LIBERATION, Nov. 12, 1999


Robert Kramer died Wednesday evening of cerebro-spinal meningitis at a hospital in Rouen. He was 60 years old. He has been known in France primarily since 1989, when "Route One USA," a road movie on the border between fiction and documentary, scored a success on television and in movie theaters. But his career had begun long before, in the 1960s in his native America, when he combined a radical critique of a society torn by the Vietnam War and social inequalities, with a search for new forms of narration.

An admirer of John Ford, Kramer was born in New York in 1939. Son of a doctor, he studied philosophy and Western European history. He wrote novels that weren’t published, as well as poems and plays. He also worked on a development project in the black community of Newark, New Jersey. Impassioned by journalism, he became a reporter for a time in Latin America. It was there that he launched the idea of founding a cooperative of filmmakers dedicated to filmed news. This became the "Newsreel Movement." In this context, Robert Kramer began a portrait of a generation of Americans who were against the Vietnam War. But his commitment never prevented him from asking questions as a filmmaker. Thus "In The Country," his first feature film, made in 1967, highlights the doubts of a man about his struggle against American policy. "The Edge" (1968) and "Ice" (1969), films that evoke violence and underground activity, carry this theme even further. In the 1970s, he went to Vietnam, the enemy of his government, to direct "La Guerre du Peuple" ("The War of the People"). The film was not well received by the Vietnamese. "They accused me of having given a pessimistic image of their country," Kramer explained last year to "Cahiers du cinema."

In 1976 he made "Milestones," a film of questions (after the Vietnam War, what will become of the left?), but also a great polyphonic work. In his time, Serge Daney demonstrated how much this film, which had defects that were "atrocious because they were rigorously unforeseeable"(the sexual aggression against one of the protagonists and the participation of another in a fight that ends very badly) were far from the kind of militant cinema that was already obsolete because it is too consoling.

At the end of the 1970s, Kramer made "Scenes from The Class Struggle in Portugal" in that country. Then he returned to the United States. "I had the impression of being a Martian," he explained to "Inrockuptibles." "I didn't have any more money, I drove trucks for a year, I wondered what was going to happen to my life ... and INA (the French film board) contacted me for a film." Kramer ended up making "Guns" in Angola. And he found producers in France that he could never hope to find in the America of Ronald Reagan. He stayed and made several small films and tried his hand at pure fiction with "A toute allure" in 1982.

The following year he made "Notre nazi," an extraordinary takeoff of a film of Thomas Harlan that was mediocre but contained unusual events: shouting matches with a real Nazi, violence, blackmail. He also failed in an experiment with science fiction in his film "Diesel." There were several more films and then, in 1987, he made "Doc's Kingdom," a beautiful reflection about exil that was filmed in Portugal. It was the story of a doctor, Doc (played by Paul McIsaac), a man who was absorbed and tortured by his past, who left the United States long ago because of Vietnam and who dreamed of returning.

Two years later, Kramer found Doc again, but in America. This was "Route One USA," a road movie filmed from the viewpoint of an American exile who had come back, a man of the left who was curious about everything and everyone, and about what the United States had become, from the Canadian border to the Florida Keys. The film brings together the joy of myths with a critical point of view. And it was a success on Channel 7, the French "cultural" channel as well as in the movie houses. Robert Kramer was being rediscovered.

After the fall of the wall, he spent some time in Berlin and made several small films. In 1992, he returned to Vietnam to supervise a training program for local filmmakers. And he used the opportunity to make "Point de depart." Far from being a piece of unilateral self-criticism, which was the classic stance of people of his generation, Kramer distinguished in the film between what was flawed in the hopes of the 1960s (the socialist revolution ...) and what was not (the fight for Vietnam and justice, and against American aggression). He did so notably by paying homage to Linda Evans, a generous woman who had been sentenced to 40 years of prison in the United States, or by telling the story of an intellectual cyclist in Hanoi who translated foreign books: "Ten Days That Shook the World" by John Reed, "Don Quixote" by Cervantes, "The Last of the Mohicans" by Fenimore Cooper. "Books that spoke of the oppressed, the dispossed, in a very sympathetic tone."

In 1993, Kramer made a film for television about two champion American cyclists, Greg LeMond and Andrew Hampsten. Then, in 1996, he produced "Walk The Walk," a meditation in the first person about the state of the world and in particular that of Europe. A trip from Provence to Odessa, a sentimental ballad full of doubts and of coldness. Afterward, the director from New York became a professor of cinema at Fresnoy, in Northern France. He was very hapy to interact with aspiring young filmmakers. "They are living out something effervescent," he said to "L'Humanite." "I try to plunge into their projects. I am there to build, tear down, rebuild. I try to keep what is alive, spontaneous, to make them look at their suffering, to ask themselves if it is worth it." He had many projects of his own. And a strong hunger to confront reality, a world whose evolution was escaping him. And that excited him.

By Edouard Waintrop (translated by Rick Smith)


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A free man, Robert Kramer loved risk in cinema as he loved life.

First and foremost, Robert Kramer was seductive. A big honest smile, a relaxed pose, an unmistakable New York accent, a vigorous handshake, he was an American. He had the physique of an actor, which Cedric Kahn finally made use of in "L'Ennui."

Robert Kramer was a free man. He not only roamed the world of the leftist American Movements of the 1960s, or a Vietnam pounded by bombs, or an Angola struggling with the legacy of colonialism; nor had he just risked cutting free his moorings, moving from America, where he was born, to France, where he chose to live. His cinema was also full of risks.

"Milestones" is one of those rare films that treats the battles of the left in the 1970s without pathos, without proselytism and even moreso without self-denial. It is above all a surprising fresco nourished by ruptures in tone. Incredible creativity. A great American film.

The United States, his country, always excited him. It is without doubt why he loved John Ford,"who incarnates the logic of a civilization," he said in a special issue of "Cahiers du Cinema." "I have the impression," he added, "that he was someone who felt alive when he made films. That is what touches me about him."

Kramer saw the world change without him and in a direction that he did not always like. "The role of the individual is changing. The world will not continue to exist in the same way as a source of wonder." In spite of these changes, he remained attached to a minimal program: "Not to live according to the norm, not to believe in generally accepted ideas."

During the last few years, Kramer became excited about the cyber universe of the writer William Gibson. He loved science fiction and looked for the problem that went beyond the moment. In a word, he was always on his way to a new frontier.

That is why his cinema is not only physical, fed by his undeniable appetite for life. It is also speculative. He could spend months in Hanoi, under the bombs, or in Berlin, just after the fall of the Wall. He was always thinking about the relationship of his camera to the world.

He thus had a dual relationship with spontaneity. Very direct himself, he distrusted this quality when it involved his art. In 1994, invited by the Centre Pompidou, he held a dialog with Albert Maysles, the veteran of direct cinema and maker of "The Salesman." Maysles explained that new equipment, cameras and portable tape recorders had made it possible since the beginning of the 1960s to record life more directly than ever before. Kramer frowned and answered that reality recorded on the spot did not exist. Scientists know well, he added, that reality is something that one creates. In cinema, this construction is called directing.

By Edouard Waintrop (translated by Rick Smith)


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