Murmur of the World (Robert Kramer, Route One USA)
“If we are truly together, the dark of the day is the best moment to see. But we must be truly together,” said Robert Kramer, fifteen years ago. Only a man threatened by solitude can say this. Only a man very inhabited inside can deal with this solitude when it does more than threaten. For, if populations change over time, it’s always about them.First published in Cahiers du cinéma, issue 246, December 1989. Reprinted in La maison cinéma et le monde, 3. Les années Libé 1986-1991, POL, 2012, pp.130-132. Translation by Laurent Kretzschmar and Otie Wheeler.
In 1975, Kramer and John Douglas co-signed Milestones, the film that closed a first loop, that of American radicalism, which he had, better than anyone else, drawn the portrait of (The Edge, Ice, In the Country).
With Milestones, another generation – that of the opposition to the Vietnam war – could call itself “lost”. The fragile sound of a page being turned could even be heard in a Cahiers round table (issue 258-259) flatly but sincerely named: Milestones and us.
The rest is better known: Kramer leaves the USA, puts himself at the service of several struggles (Portugal), settles in France, tries everything (video as amusement or scalpel, auteur cinema, an hallucinated police film) and doesn’t quite pull it off. One doesn’t need to be Freudian to see that, sooner or later, Robert Kramer will need to return, a way or another, to his starting point.
A small film shot in Portugal (Doc’s Kingdom, scandalously not released) amounts to getting ready for the departure. Its hero – Kramer’s alter ego – is a drunken and narcissistic doctor who has somehow survived to all his beliefs. He’s the doctor we follow all along Route One.
For this is indeed, fifteen years later, a sequel to Milestones. The road comes after the milestones. The road in Milestones went from “the snowy mountains of Utah to the natural sculptures of Monument Valley, to the caves of the Hopi people, and to the dust of New York City”; the road in Route One simply connects Cape Cod to Miami. For the one starting again, any road, chosen randomly, is the right one: the first one, for example.
Why choose a doctor? Because Robert Kramer’s father is a doctor (there is an auscultation scene in Milestones)? Because there is a doctor theme in John Ford’s films (whom Kramer admires and of whom he is – I’ve always thought this – one of the rare heirs)? Because the USA is sick? Or because, when we are “truly together”, we ought to care for each other? A little bit of all this, of course. But all this would remain abstract if Robert Kramer’s art (for he is an artist, and a great one) wasn’t fundamentally that of a doctor’s, that of a general practitioner. As such, he can’t afford to choose his patients: he is the adult truth of the militant that he was (“at the service of the people”).
And what does the doctor do when combing the countryside? He uses his eyes and takes out of his briefcase this old emblem: the stethoscope. He measures up the state of populations, he takes their pulse (and, with the help of age and humour, he knows that his own health is no longer perfect). In short, the wandering doctor works in the audiovisual sphere.
Filmmakers who are both great show-offs and great editors are rare. Kramer has acquired an exceptional eye (his work with video is for something in this) but doesn’t expect from it – and that’s exceptional – a voyeuristic added value. Of the people he meets and listens to, along Route One, he expects no truth: he simply follows them in a phase of their existence (always according to the principle that one must only film people that work, at the same time, at something else).
He diverts them – a bit – away from their route, as if offering them a free consultation. He doesn’t dramatise the road (it’s the opposite of a road movie), nor the encounter: these people are always already there and they have other things to do. Follows the beautiful portrait of what we can continue to love in America: its hard labour, its sense of duty, its basic energy.
As for the sound, the direct sound of the social stethoscope, it is no less (and no more) than the pulsation of hearts and ideas, of the rhythm that allows something to be heard. It’s the most mysterious part of Kramer’s art – its most Fordian part. As a puritan for whom, everywhere and always, only the social bond requires and justifies the presence of cinema, he cannot prevent, over free consultations, to let the murmur of the world rise, America being a world in itself. A man blowing on embers is Fire. A fish in a tank is Water. A soldier bending under the weight of his kit, is Earth.
We need, despite everything, witnesses. And witnesses need to have time on their side. Kramer might not have needed fifteen years of diversions and a four-hour movie if American cinema (special effects aside) was able – as it used to be – to draw up such a state of things. Ironically, this man, who left because he suffered too much from the evils of American imperialism (from Indians to Vietnamese), returns to a country which is, for the first time in its history, no longer at the centre of the world, not even at the centre of itself. Only an exile like Kramer can continue to love America – by force if necessary.