The Masschusets-based artist Eric Malone was recently kind enough to send me a catalogue from the 2001 Yamagata International Film Festival 2001 dedicated to Robert Kramer. The catalogue features some amazing pieces written by Kramer, his family, collaborators and critics—some of which are not available anywhere else, and many originally written in French which have not, to my knowledge, been translated into English anywhere else. One such piece is presented below, written by Kramer’s former cameraman Richard Copans and originally published in Vincent Vatrican and Cédric Venail’s Trajets á travers le cinéma de Robert Kramer (Institut de l’image, 2001). Since it’s not available anywhere else on the net, and fits in with some of the issues I’ve been exploring on this blog (and would have been an invaluable reference for my thesis), I thought it was worth putting up. If Mr. Copans is out there and objects, I will remove it at his request.
It is night.
In a printing plant in Montreuil, occupied by workers who refuse to let the plant be closed, it is also night. A cool night in April 1974. Pompidou has died. The electoral campaigns are beginning. There is a wave of strikes and sit-ins. The Cinelutte collective to which I belong has decided to film them against the background of the electoral campaign: we will film the strikes from the bottom up (the-only-politically-correct-way-to-advance-class-consciousness-and-to-transform-society) by opposing them to the electoral lies (to-the-lies-of-bourgeois-democracy-and-to-the-betrayals-of-reformists-and-revisionists). I have already been filming the Darboy printers for one month. It is night, and I am filiming in this printing plant where the workers sleep.
Later, much later, I will learn that I changed cinema in that night. Unknowingly, I left militant cinema.
At the time (1974), there are fifteen militant cinema groups in France. All see themselves as “small vises in the large machine of the revolution.” Employed and defined first of all by their political line, their relation to the strikes and the organisations and working within hazardous modes of production (the re-use of footage from other productions, working at night in editing suites, small budgets, plundering, circuits of materials stolen from the ORTF, work for free) these groups are also intolerant of each other. We shun deviations and mistaken political lines. We speak rarely of cinema, even though we make it. We are part of a planetary movement. We are not alone. Everwhere people are picking up arms and filmmakers picking up cameras. Even in the belly of the most deserted form of Imperialism, americanimperialism, collectives are filming with blacks in the ghettos, with the antiwar movement, with Mexican agricultural laborers, with, with, with … On a national scale, we make dozens of copies for, for for … Every shot they film is a nail in Hollywood’s coffin. Like us, they are collective, anonymous, political. They are called Newsreel. They are our brothers in film.
That night, filming in the cool night of the Parisian suburbs, I was not thinking at all of Newsreel. It’s highly likely I wasn’t thinking of anything. Mostly of all, I was preoccupied with what I must film. In the occupied factory, workers sleep in the armchairs of the management’s offices. They have not even brought duvets or covers. What’s more, the printing plant is not heated; they content themselves with their shirts. They are curled up, twisted, ungainly. They slumber. Some really look as though they are sleeping. There is even one who snores. No political debates. No activities necessary for the fight, no clashes of lines; rather, still bodies, closed eyes, the sound of breathing and the murky neon light.
How to film sleeping workers? How to film when nothing is said?
Luckily Thérése is not asleep. She is an offset printing technician. She wears a white blouse, clear sign of the printing press workers. She is also a bit older. She is very soft. She draws: one of the young people asleep, one who continues to snore, a huge mouth, semi-long hair, a short, tight belted leather jacket. Later, we will imagine adventures. But for now, the only activity in these offices is Thérése’s gaze, her pencil, her sketchbook and her softly-moving hand.
And it is without a doubt because she is watching that I can film. My gaze is possible, behind hers. Like an open door, I can film. As they say, I can enter into the scene. I press myself onto her to film those who sleep. A gaze, the direction of a look, an activity, a connection possible between the drawing and the real sleeper, a tenderness, a feeling. I let myself be overcome by the true feelings of this moment of life: my own fatigue, my own tenderness (for Thérése?). There is none of the exultation of great moments of the fight, none of the desperate waiting for the “right” word in the discourse of the militant, none of the “legitimate” fundamentals of Cinélutte.
As for the sentiment of the moment, it is not nothing; a marvellous depth to the moment. given rhythm by the breath of those asleep, without a doubt touched by this sudden intimacy with still bodies, this somewhat surprising intimacy which the power which it has given me and the confidence it has granted me do not allow.
Today I will talk of the Present (as the present moment) and of Grace (as a moment of shared greace).
One night in December of 1975, I saw Robert Kramer’s Milestones in a theatre.
I cried as I rarely cry at the theatre. It touched too many buttons at once. Was this film? Was it life? A moment in life when film touches you and it hurts. I thought it was real, a documentary (but no! it was staged for the camera, and the blind man was also operating the camera). I made myself blind with this portrait of utopia—without seeing in it any critical distance.
Someone was speaking to me. Political had become sensitive, a series of images, a unique medium in which reason and feeling became confused.
Hollywood and the Newsreels gave birth to a new cinema. Les Cahiers du Cinema will include Milestones as one of the best films of the year.
I dare approach the worker who snores, “covered” by his snorts. Another, dozing, smiles at me softly. Thérése looks at me. I film.
I film with a Coutant, an Éclair 16, no doubt “borrowed” from IDHEC for a student project. A marvelous camera, but one whose weight pulls the arm down intolerably—it does not balance on the shoulder (as would an Aaton), it leans on the front. You have to hold it well, solidly, when you are looking down over someone asleep. The physical sense of risk and of physical effort give a sharpness to my activity. They sleep. Concentrated, I think.
And yet there is no feeling of distance. We are together. I am not “stealing” these shots. We have been together for several weeks. With bonds of friendship, sharing meals, pinball at neighhbouring restaurant, discussions, demonstrations, sharing the occupation. We speak of solidarity. We have it. But that is not all. There is also interaction: they are flattered by our presence, by our mundane, affectionate presence, even if our political motives are a bit obscure. Ourselves, we’re proud to have been accepted by these workers day after day.
I do not steal these shots. I film my comrades in the fight. In a certain way, I have become a “Darboy.” It’s illusory, of course, and I know it. But it is more than political solidarity, even if we are not family.
We are sharing a community of life.
I am living a greater experience; I feel the world in a richer way: there is concern, laughter, anger, desire bodies, things that mean nothing, silence and feeling in what I live at Darboy. And the differences and antagonisms can live together in a community of life that surpasses groups, groupings, unions, professional memberships and social classes.
Be careful! Bleating humanism? No, and not at all.
It is more the discovery of the community created by cinema, the community that renders it possible and of which it is only a trace. An idea much more vast and fundamental than “it is good to talk together, we are all human beings” or “the more the merrier.” No, direct cinema rests on the very idea of shared grace itself.
In december 1979, a producer friend, Héléne Vager, introduced me to Robert, recently arrived from Portugal, and to his images of class struggle. Bathed in the aureole of Newsreel and Milestones, he could say anything—I love him already. The technician in search of work who meets a director is often in this state of generous availability, ready to love his master immediately at the time of a film. The search for work, the mutual need for recognition, the desire for images to share, the want to find one’s place in a power relationship, all of these come together to create scenes with a strong potential for seduction. Yes, seduction.
I think there was a drama underwau there, in the middle of the Atlantic more precisely: Robert, half-exiled, in refusal and searching, and me, half-American, curious about this America (my natal land, even if only halfway) that I refused so obstinately, and half- already departed for another country. Reunited in what we wanted to escape and love at the same time. Since then, we have become friends. It is community like any other.
Filming that night, it was not voyeurism, even the contrary—it was filming at that moment when theere is nothing to see. I am to make a film (not vague residue with a political image).
It is night. Not a work: mystery, magic, the shadows of bodies. It’s hard to be “antirevisionist” at a moment like this. Even if this tactic of occupation breaks with the CGT official party line, I am not filming the illustration of a tactic. I am trying to seize the full feeling of this common moment of a common experience. I am trying to be in it entirely. With my desires for images, my ideas too well formed and the depth of life that I wish to taste. Deleuze would surely speak of the arrangement of my desire. The community is even stronger because this moment is made of my filmmaker’s desire and of the workers’ fatigue, the one adding to the other. Community is founded in difference, in singularity and identity, not in repression and the “collective”.
In other words, today I think that I left militant cinema for the cinema, abandoned a cloak of certainties for the indetermination of time lived in the present, and tried to live this experience of the occupied factory in all its depth. Prettying it up a bit, of course, but I have an excuse: it was only the beginning of a long road not yet travelled, a road which seems to become longer (stretch) as I travel it.
A small moment of life whose lessons I have been able to gasp twenty years later.
An English word, pronounced “expirientz,” an excellent example of a word that cannot be translated, so close and yet so far, a false friend. Far indeed from the white mice of the laboratory. It is neither accumulated knowledge nor a mode of discovery. In English, in Robert’s mouth, it is a strong word. It is a brute block of life, speech, action, the self, others, the feeling of the moment, the gaze, the physical perception of the body in the world, all of this together. It is a way of being in the world, a way of being in the world in more than words, with cold biting at one’s feet, the wind howling and a body in pain.
But there is nothing passive about the moment. There is no experience without a project, without desire.
And the project is cinema, all cinema, nothing but the cinema.
How to place oneself in the whole world so that it leaves a trace on the film?
Without Robert ever having made his films.
To test, to feel out the world? But who is at the test of the other in this experience?
To be completely in this experience, the feeling of the present, of time in the process of passing, this is the level on which experience unfolds.
In which lie the accumulated dawns and successive dusks, all the signs of time that pass in shared risk when living with the actors and the crew. Sharing experience.
This music to which I have been listening all day ever since I was born, not because I am a Black American but because my father broadcast jazz on the radio (Jazz in Liberty, Deep River) and prepared his shows at home.
A music lightly improvised (in part or in entirety) by a collective of musiicans within a framework set partly in advance. There is Africa, the slaves, the fanfares, the rhythms, the improvisations, the responses and, when it is good, the ineffable feeling of being there together. We often filmed this way, a small group of actors and technical staff: Robert at the camera, Olivier doing the sound, Katell adjusting it all and me, my eyes glued to the sky, the lens and that which is out of range: the glance between us, synchronised movements, the feeling of filming catastrophe, inaudible sound, a face that is too dark, at each moment.
And when we stop! Ah! When we make cuts, this impression of happiness like jazz musicians after a particularly good session.
The feeling of danger.
The absolute feeling of the present that lasts.
And the joy of having lived together in that moment. And maybe that danger, that moment of a small community, has even transferred to the film. At no other time do we ever live so intensely this feeling of being with others. Like being up to mischief. Finally infringing on this unbearable break between ourselves and the world.
Being with others.
Being in the world.
A vocabulary word of those who play jazz on Robert’s films. A word that was introduced. A word that is re-used (“To move through space from one point to another” The Petit Larousse), invented with great difficulty in Lisbon during Doc’s Kingdom: how to understand the Doctor’s trajectory between his house at the edge of the Tage and the hospital downtown: the containers, the small street with the bar, the shantytowns, the slaughterhouses, the azulejos of the hospital. How to avoid description, imagery, topography? How to feel this whole accumulation of the world without having to use the actor as a relay or a mirror? How to put this experience, this trajectory—not just space, the feeling of experiencing the world and time passing—in the film?
Worries. Troubles. Blockages. We had to stop filming one day, we have to do many scenes over again, redefine moments, make a considerable effort to succeed.
The world is codified: in Route One/USA, it is an imposing figure.
In Walk the Walk, it begins to fall into disuse.
Between haiku and action painting, a cinematographic form which lives and dies.
To go from one place to another while time passes, for light to transform itself to transmit a feeling: we do without words, without the bodies of actors. Visual poetry for sure, but energetic enough to not interfere with the narration. The fiction continues even when one is looking at the world without the classic crutches of comedians and dialogue. We must look and move ahead at the same time.
To place the gaze in the same way as we speak of placing a photograph, long enough to see, but never long enough to rest. There is danger, experience, jazz, a frantic search to inscribe on the film how we are in the world: between fusion and divergence, orphan and actor, gaze and mirror.
Experience is in the present. All the signs of time passing are accumulated: the weather report, the path of the sun, real gtraces of the physical test of filming.
The paradox is that in order to seize this time, we need to delay the gaze. Oh, not much—the time that separates two photograms, the time it takes to blink the eyes, the time that separates looking and seeing. Most of all, the time that separates a camera which follows the event of a gaze which imposes its own rhythm.
The time of a gaze that shows that someone is fimling. Affirming this discrepancy is not as simple for me: the cameraperson’s training pushes rather to see everything, or maybe it is but a sign of my impatience, of the rapidity of my desire. I have had to learn over the years to reinstall the immanence of the Present in the delay.
Aside: I have no taste for complicated words or academicisms. But how to make one see the magic of certain moments, certain, of our belief in cinema? How?
For Robert, who has been holding the camera since Route One/USA, this time is also a particular physical engagement. Between tai-chi, brushings, slidings, an extreme concentration and the slowness of a body dancing with the world.
As if the gaze (this aside of time) is accompanied by an aside of space: not in the axis but transversal, sliding, resounding with what is filmed. These are not the notes of the melody, only the harmonics.
It is most certainly larger than political engagement. It is the engagement of a poetic relation with the world: a fusion of the body, the gaze, the spirit and the world. But it is also certainly the opposite of passive absorption, of an ideal fusion.
It is a project, a movement, a desire, with only the feeling that so many others are in this engagement and ready for dialogue. To be, to be complete (in the world) but to make a film which speaks to others: in this movement, this engagement, the world will move.
It is also the engagement of the body. Putting it to the test. The way in which the body reacts (fatigue, heat and cold, illness, tension or relaxation), it is proof of engagement, of dialogue and of combat. This proof can leave its traces on the film, in the shot, in the frame.
Engagement is closer to Rimbaud than to Ché.
For a long time I believed that Robert had abandoned politics to become an auteur-filmmaker. I saw an insurmountable contradiction; I was incapable of thinking about anything but the virtues of collective action. I had an old Leninist foundation; and I had always loved to “make things with many.” This reserve did not at all keep me from abandoning all once a film with Robert appeared.
It took me a long time to accept that politics is more than a way of being in the world than it is a flag. More a way of living in the present than an end to waiting. I learned very late that Robert, one of the founders of Newsreel, had left it so early because he was being suffocated in the collective.
It took me a long time to understand that grave lives in many and that spending one’s life making these moments means winning one’s life, not losing it. It took me a long time to articulate desire and politics, the singular and the communal.
I have been searching for the title for a long time.
“Testing the world” (Épouver le monde) imposes a test on the world as it does on the filmmaker.
The Larousse says that it is “trying something in order to verify its value or quality.”
“To prove oneself” (Se prouver) is not so far away. There are also “Test” (Épreuve) and “Proofs” (Preuves). There is feeling something in one’s body, having a sensation, an emotion.
There is “Experience.”
There is “Appreciation” and “To Verify.”
Who puts the other to the test?
Translated from the French by Sarah Teasley
[Handwritten note above taken from a letter written by Kramer, accessible here.]