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Man with a Movie Camera: Robert Kramer

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.


January 7 (Friday) 8 pm
January 9 (Sunday) 8 pm
January 11 (Tuesday) 9 pm
(with "Doc’s Kingdom" below)

Ghosts of Electricity

Directed by Robert Kramer
France 1997, 35mm, color, 19 min.

One of Kramer’s final films was this short commissioned by the Locarno Film Festival for its 50th anniversary. Ghosts of Electricity imagines a world in which both the cinema and the sciences share a humanist interest in the bettering of our lives.

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January 7 (Friday) 8 pm
January 9 (Sunday) 8 pm
January 11 (Tuesday) 9 pm
(with "Ghosts of Electricity" above)

Doc's Kingdom

Directed by Robert Kramer
Portugal/France 1987, 35mm, color, 90 min.
With Paul McIsaac, Vincent Gallo, Joao Cesar Monteiro

An American doctor is operating in a Lisbon suburb. Doc, Kramer's alter ego, lives a painful existence, shared between his warehouse on the quai and the hospital. Loneliness and alcohol are the signs of a ragged life. But his past is catching up with him. His son Jimmy, pursuing his mother's death, finds him and is determined to finally get to know him. Doc's Kingdom is the poor and derisory kingdom of a lonely King Lear. A film about the death of utopia.

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January 8 (Saturday) 7 pm
J anuary 13 (Thursday) 7 pm

Route One/USA

Directed by Robert Kramer
US 1989, 35mm, color, 240 min.
With Paul McIsaac
French with English subtitles

From more than 65 hours of film footage, acclaimed American independent filmmaker Robert Kramer crafted this epic portrait of the famous highway that runs from Maine to Key West, Florida. Route One/USA shows how what was once the most traveled roadway in the world has become, in the words of the filmmaker, "a thin stretch of asphalt cutting through the dreams of a nation."


January 9 (Sunday) 6 pm
January 11 (Tuesday) 7 pm

Starting Place (Point de Depart)

Directed by Robert Kramer
France 1993, 35mm, color, 83 min.
English, French, and Vietnamese with English subtitles

In this film from late in his career, Kramer returns to Hanoi after nearly 25 years to re-envision the city’s struggle through an uncertain and daunting past, present, and future. The Vietnamese characters in the film are diverse: Kramer’s former guide from an earlier visit in 1969; a tight-rope walker in the national circus; a man who took photos of B-52s and another who lost his fingers shooting them down.

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January 10 (Monday) 7 pm

Ice

Directed by Robert Kramer
US 1969, 16mm, b/w, 135 min.

A pioneering work that blurred the boundaries between fictional and documentary styles, Ice was hailed by filmmaker and Village Voice critic Jonas Mekas as "the most original and most significant American narrative film" of the late sixties. An underground revolutionary group struggles against internal strife which threatens its security and stages urban guerrilla attacks against a fictionalized fascist regime in the United States. Interspersed throughout the narrative are rhetorical sequences that explain the philosophy of radical action and serve to restrain the melodrama inherent in the "thriller" genre. Shot in the gray landscape of New York City in a gritty cinema-verité style, the film has been compared to Jean-Luc Godard’s Alphaville.

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January 12 (Wednesday) 7 pm
January 14 (Friday) 7 pm

Walk the Walk

Directed by Robert Kramer
France 1996, 35mm, color, 105 min.
With Laure Duthilleul, Jacques Martial, Betsabée Haas
French with English subtitles

An intriguing work in which documentary and fictional elements come together, Walk the Walk is a cross between diary notes, travelogue, and family drama. At the center is the story of an interracial family that lives near the sea. As the daughter leaves to experience the world on her own terms, the organic balance that has sustained the family shifts. Using location shooting and improvisational performance, Kramer hybridizes his narrative by intercutting documentary footage of the maritime setting and adjacent industrial and agricultural areas to create a profound sense of the relationship between place and emotion.

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January 12 (Wednesday) 9 pm

Scenes from the Class Struggle in Portugal

Directed by Robert Kramer and Philip Spinelli
US/Portugal 1977, 16mm, b/w and color, 85 min.

Combining newsreel footage, still photographs, interviews, and analytical narration, this documentary focuses on the anti-fascist, anti-imperialist efforts of labor groups, peasants, and working-class soldiers to liberate Portugal from the control of the Salazar government. Shot from April 1974 to November 1976, it relates the conflicts in Portugal to parallel liberation movements in the United States and South Africa.

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January 15 (Saturday) 7 pm

Milestones

Directed by Robert Kramer and John Douglas
US 1975, 16mm, b/w and color, 195 min.
With Mary Chapelle, Grace Paley, Susie Solf

Milestones is a richly observed, many faceted portrait of those individuals who sought radical solutions to social problems in the United States during the 1960s and 1970s. The film cuts back and forth between six major story lines and more than fifty characters as it scans across a vast American landscape to explore the lifestyles and attitudes of those survivors of the American left who faced both personal and political transitions in the period following the Vietnam War. The filmmakers touch on such subjects as black and Native American rights, on the readjustment experiences of a Vietnam veteran and an ex-convict, on parent-child relations and the family, and on sexual alternatives, communal farming, drugs, and regional politics.

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January 16 (Sunday) 8 pm
January 18 (Tuesday) 8:30 pm

The Edge

Directed by Robert Kramer
US 1967, 16mm, b/w, 102 min.
With Jack Rader, Tom Griffin, Anne Waldman

In this early political narrative, Kramer explores the plight of a troubled anti-war activist who 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 counter-intelligence and the temptations of middle-age security, and to re-examine their commitment to radical action.

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