Europe, where he lived since the early '80s, they're all but invisible here. This is as true of the politically radical fiction Ice (1969; January 10 at 7 p.m.), which made his reputation, as of his later films -- challenging meditations on place and presence that cross and recross the line between fiction and documentary.

In the brooding, irresistible epic Route One/USA (1989; January 8 at 7 p.m. and January 13 at 7 p.m.), Kramer and fellow expatriate Doc (Paul McIsaac) join in a trek from the beginning of Route 1 in Maine to its end in Florida. The journey is a doomed search for identity and wholeness. Doc enters, fleetingly, a succession of private worlds, each of which reveals itself to the camera, sometimes in a canned, practiced way suggesting that cameras have been here before (a self-aggrandizing community leader in Bridgeport, Connecticut; a barker in front of the Tragedy in U.S. History Museum in St. Augustine, Florida), sometimes in a capsule of time that is hard, unfamiliar, and complete (an aged Indian woman in Maine going back over her life).

"Everything's different and nothing has changed," Doc observes near the beginning of the journey, after observing a spectral anti-abortion picket line in New Hampshire. "The same civil wars are still being fought." Route One/USA has a great density of themes. Running throughout is the idea of rebellion: rebellion of the colonists against Britain, of the South against the North, of child against parent. Constantly, the themes of parents and children, of history, legacies, memory, are linked to the cinema and to photography. The title of the army-recruitment promo tape that an officer proudly displays for Kramer's camera is "Dear Dad." Earlier, two teenage newlyweds are asked: "What were you thinking of when the photographer was taking your picture?" The groom answers, "I was thinking of our kids in the future, how I would show them what their mom was like, to give them pride."

The film's complexity of viewpoint, rhythm, and pace matches the complexity of its personal and social narratives. The figure of Doc -- a skeptical observer prowling nervously around the periphery of scenes -- casts melancholy and doubt over the film but never dominates it entirely. Kramer washes us in things, conversations, information; he gives us events staged, reflected on, and isolated in time as if they were part of a dramatic narrative film: the bride and groom rehearsing their wedding vows, or Doc's abrupt decision, in a barber's chair, to abandon the journey -- a decision that results in a radical freeing of the film's style and mood. Much of the last stage of the film is a lyric poem about the Miami waterfront: bird cries and sounds of creaking and humming form a concrete symphony. The gliding images make explicit the longing for distance, for transcendence, that one feels throughout Kramer's film.

The magnificent Point de départ/Starting Place (1993; January 9 at 6 p.m. and January 11 at 7 p.m.) is one of those rare films that add distinctly to our knowledge of the world and that enhance our perceptions of things, sounds, and relationships. This personal documentary about Vietnam, which is also a meditation on the contact between two cultures, takes its title, perhaps, from another film, another encounter. In 1969 Kramer went to North Vietnam to make a film, People's War. The urgency of the need to oppose the Vietnam War was a "starting place" for many Americans, including Kramer's friend Linda Evans, whom we meet in an extremely painful sequence in Starting Place.

Returning to Vietnam, Kramer finds that the survivors of the country's political struggles are now occupied with personal struggles, above all with the struggle to preserve history, memory, and meaning. Why are Kramer's shots and his cuts so satisfying and so mysterious? The beauty of this film derives partly from his ability to convey love for his camera's subjects, from his attentiveness and responsiveness to their looks. One of the wonders of Starting Place is its extraordinarily sensual soundtrack. I've seen three Kramer films, and I have no doubt that he was a real filmmaker, one of the only ones.

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