‘Robert Kramer — who, according to Vincent Canby of the New York Times, “seems incapable of shooting a scene, framing a shot or catching a line of dialogue that isn’t loaded with levels of information one usually finds only in the best, most spare poetry” — died unexpectedly in France this past November at the age of sixty.
‘He left a singular body of work—as far from Hollywood as it was from underground or experimental films—that eventually, he felt, would “make up one long film . . . one ‘story’ in a continual process of becoming.” A committed leftist who emerged radicalized from his studies in philosophy and Western European history at Swarthmore and Stanford, he worked as a reporter in Latin America and organized a community project in a black neighborhood in Newark, New Jersey, before founding the Newsreel movement, an underground media collective which made some sixty documentaries and short films about radical political subjects and the antiwar movement between 1967 and 1971. Kramer made his mark in the 1960s as the great filmmaker of the American radical left with films like The Edge and Ice.
‘Embraced by the European intelligentsia, he eventually moved to Paris in the early 1980s, where he continued to produce fictionalized and documentary films on a range of subjects from Portugal’s April Revolution and post-independence Angola to the Tour de France—all the while maintaining his “uninterrupted dialogue with America.” Our series offers the opportunity to sample a range of Kramer’s rarely screened work and to pay tribute to this unique cinematic personality.’ — Harvard Film Archive
‘Born in New York, the son of a doctor, Kramer studied philosophy and western European history at Swarthmore College and Stanford University. After working on a community project among blacks in Newark, New Jersey, in 1965, he helped found the Newsreel Movement, which made some 60 documentaries and short films on political subjects between 1967 and 1971 when the anti-Vietnam war movement was growing.
‘During the same period, Kramer continued his critique of society with features that trod the boundary between fiction and documentary, shooting in 16mm with non-professional actors. In The Country (1967) focused on one man’s doubts about his fight against the US political system, and The Edge (1968) dealt with an assassination attempt on a war-mongering president.
‘Because of their length, subject matter and uncompromising cinema verité style, Kramer’s films were admired more than liked, and were not easy to release. Nevertheless, two highly personal films on being an exile were released in the US: Doc’s Kingdom (1987), a sombre reflection on a burnt-out American radical living in Portugal, who dreams of returning home, and Route One USA (1989), a road movie about a leftwing exile’s return to his native land.
‘Back in France, Kramer lectured on cinema and made films. Walk The Walk (1996) was a meditation on the state of Europe as seen through the eyes of a family man, who abandons everything to travel to Russia and onwards.
‘Kramer believed in working with the smallest crews possible. “I had a couple of experiences with full professional crews of 60-75 people, which I found extremely painful and uninteresting. It puts me in the position of military commander. There’s not much need for all those people. Even with really complicated things… For Walk The Walk, it was five people – camera (me); a sound person, a sound assistant; a camera assistant for me; and someone who does the lighting.”
‘Last year, the good-looking and affable Kramer appeared as an American in Paris in Cedric Kahn’s Ennui, and was planning further films, still sticking to his idealistic and minimalist principles.’ — The Guardian
Robert Kramer Website
Robert Kramer @ IMDb
Robert Kramer, a Director Of Films With a Political Edge
The Lived Cinema of Robert Kramer: Politics and Subjectivity
Robert Kramer and the Jewish-German Question
Robert Kramer @ Filmmakers Cooperative
Melissa Anderson on Robert Kramer’s Milestones
INTERVIEW WITH ROBERT KRAMER
Robert Kramer’s Reports from the Road
Figures of Dissent: Robert Kramer
Hommage à Robert Kramer
ROBERT KRAMER, POINT DE DÉPART / STARTING PLACE
Aller, revenir, tisser un abri : Route One/USA, de Robert Kramer
Robert Kramer @ film-documentaire.fr
Repérage sur un film à faire avec Robert Kramer
Robert Kramer : La piste kramer
Entre esprit de résistance et désir d’utopies, Robert Kramer a largué les amarres
Robert Kramer’s Strange Times
da “Conversazioni con Robert Kramer” di Alberto Signetto
Robert Kramer’s ‘Scenes from the Class Struggles in Portugal’
from Jump Cut
ROBERT KRAMER: I went to Portugal this last time because MILESTONES was invited to the National Film Festival. At the time I felt uncomfortable about bringing MILESTONES to Portugal. I didn’t really understand what relationship it had to the struggle there … But I went because we were doing solidarity work here, and it seemed like it would be valuable to go back again.
I was really surprised by the response at the festival. MILESTONES won the first prize, sharing it with THE PRINCIPAL ENEMY by Sanjinés. I was surprised by the way the people there—a fairly broad class spectrum of people—were able to get into certain aspects of what they considered the cultural revolution. This meant not only the question of the role and relationship of women, but also a lot of questions about the internal relationships of groups of people. This even meant a certain way of formulating the political question as a central part of daily life.
At the time, it surprised me that they responded to MILESTONES in that way. But the longer I stayed in Portugal, the more I understood something of where they were coming from. At the same time, because I was feeling rather guilty and sheepish about dragging MILESTONES over there, I brought some films from the Newsreel period. I brought PEOPLE’S WAR (shot in North Vietnam), SUMMER ‘68 (about U.S. political activity during that time), and TO OUR COMMON VICTORY (an agitational film made to organize support for the Mayday demonstration). I showed those films at the festival too. They won the Jury Award for Newsreel. (Newsreel, as you probably know, is alive and well in New York City. They have a number of films in production, and one community theater showing excellent militant movies. I think they are about to open two more theaters and expand their work in general.)
There was a really strong feeling of what was new in those films for the Portuguese. In a nutshell, it was the idea that a film could try to contain the same energy that was in the events themselves. Portuguese filmmaking is dominated by the interview technique, largely because most of the Portuguese filmmakers live off of state television. So there is very little of the kind of energy that came out of the whole cinema verite explosion.
The other aspect that was new to the Portuguese was the absence of separation between the people who made the films and the struggles themselves. Whatever the nature of the struggles, and whatever the limits of them, the people who made the film believed in them and were in the midst of them.
The Portuguese cultural workers in general, but especially the filmmakers, have many aspects of a colonized group. They look out of the country a great deal for models—to France and elsewhere in Europe. A great majority of them seem to be moving to the Right, whether they want to or not. The only categories of judgment they have are traditional ones about a kind of quality, a kind of distance from the material that allows you to judge it, and place it, and put a frame around it. It’s an attitude about what making art is that really doesn’t allow them to leap in the middle of it and make films that try to serve the people, allowing the very framework of the film to be educated by the relationships between filmmakers and the people.
THOMAS BROM: So how did you come to make the film on the Portuguese revolution?
KRAMER: After the festival, I went back to Lisbon. There, Phillip Spinelli and I got steady pressure to stay, invitations for us to stay. We decided to stay and work together on this film. There was really selfless and generous support and cooperation on the part of a wide range of different filmmakers and political organizations. No one could solve the whole problem of how to make a film, but each one would offer a camera, or contacts to get television footage. In a lot of ways, the prize was the key.
At different times, we finally were able to use three different cameras—one from the film school, one from someone else, and we had a Bolex. We got a lot of raw stock from state television, in exchange for their rights to screen the film when it was finished. But there was no real prior discussion about what we intended to do.
BROM: Were you working with political parties at the time?
KRAMER: I have a close working relationship with the PRP—the Proletarian Revolutionary Party. It’s sort of friendship and politics blended. In terms of energy and work and line, I was very attracted to them. So they not only offered a lot of encouragement, but they also made it very clear it wasn’t their film in any sense. It was an ideal situation.
BRON: What relationship do you see between your experience filming, and your previous films?
KRAMER: This was really an important event for me. Most of the filmmakers around me were trying to get into documentary films and have the control over them that you have over a fiction film. That is, to develop a way of working with verite so you could actually compose a film that had the same depth and ability to move between different parts that a fiction film has.
But I was always trying to take fiction films and make them feel like documentaries. I hadn’t really been attracted to documenting struggles directly.
This time it felt wonderful to document a mass revolutionary struggle. There was virtually no difference in the way we worked on the Portugal film and MILESTONES. We would get a body of material and then begin to think what needed to be there to fill it out. We’d look for a strand, and then follow it up with subsequent filming. Only the reality was that much more vibrant as it erupted around us. The disruptions that would constantly alter the direction of our work felt good, forcing us to include them in the scope of the film.
The main thing that I learned in Portugal is what it means for the left to be marginalized. It makes me wonder why we’ve done as well as we have. People are fed by a mass struggle. A mass struggle is like life blood. You can actually see the difference between a group of people who’ve been sitting in an office all day in Lisbon—doing necessary but bureaucratic political work for the Party, let’s say—and people who’ve just come back from a successful struggle of a tenant’s commission. It’s really like one person looks healthy and is standing up straight and has a positive perspective on what’s happening, and the other person is sort of dragging around and has a lot of negative criticism.
My films, more than probably any others, reflect that marginalization. I feel good about having made them, because I think that’s an honest reflection of reality. But it doesn’t seem like that has to be done any more. Our project now is to somehow change that condition.
It’s really a whole different thing in Portugal. Even the smallest left parties have a direct connection to the people. For example, you walk into a party office and you see a lot of people who you think are just petty bourgeois students—they’re just like us. Then you discover that these people are from villages from all over the country. Their style of dress has changed after three years in Lisbon, but their social reality is still that countryside. They can go back there and talk to people. It makes you realize how great the class separations are in America, and what an enormous struggle it’s going to take to overcome that.
BROM: Have you thought ahead to whom you want to reach with the film, and who’s going to distribute it?
KRAMER: No, I haven’t thought about those questions. The film really needs to be made for a non-left audience—a broad American audience. That’s another reason we chose not to deal with the party struggle. At the time, we thought of those as a series of left questions that were not of interest to a broad audience—I’m not sure if that’s true now.
I think the heart of the way to make that broad film is to show the concrete basis for the demands for socialism. In some ways, I think that’s the only thing that we can do. We can argue this line or that line. But the primary thing is to find a way to demonstrate that people’s real daily oppression produces their resistance, and then struggle to change that. It’s not something mysterious or something caused by Communist ideology. Marxism-Leninism only describes it, and suggests some ways to aid it. But the primary thing is the struggle to change the social reality. The strategy of the film is to show basically that, and find subtle ways to draw the parallels here.
11 of Robert Kramer’s 42 films
In the Country (1967)
‘During the Vietnam War, a young revolutionary, isolated with his lover in a country house, struggles to comprehend his self-inflicted inactivity and his alienation from former political associates.’ — letterboxd
The Edge (1968)
‘A troubled antiwar activist plans to assassinate the President of the United States. His resolve forces others in a fragmented and disillusioned group of political allies to face the threat of government counterintelligence and the temptations of middle-age security, and to reexamine their commitment to radical action.’ — Laurence Kardish, Museum of Modern Art
‘ICE to me is the most original and most significant American narrative film in two, maybe three years. I like this slow, measured flow, which is mysterious. unpredictable, full of dark corners. It is far from the usual melodrama. I like its movements, its people, its mood. The film probes in depth the most urgent contemporary realities. Robert Kramer is a filmmaker of the first magnitude.’ — Jonas Mekas
w/ John Douglas Milestones (1975)
‘MILESTONES is a lilting, free-associative masterpiece that follows dozens of characters—including hippies, farmers, immigrants, Native Americans, and political activists—as they try to reconcile their ideals with the realities of life in America. In casual, intimate discussions of subjects ranging from communal living to parenting, from pregnancy to family, from Vietnam to Cuba, from life in the country to life in the city, and from fulfillment in the workplace to sexual fulfillment, the film’s diverse protagonists explain their beliefs and work to negotiate jealousies, relationships, and the logistical challenges of their rapidly changing world.’ — Icarus Films
Notre nazi (1984)
‘The son of a famous Nazi filmmaker shoots a movie and meets the former city commander of Vilna, a man who ordered the killing of many thousands of people. The film is a documentary made during the shooting of Thomas Harlan’s Wundkanal (1985)’. — IMDb
‘What happens with Diesel? Kramer fails where he should have succeeded (on the side of the spectacle, of business) and he succeeds a bit where he has never failed (on the side of cinematographic writing). His characters are badly drawn out, blurry, and not storyboarded; they don’t become types, let alone myths. But Kramer only ever took interest in the opposite: not the characters, one by one, but in what links them all. He’s interested in the link, not the linked ones. In this sense he is a modern filmmaker, i.e. not very American (he admires Resnais). He’s American in the sense that for him the link is tribal and never erotic or psychological. Kramer may have changed, moved, lived and worked in France, he knows what a tribe is, this mix of paranoid fascination and group narcissism. He knows it like any other American, from Ford to Cimino.’ — Serge Daney
Doc’s Kingdom (1988)
‘Doc lives on the edge of Europe where it imperceptibly slides over into the Third World. As a doctor, he knows that the illness he has contracted ten years before in war-torn Africa is getting worse. The diagnosis is cholera, but Doc Knows the disease’s real name: despair. His thoughts about his failed struggle for justice and ideals are drowned regularly in alcohol. On the other side of the world lives Jimmy, a speed-loving motorbike freak who, when his mother dies, finds a letter from Doc and discovers that his father, whom he thought was dead, is still alive. The encounter of the two men leads to a reappraisal of two worlds in opposition.’ — Daniel Yates
Route One USA (1989)
‘In the domain between documentary and fiction which interests us, ROUTE ONE USA has already become legendary. Its maker, Robert Kramer, who has plotted his route with sturdy perseverance first in America, then in Europe, personifies the political struggle by his and my generation, from Vietnam till today. In Kramer’s early films, there is some hard and violent thinking, but in ROUTE ONE USA that severe tension of thought has made room for a relaxed mise en scène of movement, with the camera in the midst of the ever-changing characters (fleeting characters in brief ‘sketches’, but still always just characters). The mise en scène could be regarded as conventional fiction, but along the way the convention is put in startling perspectives. Sometimes we suddenly see intensely divergent angles from far away or from above. We are sailing and flying nicely, we see light and we effortlessly hold out with Robert Kramer for four and a half hours. That he is our travelling companion, no one will doubt.’ — Johan van der Keuken
Berlin 10-90 (1991)
‘In response to a command, Kramer dwells on the paths of the “psychologizing” object. In search of his own identity, of his otherness, of what allows him to emit a film by saying “I”, he adds a cinematographic exercise not without theoretical meaning. By diverting the constraints, Kramer makes of a sequence shot a work elaborate although experimental, universal although intimate, fragmented although linear. He is constantly aiming for counterpoint and swinging Berlin 10/90 between opposite shores. Destined for television, it is indeed auteur cinema that his film raises as much by its originality as by its stubbornness to say “I” at the same time as “I am another”, to appeal to the spectatorial scripting for to serve what is a most intimate work. With regard to history, Berlin 10/90 becomes a revelator of our own history, through that of Kramer. The pre-mounted film is the place of memory and reflection, where make sense the words of the filmmaker. Materializing the burgeoning, disordered and paradoxical state of the author’s mind, Berlin 10/90 idealizes and magnifies the aesthetics of inner conflict.’ — Objectif Cinema
Walk the Walk (1996)
‘The story of several trips, that of Raye, a young girl who leaves the family home for one or other European countries, that of her father, Abel, former athlete and finally that of Nellie, his wife, who does not not but travel among the micro-organisms that she studies with her microscope.’ — R. Kramer
Cités de la plaine (2000)
‘Tired of fighting against the uneducated, battalions for a film without public. “Cities of the Plain” is, like any film by Robert Kramer, a hybrid thing, difficult to access. Complex once again, the device encapsulates three image statuses. A blind man goes back on his own life and triggers a flashback narration, images shot on video. This same blind person suffers dreamlike visions of horror staging the pains of his exile, images shot in 35 mm and in the studio. The girl of the blind, become urban planner, meditates in his office on the drifts of the “matrix”, still video. But the mosaic is complicated: the flashback itself is broken into several temporalities. The blind is interpreted at three ages by different actors. Ostensibly, Kramer thematizes this lack of resemblance: their ethnic origins probably diverge. This Tower of Babel, embodied in a character with three faces, universalizes the purpose and extends it to all territories, epochs and communities, erecting this body as a symbol of the exile. In him crystallizes the trajectory of the film.’ — Objectif Cinema
p.s. Hey. ** David Ehrenstein, Hi. Yes, indeed. Excited for your review off the Gorey bio. ** Dominik, Dominik! Holy moly, it’s so great to see you, my friend! I’m good, just really fried from overwork at the moment. We’re supposed to have the new film script finished and ready to be translated into French by Thursday. Thank you about the Bookworm show. And, yes (!!!!!), the new SCAB is out and real! I can’t wait to scour it. Whoa! Fantastic! Everyone, Dominik’s amazing literary and more magazine SCAB has just released its fourth issue! And it has work by all kinds of awesome scribes, including the blog’s own JM (Josiah Morgan) and Dominik! And other maestros including Shane Allison! Do go luxuriate in the totality ASAP. Start here. That’s so exciting! And I’m very happy to see you! I hope everything is going super, super fantastically with you and that I’ll get to talk with you again very soon! Love, me. ** Tosh Berman, Hi! I know, right? Crazy. Who’d have thunk? Thanks about the French release. We’re very happy and very crazed getting ready for that. ** KeatonUncut & KeatonBucks, Two for one! I like water rides a ton, but not the kind where you have wear swimming trunks. Too big of a commitment, ha ha. Escorts conceptually on their way. And thank you for the poem! It woke me totally the fuck up! Love, me. ** Steve Erickson, Ah, power’s dangerous. Even its taste. But, yeah. For sure, I mean, I always have what I’m certain are great ideas for art exhibitions and film series and things, and it’s gruesome to realise that others’ minds’ ‘they ain’t so open’, to quote Mr. Devoto. I’ve never heard of Of Herbs and Altars, and I’ll give it a shot. Thanks! ** _Black_Acrylic, Roussel is singular and truly amazing. A writer to definitely get under your belt if you wear belts. ** Misanthrope, Hi, G. I’m so overworked/committed that my life is all about time management right now, and, man, it’s not a lot of fun, but, man, it works better than 420 or cocaine. Well, maybe not better than cocaine, ha ha. I go to bed unless otherwise committed at 11 pm every night, and I do seem to get shit done, or most of it. But I’ve never been a late nighter. Even when I was a late nighter, it fucked me up. I’m good, way too busy with shit, but getting there. Bon Monday. ** Jeff J, Hi, Jeff. Thank you again so much. The blog and I were/are very proud and grateful. Two weeks until you hit Paris running! Wow, and very cool! Oh, btw, I too remembered a dub post by Tony O’Neill, but it’s not in my storage, so it might be in the batch of old posts that have yet to be uploaded. But I found another post Tony made for the blog, and I recreated that. I am a fan of The Groundhogs, yes, for sure. My favorite of their albums is ‘Split’, which contains one of my all-time favorite songs/tracks, ‘Cherry Red’. They’re good. Malkmus is, or at least used to be, the world’s biggest Groundhogs fan. I haven’t tried that Rap album due to no time available, but that review also piqued my interest. I’ll give it a listen. Thanks a ton, bud. ** alan, Whoa, hi, Alan! It’s really nice to see you even briefly. ** Corey Heiferman, Hi. Soviet and Yugoslav new wave and synthpop: now that I have to try. Starting with your links. Thanks, man. And how coincidental that you ask about ‘Route 1 U.S.A.’ on this Day that you, sir, inspired. There’s a French DVD of ‘Route 1 U.S.A.’ if you have the mechanisms to play it and want to spring for it. Purchasable here. Fine day to you. ** Okay. The fine distinguished local and writer and artist and all kinds of things Corey brought up Robert Kramer here recently which inspired me to make this post devoted to Kramer’s excellent and sadly under-known (especially outside of France) films. I recommend you get way into it if you so choose. See you tomorrow.