| Dreamers and Believers:
Robert Kramer’s Route #1
Robinson Jeffers, in a once much anthologized poem, cries out:
“Shine, perishing republic.”
I can think of no more fitting apostrophe to Robert Kramer’s epic “Route 1.” The film records the journey of the film-maker and” Doc,” played by Paul McIsaac, from Fort Kent, Maine, the road’s beginning, to Key West, “ ..the end of the rainbow and the end of the road,” Like many a long trip, Route 1 is planned and unplanned. It is documentary in style, but it has a fictional character at its center. It is rehearsed and improvised. It is a narrative and a meditation.
Kramer, the film-maker and his alter-ego, “Doc,” have different reasons for the trip.
“Doc” is looking for a place to settle down and practice medicine. He has returned from Africa and Portugal. As he travels, he retrieves himself. Standing in front of a roadside display of glinting hubcaps in New England, he tells us that he stole hubcaps as a boy. .At an evening of bingo with Maine Passamaquoddy Indians he reminisces about his mother’s bingo games. At Fort Bragg he describes parachuting out of an airplane when he was stationed there.
He tells us that first the dream of revolution and then, alcohol kept him going during the time that precedes Route 1.
( “Doc’s Kingdom, ” one of Kramer’s feature-length fiction films, defined “Doc’s” character, also played by McIsaac. Both he and Kramer consider that the character played by McIsaac in Kramer’s film “Ice” was the young man who became “Doc.”)
At the film’s end “Doc” has found a way to practice medicine. We leave him among the poor French-speaking blacks who work the cargo boats on the Miami River. He finds a funky apartment overlooking the waterway and meets a waitress. He has problems with the apartment and we don’t know what will happen with the waitress, but “Doc” has found what he was seeking- a way to live out his convictions.
Kramer’s purpose is different. He is coming “back, not home.” He has been in France for more than a decade. Unlike “Doc” he is not seeking communion with the people they meet along the way. His deepest attachment is to the land itself and he has a terrific instinct for showing us how people connect with it; lobstermen, lumbermen, a man alone in the woods building his house. He has a particular affinity for late afternoon light on water, in the woods, and his camera gives us burnished images of this most beautiful east coast with great immediacy. The color and luminosity of Route 1 is what makes it look like no other film. He revisits places from his childhood and recalls his father, one of the first doctors to examine the effects of atomic war on the people of Hiroshima. He recounts his father’s shocking and inexplicable belief that the atomic bomb should have been used in Korea. He tells us these things as the camera records his father’s plain, brown house in Camden.
If Kramer and “ Doc” are not at cross-purposes on Route 1, they are not after the same things. At one point they separate and Kramer and his camera go into the woods to meet up with “Doc” later in the film.
Kramer’s tone, as expressed by his cinematography, is elegiac, “Doc’s”tone is inquiring. I am tempted to think of “Doc” as Kramer’s “good doctor”, the man who wants to heal, not drop the bomb.
Route 1 is planned and unplanned. It is documentary in style, but it has a fictional character at its center. It is rehearsed and unrehearsed. It is a narrative and a meditation.
Moments and images:
Drawbridge going up, airplane flying by.
Camera slides along the hulls of boats.
Doc, after a bath in the Atlantic, bare-assed, diving like an otter, dressed, reading from Whitman’s Song of the Open Road, reading for Kramer, for the ocean, holding Whitman up against the America they are about to rediscover. Kramer tramps after a chain-saw toting forest ranger in Maine who tells him about chestnut blight.
Two Native Americans talk about the easy money that threatens their way of life. A dead moose hangs between them as the lament the basket-weaving skills that are disappearing.
The rhetoric of the republic belongs to everyone. Children whose parents fear everything Woody Guthrie believed sing “This Land is Your Land.” A passionate woman activist in Bridgeport, born in Cuba, quotes Jose Marti: “With the poor of my land I wish to share my life.”
Earnest supporters of Pat Robertson talk about the emptiness of American life. A bevy of witches, dazzling with eye makeup and jet black hair warn: “The boys are going to make war again.”
A telephone operator in Maine tells them:
“We are living in the last days.”
This according to prophecy, not politics.
Doc reads Thoreau's speech to the Concord meeting after John Brown’s raid on Harper’s Ferry. Doc stands alone on the stage of the meeting house, declaiming Thoreau’s words for the camera/Kramer and the empty rafters. He pulls the bell rope, looking up at the bell ringing in the tower, his face lit with an ambiguous glow.
We learn that we are all believers. Jesse Jackson, interviewed on a bus, talks about Rosa Parks.
“Will-power inspires people to act.”
A lawyer in Bridgeport tells us it is only “sheer will-power”that enables him to separate his comfortable life in Connecticut from the desolation he sees in juvenile court, Cecil Young, a Bridgeport politician and advocate for the poor aspires to be mayor. He tells us that it was will-power that brought him up from the desperation of his past life.
Children dream of violence. In a New York city public school they tell Doc stories with apocolyptic endings, about a Superman who is evil. Doc and Kramer are wry, rueful, serious, confessional, inquiring by turns. They are never ironic in the way they present themselves to us or the people they encounter, although ironies abound in the film. Not surprisingly, many of them have to do with race.
A black woman, a guide for the city of Boston, we assume, explains a monument to Colonel Shaw’s all black regiment in the Civil War to a group of Southern white school girls.
In Philadelphia a black city employee explains the separation of powers to camera/Kramer.
The spoken word in Route 1 always seems weighty simply because there are few words spoken and few wasted in the four and one quarter hours of the film.
People talk for different reasons. A vivacious, inspired and desperate hospital worker in New York City seizes the opportunity to speak, past Doc and Kramer, directly to us.
Other characters tell their stories to Doc, some to Kramer and the camera.. Both Doc and Kramer soliloquize. ( We never see Kramer, although we see his hands turning pages as he reads the story of the Little Red Light House. )
The modern road narrative is a particularly American form. Through it we express ideas of freedom, mobility, variety and possibility. Until the late days of this century Americans of every background and economic situation have held these ideas as talismans.
“My right (arm) shall point you to the endless and beginingless road along whose sides are crowded the rich cities of all living philosophy.”
A century after Whitman Kerouac wrote the primer for a generation. His road was wilder than Walt’s and he traveled it by car. The road movie continues the tradition. “Easy Rider,””Stranger than Paradise,”Thelma and Louise,” tap into the reservoir of myths and values, adding the elements of danger, violence and death. Escape replaces discovery.
The road movie has a narrative openness in which anything can happen and fit into the structure, which is the road itself.
Kramer’s Route 1 plays like an envoi to the America that radicals of the sixties thought they were bringing into being. It is a sad movie, and the film-maker wears his heart on his sleeve. The American artist with whom Kramer has much in common is Bob Dylan. They share the poetry of image, a belief in what we once called “the common man” and foretell the apocalypse. Some viewers thought that the film-maker was out of touch with American realities, surprised by things we have all gotten used to.
I don’t agree. Route 1 , long yet never boring, large and intimate, is an American classic.