Tuesday, April 08, 2014

Kramer v. Kramer

This is Serge Daney's review of Robert Kramer's Diesel published at the time of the film release in France (1985). Thanks to Otie Wheeler who got in touch with an interest in this text and who helped with the translation. Otie's corresponding piece will appear soon at the Vulgar Cinema blog.

Kramer vs. Kramer (Diesel, Robert Kramer)
Robert Kramer, an American filmmaker working in France, tries to compose with the imperatives of trendy and gloomy sci-fi. Diesel is kind of a failure, but exists nonetheless.
When Diesel begins, the worst seems to have already happened. We find ourselves in the polluted light of a post-atomic faux jour, between slums and mud, dusk and nightfall, dogs and wolves. The dogs (or is it the wolves?) live in a futuristic city, metallic and fascist. A mad architect (Finch / Laurent Terzieff) rules over this isolated world. Of the city, we mostly see the “Building,” the place of joyless pleasures, managed by an alcoholic head pimp (Walter / Richard Bohringer) and prostitutes with no illusions (Kim / Souad Amidou is their beautiful leader). The wolves (unless it’s the dogs) occupy a piece of land where everything rots, the “Village”. There, they preserve a bit of human warmth and the concept of freedom. It looks very much like the typical script about fascism in the city and guerrilla in the periphery, except that the boundary is blurry and thresholds are quickly crossed. It only takes one of the girls (Anna / Agnes Soral) to refuse the law of the Building and to run away, for the pimp to send two unsentimental killers (Nelson / Niels Arestrup and Drimi / Xavier Deluc), and for something like a story to set off.

If the word gloomy hadn’t lost its value, Diesel would make us reinvent it. For we begin to know more and more this faux jour (created by Ramon Suarez’s beautiful work). It’s the faux jour of cinema and 1980s science fiction. Nowadays, sci-fi no longer has the atomic cataclysm as its horizon (the 1950s are long past). Being among the survivors becomes, if not desirable, at least imaginable, and in any case imageable. The future of cinema seems to take place at the same time as the future of the human race. The survival theme rekindles imagination, hence these colourful monsters, the fighting panoply, the return of barbarism. Today’s images feed on this survivalist mythology, from Ridley Scott to Luc Besson. With Diesel, Robert Kramer also attempts to institute this minimal ecology. He doesn’t pull it off unfortunately. Fortunately, he doesn’t pull it off.

As a Mad Max-type comic book for kids, Diesel is not very effective indeed. There are either too many or not enough resources; the casting doesn’t make sense; the story stays unclear for a long time, and its cruelty is not sincere. Kramer forgets to bring the spectator in on the plot, to establish the topography of locations, and to define the stakes of all this violence. Characters don’t even play the strange game of speaking in the supposed lingo of the supposed time in which they live. They are only strange because of their outfits and of this world of fury through which they glide without paying much notice. Listening to the dialogue, we clearly feel that they still belong to our world and that they obey motivations that, thanks to Freud, we still recognise. The disparate casting means that each character outrageously quotes him/herself. And honesty obliges us to say that, at this game, the best ones (Arestrup, Bohringer, Blanche) are a ham, and the worst ones (Soral, Klein – unpardonably) are those whose image as actors is so vague that they can’t even propose a caricature of it. Only Magali Noël stands out, erratic and sublimely bad.

Yet, as the film moves from the Building to the Village and the story merely becomes a chase between Nelson and Diesel (Klein), we find that the film, despite everything, works. Except that its fuel is mysterious. And we then remember that Robert Kramer is not just any director. He was a great filmmaker until 1975 and has been, in the last decade, a case – a great case.

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.

In In the Country (1967), The Edge (1968), Ice (1969) and Milestones (1975), the tribe was that of radical Americans, Weathermen and militants, spoiled kids who had become crazy, abandoned to argumentative panic and good sentiments. Kramer filmed his brothers without taking stock. These four films are among the rare contemporaneous testimonies that cinema (the art, not the sociological hijacking) has produced about Leftism in the 1960s. These films are rarely seen but they matter. Unknown in the USA, taken seriously in France, Kramer has made a strange bet: to arrive, one day, on real screens, in front of a real (French) audience without passing by square one (America). He didn’t come out of the last ten years unscathed, and even if the inspiration of his first films is far away, it is still behind what exists in Diesel.

How to illustrate what we’ve, one day, lived through? To be a good action movie, Diesel would have to treat paranoia as a decorative problem. But it’s precisely the opposite that Kramer used to know how to do. He weaved a web of words, chattering, fears and hearsays around his characters. And violence sometimes tore a hole in this web. It took a whole film and a patient labour of approach and domestication (hence the reason that in France Kramer has been one of those who has best mastered video, see A toute allure and Notre Nazi) before the spectator realised he was in front of a collective portrait. In Diesel, this portrait still bears some shreds. In this dispersed gang of love-scarred faces, we remember knowing each other too well in the past. It’s the meaning of the (rather good) scene where Nelson meets Diesel in the dark. It’s the meaning of this almost reunion when Nelson understands too late that this other scarred survivor was once his comrade.

One more effort and the memory of these old solidarities will be erased for good. Will Kramer be ready to succeed in making an action movie, a real one? Perhaps. But what about the adventure of filming?

First published in Libération, 15 August 1985. Reprinted in La maison cinéma et la monde, volume 2: Les années Libé 1981-1985, POL, 2002, pp. 269-71. Translation by Laurent Kretzschmar and Otie Wheeler.

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