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Robert Kramer Films the Event

Adrian Martin

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1. Roland Barthes, The Responsibility of Forms: Critical Essays on Music, Art and Representation (London: Basil Blackwell, 1986 - translation altered).



2. Jean-Pierre Gorin (interview), ‘Trains of Thought’, Filmviews (Australia), no. 133 (Spring 1987), pp. 11-12.


3. Gilles Deleuze and Michel Foucault, Gérard Fromanger: Photogenic Painting (London: Black Dog, 1999), p. 94.



The work of art is interminable, like the cure: in both cases, it is less a matter of obtaining a result than of modifying a problem, i.e. a subject: ‘uncoating’ it of the finality in which it locks up its point of departure.

- Roland Barthes, ‘Réquichot and His Body’ (1)

The one genre – no, better to say the one continent – which gets constantly foreclosed is precisely the essay film. Most places are very conservative in the way they constantly rehash this old dichotomy between documentary and fiction.

- Jean-Pierre Gorin, 1987 (2)

Rebellious prisoners on a roof: a press photograph reproduced everywhere. But who has seen what is happening in it? What commentary has ever articulated the unique and multiple event which circulates in it?

- Michel Foucault (3)




4. Vincent Vatrican, ‘Rencontre avec Robert Kramer’, Cahiers du cinéma, no. 478 (April 1994), p. 84.


We are on the continent of Robert Kramer’s essay-films. What country is this, what year, what time? There are no establishing shots, no introductions to ease us in. Everything is in medias res. Kramer never gives us a superimposed title telling us we are watching ‘Vietnam’ or ‘Paris’ or ‘USA’; he never includes the identifying names of people, typewritten on screen, the first time we see them (and indeed, if we ever do learn this, it is often indirectly, by accident); he rarely introduces a radically different piece of footage into the montage with a reassuring title saying ‘ten years ago’, or a voice-off saying ‘I remember ...’.

The challenge thrown out to the spectator is: orient yourself. Just in the same way that Kramer, the man with the movie camera, is forced to orient himself: he looks around, gets his bearings, follows something interesting down the street (a face, a bicycle, a line of tombstones in the cemetery) ...

‘Whenever I start something, I always feel like I’m at a point of departure.’ (4) But Kramer is always starting his essay-films, over and over, re-starting them at every new scene, each new plateau, so there is no single starting place (his English title for Point de départ, 1994). When it comes to the ‘problem’ or topic addressed by each Kramer film, there are a hundred places or points to start from; but there is no single origin to that problem. It is like what Barthes wrote: it is a question of ‘pursuing’ the problem, chasing it in flight, and thus ‘"uncoating" it of the finality in which it locks up its point of departure.’

And, just as there is no single origin, there is no single destination, either: Kramer’s essay-films map, all at once, a hundred directions, thoughts and associations that cluster around a central idea. But is there one, central idea – and can we tell what it is? It is impossible, for example, to cleanly segment the montage of his essay-films in the way that one can slice up the scenes of a conventional, narrative film. Where does one path start, and where does it end?




A breathtaking section of Point de départ – hardly two minutes long, but with dozens of quick cuts and wildly varied images – begins from the mention of the sandals (preserved in a Vietnamese museum tribute) worn by Ho Chi Minh. Kramer, with a rare, spoken ‘I remember ...’ on the soundtrack, suddenly cuts all ambient, Vietnamese noise, and we go to a pair of sandals that Kramer (as he tells us) took with him to California, and still had in 1994, dating from his first visit to Vietnam in 1969 for The People’s War. Then another association: the fact that he and his wife Erika named their daughter ‘Keja Ho’ – after Ho Chi Minh. The silence now dominates the soundtrack, as we see obscure but beautiful footage (16mm, Super 8?), by People’s War (1969) co-director John Douglas, of Keja’s home birth, with friends around, like a sacred 1960s ritual. (There is another account of this event in the film Keja has made with Stephen Dwoskin, I’ll Be Your Eyes, You’ll Be Mine [2006].) Then five shots of Keja, mostly her passport photos, quickly tracing her growth into young adulthood. Now the ambient sound of Vietnam returns, and we pass to many representational images of Ho Chi Minh: photos, statues, a monument-building which carries his name in stone. In these images, we now notice one thing above all: the sandals. Sandals everywhere, like an icon, or a talisman. There is a shot of a cloud – like a beautiful pillow shot for reflection amidst all this ‘speed of thought’ – and then we are watching (in ever-closer detail) the labour of a shoemaker producing a sandal. We pass to a woman (unidentified, of course) sitting serenely by a bridge – she is wearing sandals – and then to the lattice work of the bridge, the feet upon it, the train that passes ... and already we are deep into a new network of visual, sonic and conceptual associations.

Robert Kramer – one of cinema’s greatest essayists, alongside Chris Marker, Joris Ivens, Johan van der Keuken, Jean-Pierre Gorin ...

In English as in French, the word essay implies not only a form, but an activity: to essay, to try out, to test the limits of something. But of what, exactly? In the tradition of Montaigne, a true essay is one that gives the impression of discovering what it is about as it goes along – as it observes the world, collects data, makes connections and draws associations ... Thus, the true essay must start out without a clear subject, let alone a clear thesis that will be illustrated or confirmed. In Barthes’ terms, the essayist must modify a problem, continually displace his intuition of what the central subject of the work is, rather than obtain a result. But how to keep the subject open, forever modified and displaced – how not to foreclose it?

At the outset, the essay-filmmaker begins not with a set structure but a plan of attack: a place to go, a situation to place oneself in, and an idea of how to approach it, what attitude or stance to take towards it. For some documentary filmmakers (like Nick Broomfield), attack is precisely the right word for their approach, because they take on the role of cajolers, provocateurs, investigators, even cops. They attack the real, forcing it to reveal itself. Others (like Ross McElwee and many contemporary videobloggers) take a deliberately passive approach – or perhaps it is passive-aggressive; by withdrawing into themselves while being on site, they gently persuade the world to come towards them, solicitously. There is a little of both the aggressive and the passive in Kramer’s filming of the event: sometimes, his voice (with its American accent) asks ‘uncivil’, impertinent questions, like a tourist or an interloper who does not know the local rules of a society or a community – but that is a calculated posture, a tactic that he knows he can use if he needs to. Just as much, Kramer the movie-man gives the impression of being led by the world around him, by sights and sounds, by chance encounters with the real, by Proustian free-associations ... a journey that continues as much in the editing-room as it first did on paper, in his preliminary notes (because Kramer, like Chantal Akerman, is a filmmaker who writes to ‘clear the ground’, set a direction, crystallise a mood or intuition ...), and then in the streets or rooms or on the Route One/USA.

When we speak of forging on or forging ahead, this has the double meaning of walking, and of making something. There is a documentary about John Cassavetes’ life and work which is called A Constant Forge – because to forge also means to struggle. The cinema of Robert Kramer is also a constant, endless forge, in every sense of the word. Point de départ is full of shots of feet, of walking; and images of every kind of making – crafting a shoe, constructing a building, shooting a film. And this film, Point de départ, in its extraordinary montage, is also a forged object – a woven, lattice-like construction, just like the complex, busy lattice patterns that Kramer’s camera-eye sees everywhere in the world: in bridges, in the shadows cast by curtains, in the bricks left on a construction site, on a movie set ... But, alongside this very corporeal kind of materialism, there is also the constant presence of speech, of conversation, of everyday debate, as another kind of forging that weaves in and through objects, events and bodies: after all, Kramer is the man who made a film called Walk the Walk, an American slang expression which goes with talk the talk and all its variations – walk the talk, talk the walk – thus wonderfully interweaving the motion of feet with the action of urgent words spoken out aloud.

What, indeed, is the starting point in Point de départ? Is it Kramer’s 1969 visit to Vietnam? Is it the history of the ‘people’s war’ itself? Is it a beloved pair of sandals, or the birth of a child? Is it Kramer’s friend, activist Linda Evans, locked up in an American prison? Each point of origin is the beginning of a different trajectory, a different story, a different history. Keja’s young life passes before our eyes in a few seconds, but Linda’s life is frozen in an excruciating kind of arrested motion: cut off from the world, she struggles to keep up with its changes, to ‘keep in touch’ as the Americans say. She continues the political fight, but only where she is locked in, in prison. Kramer is, seemingly, in-between the two speeds, extreme speed and extreme slowness; like Vertov or Welles, he wields the editing table as a time machine. His point de départ is, precisely, when he begins to make the film.


5. Ibid.










7. Serge Daney, ‘L'Enfant secret’, Rouge, no. 1 (2003).






Kramer joked that this attitude was part of his ‘well-meaning American’ side: ‘Let’s make a clean sweep!’ (5) Of course, Kramer’s tabula rasa or clean sweep has nothing to do with forgetting political history or erasing personal memory, as it so often does in the American popular culture of the second chance, that eternal sunshine of the spotless mind preached by daytime TV talk-shows. The obsession of Kramer’s radical cinema, like Philippe Garrel’s or Guy Debord’s, is the question of how to live in history, in passing time? Memory is an individual, subjective thing for Kramer (it is his eye, his voice, his mind, and no one else’s), but it is also and equally the memory of a community, a network of family, friends and associates (such as the vast chronological/biographical rhizome or matrix of names posted on his website). (6) Like Marker, Kramer recharges and expands his own memory-bank in order to map out the world, or as much of it as he can experience, through a chain of connections, affiliations, observations ...

Time passes, and it brings tragedies: those of Kramer’s friends who are dead, or imprisoned, or have gone mad, who have lost hope and dropped out of the struggle, or been forcibly oppressed and taken out of the struggle (like Linda Evans). History did not bring the utopia or the revolution that the 1960s briefly promised: it brought ashes, betrayal, sell-out, the worst of the worst. Like Serge Daney said, post-68 (or, in Kramer’s case, post-Newsreel) was the time of ‘trips and flips’. (7) Lost time, burnt-out, like the fatalistic motto of Easy Rider (1969): ‘We blew it’. Like Garrel’s ordinary lovers, missing the wave of the revolution and washing up on the floor. How does one keep living after all that disillusionment, what spirit can keep one alive and engaged?

Kramer takes another worn-out cliché of American pop psychology – being alive in the moment – and turns it into the militant basis of his art. Insofar as he is a documentarian, Kramer does not film clear, lucid, transparent situations like a television news cameraman does; Kramer films the event in all its messy complexity. He is ‘on the spot’, as the TV news likes to say, but that spot is not a detached point of relation to the event, and nor does it offer a clean shot at what is going on around it. Everywhere Kramer looks, he sees complexity – and complexity is what keeps him alive, engaged.






8. Michel Serres interviewed by Terry Blake, in ‘On Matters Foreign’, Local Consumption (Australia), no. 1 (1981), p. 58.


Most films – whether documentaries, or fictions based on the real events of history – are terribly anxious about signalling the event. They tell us before the event: ‘Little did I realise where destiny would lead me ...’. They tell us after the event: ‘I would remember that moment every day of my life’. Even during the event, the narrator-filmmaker-enunciator cannot trust himself: he loads the events with signs, pointers, markers (‘at last the day has arrived!’), dramatic elaborations – lest we miss the crucial, life-changing and world-changing detail. Kramer starts from somewhere else entirely: when you are in the event, maybe you don’t know it, maybe you will miss it, maybe you will be looking elsewhere, in the wrong direction, at the wrong thing. But maybe that is, then, where the event is, and what it is: like Michel Serres, Kramer has a method or strategy which ‘accepts fluctuations’ because ‘the object is never properly constituted. One always works on distributions, studies objects that are disordered, clouds, crowds.’ (8) And there are many clouds and crowds in Point de départ.

Being alive in relation to the event, however, also ‘relativises’ Kramer’s own self. He never gives us the impression of a monstrous ego bestriding the world, a sovereign King Kong seeing all from on high – the sort of messianism which even Vertov and his cameraman Mikhail Kaufman fell for, a little, in Man with a Movie Camera (1929). Kramer is more on the side of the Jean Vigo of À propos de Nice (1930). The event he films is the event as philosophised by Michel Foucault:


9. Michel Foucault (trans. D.F. Bouchard & S. Simon), ‘Theatrum Philosophicum’, Language, Counter-Memory, Practice: Selected Essays and Interviews (Ithaca, New York: Cornell University Press, 1977), p. 173.   Let us imagine a stitched causality: as bodies collide, mingle, and suffer, they create events on their surfaces, events that are without thickness, mixture, or passion (...) They form, among themselves, another kind of succession ... (9)  



Kramer’s way of shooting naturally gives rise to the weave of his editing, because Kramer truly sees in depth, even microscopically: look at the moment near the very end of Point de départ when a man’s finger touches the surface of a photograph, and the focus shifts rapidly, back and forth, to capture even the dots on the photo’s surface, a dance of abstract and concrete ... Kramer is a great artist of the mobile focal lens.

Foucault himself speculated, in his essay on the painter Gérard Fromanger, about the dynamic collision of the event as perceived or lived, and the act of photography (plus, in Fromanger’s case, the painting based on the projection of a photo-slide) that transforms it further:






10. Gérard Fromanger, pp. 92-3.

  What is he looking for? Not so much what might have been happening at the moment the photo was taken, but the event which is taking place and which continues endlessly to take place in the image, by virtue of the image; the event which is conveyed along an exchange of glances, in a hand which grabs a wad of notes, along the line of force between a glove and a bolt, through the invasion of a body by a landscape. (...) To create a painting-event on the photo-event. To generate an event that transmits and magnifies the other, which combines with it and gives rise, for all those who come to look at it, and for every particular gaze that comes to rest on it, to an infinite series of new passages (...) a myriad surging images. (10)  


  Kramer, all his life, sought what Gilles Deleuze called (in the 1969 The Logic of Sense) the ‘mobile instant’ of the event. The self – like the dots in that photo – constantly dissolves and reassembles in the baroque complexity of any given moment. In a touching passage which is crucial to our deep understanding of Kramer’s work, Deleuze wrote:  


11. Gilles Deleuze (trans. M. Lester), The Logic of Sense (London, New York: Continuum, 2001), p. 172.

  In one case, it is my life, which seems too weak for me and slips away at a point which, in a determined relation to me, has become present. In the other case, it is I who am too weak for life, it is life which overwhelms me, scattering its singularities all about, in no relation to me, nor to a moment determinable as the present, except an impersonal instant which is divided into still-future and already-past. (11)  


  Foucault again:  


12. Michel Foucault, ‘Theatrum Philosophicum’, p. 174.

  We should not restrict meaning to the cognitive core that lies at the heart of a knowable object; rather, we should allow it to re-establish its flux at the limit of words and things, as what is said of a thing (not its attribute or the thing in itself) and as something that happens (not its process or its state). (12)  



In Kramer’s cinema, these words take on a precise figurative meaning. The flux of ‘what is said’ is, for him, also a matter of images that double, complicate and complexify the real: still photos, billboards, signs, moving images of every kind (film, TV, video, computer, digital). We know that Kramer was something of a prophet of the information age and its cyber-fiction, and that he became obsessed, in his last works, with the ‘ghosts of electricity’ haunting the living. In Point de départ, the numerous still photos (taken by Kramer himself) never replace or usurp the film image; instead they multiply the edges, the borders, the vistas of the image-event: always photos unframed, stacked atop each other, held or moved by hands, scanned by eyes ... an instant photo-montage, as quick and easy as in Godard’s films and videos of the ‘70s; Photo et cie (‘Photo and Co.’) could have been a great Kramer title.

Another aspect of the flux of images within an event is something that is elsewhere a facile cliché, but Kramer made it his own and revived it: the film being made inside a film. For Kramer as for many filmmakers, from bad (Blier) to good (Ferrara), the exchanges and relations that happen on a movie stage immediately set in motion a ceaseless disruption of ‘this old dichotomy between documentary and fiction’. In Notre Nazi (1984), we are plunged into a situation we barely, and only slowly, understand: the filming of Thomas Harlan’s experimental feature Wundkanal: Execution in Four Voices (1984), in which true-life ex-SS officer Alfred Filbert, now very old, is ‘put on trial’ for the camera, without him suspecting what is to come or why he is really there. Kramer’s confronting film is an essay about the sticky complicity of everyone present at this event, each bringing their own history, their own political ideology, their own desires to take revenge, to seek redemption or compassion, or just to put their heads down and ‘get the job done’ professionally, or (in the case of Filbert) to be a star, a part of the magnificent, magical, seductive world of cinema, even if it kills him ... Few films have delved so deeply into the ambiguity and reversibility of ‘the spectacle’, and the strange zone of amorality it draws around its participants. And few films have probed so relentlessly into the paradoxes and dilemmas of living in historical time, the sticky problem of forgive-and-forget, of guilt eternal or contingent. But, beyond its content (which often remains deliberately obscure), Notre Nazi is a film where complicity is created as a material, figural thing by how Kramer films the event: always lost in the middle of everything unfolding, always fascinated by indistinct textures, by the overlaps between figure and ground, face and machine, hand and smoke ... And the way Harlan’s film comes to function within Kramer’s is not as clear-cut illustrative clips but as further elaborations of this very confusion and indistinctness.

In the second plateau of Point de départ, we see an American woman, speaking in English; the tone between her and Kramer is knowing, intimate, full of shared history. Who is she, where is she? Eventually we will know that she is Linda Evans, inside an American jail. But, at the very moment when we encounter her in this wild, undetermined fashion, Kramer films her like no documentary maker would film her. It is more like Stan Brakhage’s The Act of Seeing with One’s Own Eyes (1972): the camera moves around her eyes, parts of her face, very close-up; it studies the changing play of light and shadow on her. This drift into abstraction eventually collides with a very concrete vision: the heartbreaking shot which shows us, at last, some of the prison grounds outside her window. How can all this ‘information’ exist as part of the one event? Almost any other filmmaker would cut or censor out half of these inputs; Kramer seeks, encourages and multiplies them. He seizes the event, ‘scattering its singularities all about’; it’s his way of living in the moment, and keeping the moment open to generative forces of time. That’s also why the endings of his films are usually so light, limpid and open: the destination never ‘closes a circle’, bringing the point de départ back into its single line of foreseen destiny; rather, it inaugurates a new launching pad towards a possible, unforeseen future ...



13. Chris Fujiwara, ‘US 1: The Independence of Robert Kramer’, The Boston Phoenix, 6-13 January 2000.


Robert Kramer’s film and video work – plus the life, the self, he created in and through that work – is vast: deep and wide and fast like a mighty river. But one has only to begin the journey down that rapids anywhere, at any epoch or with any title, from any starting point, to know, as Chris Fujiwara felt: ‘I've seen three Kramer films, and I have no doubt that he was a real filmmaker, one of the only ones.’ (13)

A shorter version of this essay was commissioned and translated into French by Cyril Béghin for the book Robert Kramer which accompanied the Kramer retrospective at Magic Cinéma, Bobigny, in March 2006.


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© Adrian Martin and Rouge June 2006. Cannot be reprinted without permission of the author and editors.
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