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Not Home, But Back: Looking for America in "Route One/USA"

A new restoration of Robert Kramer's American opus brings ideas of origin and history to the forefront once again.
Matt Turner
“They've all come to look for America. All come to look for America. All come to look for America”
—Simon & Garfunkel, "America"
“That’s the Doctor”, says Robert Kramer at the start of Route One/USA (1989), talking sullenly over a series of shots of a sharply dressed man stepping off a freight ship and onto dry land. “We’ve been away a long time. We decided to come back together”, Kramer adds, before clarifying—“not home, but back.” He then starts to murmur, before trailing off. “Back there, behind you, the origins, the start.” After a pause, “let’s go” he says, reasserting his confidence through direct address. “Let’s go North, all the way North to where Route 1starts.” An intermittently audible but otherwise entirely invisible presence in his own documentary, Kramer says all that he needs to say about the film in these opening moments, introducing the mood and the mission before setting things in motion. He and Doc—the doctor in question—will travel the length of U.S. Route 1, driving all 3,813 kilometers from Fort Kent, Maine to Key West, Florida, stopping in the many major cities that pop up along the way and meeting the people who call these places home.
Kramer’s introductory ramble is humble, but his ambition is grander than it may at first seem. Doc—played by Kramer’s friend Paul McIsaac—has been away from America for a decade, working as a doctor in Africa. Now it is 1988, and he’s back and wants to see what has changed. Primarily, this story is the set-up for a road trip, but it also serves as a structuring element to make this film more than a straightforward indulgence. By traveling the length of the country, Doc—a character McIsaac and Kramer created together and have described as “a synthesis, one expression of our generation and of the creative tension between two very different people”—is looking to identify something in particular: what is America like for those living in it at this particular point in history, and does the country still have anything to offer him, as an individual who is as marginal and overlooked as those who he interviews? Is this somewhere he actually wants to return to? As well as a fitting frame for a loose regional survey, these were questions that Kramer was invested in too, having been away from the US for a decade himself. After being involved in the foundation of Newsreel in 1967, a radical documentary filmmaking collective in New York that looked to show the world as it was really was and not as mainstream news portrayed it, then making a number of moderately successful political films like Ice (1969) and Guns (1970) in America as a solo director, Kramer resettled in Paris. There, he found his work and his political sensibilities better appreciated, making a number of striking films situated in the (at that point) under-explored space between fiction and documentary, including Milestones (1975), an expansive, ambitious film about radical life in 1960s America, and Doc’s Kingdom (1987), about an American exile (named Doc, played by McIsaac) fleeing to Portugal. For many reasons, but not least his anti-imperialist and anti-capitalistic sensibilities, Kramer, who passed away in 1999, never found the acclaim he was met with in France in his homeland. Despite this, using Doc as his conduit, with Route One/USA he decided to make his homecoming.
So off they go together, trying to look for America. The results are hugely engrossing, even if the journey is somewhat digressive in structure and discursive in form. Running just over four hours, the film plays out something like a travelogue, but doesn’t function effectively as such. The places that the pair visit are never labeled. Often they are easily recognizable from the surrounding scenery or other contextual clues, but sometimes not. The pair stay in some places longer than others, but when stopping, do not necessarily visit the area’s most significant sites. Eccentric characters are given a central position. The film mixes the conventions of the landscape film with a more human-interest focused observational documentary format, wherein vox-pop interviews are conducted with the public, with Doc talking candidly in character with those he meets. Alongside this, elements of narrative drama are interspersed, slotting the mass of material into a loose fictitious shape and keeping things interesting.
Much of the landscape imagery seen is recorded from the window of a moving car, yet Kramer’s cinematography is consistently beautiful. The scenery moves by fast, with only brief glances given to the landscapes the pair pass through, but many images are indelible, and each is well-framed, precisely selected. Cuts come fast, given the film’s considerable duration, giving the sensation of being a passenger in the backseat of their car, capturing fleeting glimpses of a world moving by almost as fast as it arrives. There is a preponderance of sunsets and marine coastal views, but frequent slices of mundanity too. The locations they stop at are varied, but each serves some illustrative purpose, displaying something about its contemporary difficulties or historical maladies. Talking about Kramer’s film Milestones, David Fresco writes that the film explores “how an American past characterized slavery, indigenous subjugation, labor suppression, and imperialist aggression persists into the present and therefore weighs upon the future.” This is true of Route One/USA too—history is always present.
Early on, they visit a Native American bingo hall in Maine, and a Baptist Church in New England, then later spend time in Miami’s Haitian communities. Each of these engagements are loaded somehow, weighted with things unsaid. Viewers may have ideas about what they are expected to feel when, for instance, they see one Church minister suggest his congregation unleash daily beatings on their children to prevent them ever stepping out of line, or another later suggest that racism is not a reality in America but a problem of perception created by misrepresentation of race-relations in the media. Verbally, however, Doc and Kramer never show their hand. Few opinions about what unfolds are offered, and no real judgements are made, let alone any kind of more overt or preachy form of polemic. Later still, Doc joins workers on a fishing trawler, at a carnival, in a monopoly factory, and then in various public schools, soup kitchens, and hospitals too. He spends time on the campaign trail with presidential candidate Jesse Jackson, witnessing the grandeur of political spectacle, then observes ordinary ceremonies like weddings and thanksgiving celebrations. In most instances, the perspective is unorthodox: thanksgiving dinner takes place in a homeless shelter, the wedding is between two teenagers, one who is an ex-con. Some stops even feel touristic, as when Doc and Kramer plod through the forests of Concord, Massachusetts to visit Henry David Thoreau’s home, or when they visit Florida’s Tragedy in US History Museum in St. Augustine, Florida, home to what is referred to as the “Jayne Mansfield death car.” Some sequences seem spontaneous, whilst others feel more intricately orchestrated. Few seem redundant.
But, as Kramer puts it early on, this is a film about “life on Route 1,” as opposed to a film about the road itself. As such, a majority of the film's run-time is dedicated to conversation. Doc canvasses people candidly about the place that they live and how they perceive its position within the country at large, as well as the problems they face and the future they see for themselves and around them. The responses are eclectic, but the tone is set somewhat by an elderly woman who states early on that “we are living in the end days.” Doc too is often despairing. Following a meltdown in Fort Bragg which brings ghosts of a military past back to the forefront of his mind, he addresses the camera performatively. “I’ve been gone 10 years and I come back and everything’s different except nothing has changed,” he says. “The same battles are still going on here.”
In this regard, the film feels timeless. Filming in 1988, Doc notes that what he is seeing and hearing in America then mirrors his own experiences from ten years prior. Two decades later, contemporary viewers watching the film may experience a similar sensation of deja-vu.  Kramer’s choice of subjects are connected by one thing in particular: as marginal figures, they are the sort of people who are usually overlooked. Doc asks the same question often: “what kind of a future do you see for us?” This question links the film directly with Brett Story’s The Hottest August (2019), which also picks up on the same societal-cross-section vox-pop interview tradition seen in Jean Rouch and Edgar Morin’s Chronicle of a Summer (1961) or Chris Marker and Pierre Lhomme’s Le Joli Mai (1963) that Kramer is building upon in Route One/USA. Story surveys a variety of ordinary Americans this same speculative question, and even though in her film it is asked within a context of contemporary climate catastrophe rather than late-era Reagan America, the answers prove oddly similar in tone. Those interviewed in Route One/USA express varying concerns covering racial, economic, political, and religious issues, but all share much the same outlook on the future—they don’t see one for themselves. They either live in a continuous present, or find the future too bleak to contend with. It is hard to speak about America then or now without resorting to clichés: people are polarized, the nation is divided etc. Kramer—older and calmer (and maybe more wary too) than he was when he was making films in America—is too smart to make his own politics central in this particular film. Speaking about his filmmaking in general, Kramer has said that community is his principal subject, a claim to which this film attests. “For me, each film was in itself the creation of a community, a community of gestures, the sharing of a frame, of a space, of time.” Doc, who acts as his proxy, never puts words in anyone’s mouth, and gives everyone he meets time and space to speak and be truly listened to.
Late in the film, Doc states the ambition for the trip more explicitly. “I just wanna meet people in a different way,” he says. “Rather than becoming more of an observer, I feel that I’ve melted a little bit more into a community.” Not long after, Doc has settled down in Dade County, Florida, treating patients in a local practice and living beside the water amongst the Haitians. A film director and his surrogate, two detached and distant travelers, return “not home, but back” to America, and find themselves, despite all their best intentions, blending back in. As much as they may try to remain distant from it, America swallows them whole.

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