Revolutionary Roads: Robert Kramer at the Harvard Film Archive

RK Route1 Poster

A long-form poet of political cinema, Robert Kramer (1939-1999) may be the greatest American filmmaker we hardly knew. His unique alloys of fiction and documentary chronicle the doings and undoings of the revolutionary Left from the Sixties through the Eighties. Yet the perspectives offered in his films are prismatically personal: the hesitations of a militant on the eve of armed revolution, the ambivalent patriotism of a returning exile, the passions and prejudices of a lobster fisherman and a sardine-canning woman, a Southern Baptist campaigner and a New England Wiccan, inheritors of Civil War pedigrees and immigrants recently arrived. Although Kramer died before Bush fiascos and Obama prospects, his vigilant examinations of the American experience remain moving and timely.

Nearly a decade after his death, a trio of Kramer’s highest-impact films returns to the Harvard Film Archive, September 26 to 28, in “Robert Kramer’s Reports from the Road.” “Ice” (1969), the earliest work, is a pseudo-documentary thriller set within the operations of a militant radical group. “Milestones” (1975) tracks a set of loosely connected characters amid a sedated political landscape, as each seeks out a conscionable existence through communal, familial, or individual transformation. In the five-month-long drive (and 255-minute-long footage) that gives us “Route One / USA” (1989), Kramer delivers a rich array of under-represented voices along the highway from Fort Kent to Key West—in the spirit of a Robert Frank or a Studs Terkel, and resulting in nothing less than a people’s history of the late 80s.

A longer Kramer series unfolded this July at the Anthology Film Archives in New York. Although, yet precisely because, Kramer’s work is nearly impossible to find in library collections or to purchase copies of—and the following clips are both utterly unrepresentative and already rare—no one with even the faintest interest in the documentary tradition or in the American century at twilight should miss these screenings. (In a heartening nod to Kramer, incidentally, the annual summer International Seminar on Documentary Film has been calling itself Doc’s Kingdom.)

A clip from “Ice”:

A clip from “Milestones”:

A clip from “Route One / USA”:

Cold fusion

Today’s not particularly critical Critic’s Notebook (“India Resounding in New York”) in The New York Times surveys the overseas South Asian music scene — as every major NYC-centric generalist periodical seems to every seven months or so, whenever some nominally new item prompts re-inventory. The special occasion in this case may be Bombay Dreams on Broadway, an event too tepidly received to garner much prose of its own. Jon Pareles does an adequate job but little more than naming the usual names: Basement Bhangra, Bollywood Disco, the dear-departed Mutiny parties, DJ Rekha (materfamilias of the whole scene and single fixture of every article ever written on Desi music in the US), Nitin Sawhney, Karsh Kale.

Earlier this week, at Club Passim’s Arabesque Mondays, I saw a performance of classical Indian song and Indian-Arabic fusion by Falguni Shah (a.k.a. Falu), a vocalist on Kale’s Realize album and whose clarion and elasticity of voice surpass anyone’s I’ve heard in months. Accompanied by another singer/sitarist and an Indian-tabla player, she opened with a set of ghazals and qawwali (including “Allah Hoo” and “Tery Bina,” made famous by Nusrat’s recordings); in the second half they were joined by an oudist and an Egyptian-tabla player (Boston’s star percussionist Karim Nagi Mohammed). Falu is one to watch. Over the summer she can be seen in New York at the CBGB 313 Gallery and Mercury Lounge. Only after the Passim show did I realize I’d seen her before, when Karsh Kale and the Realize Live Band headlined Six Degree Records‘ Asian Massive Tour in October 2002 — a lively show, at S.O.B.’s in Tribeca, especially memorable for the turntablism of DJ Cheb i Sabbah. As Pareles mentions, Kale now has a residency at Kush (currently on summer hiatus).

On wunderkind A. R. Rahman, composer of Bombay Dreams, Pareles’ critical faculties and/or fact-checkers could do better: “while the Broadway show hints at styles from across the subcontinent, many numbers end up sounding like mildly exoticized Andrew Lloyd Webber.” No surprise there: Lord Lloyd Webber produced the entire show — the West End original as well as the Broadway retooling — having called up Rahman with the very idea in 1998. And it would be more accurate to say that those numbers sound like mildly de-exoticized A. R. Rahman. While Pareles notes influences on filmi music from “electro to salsa to surf music to funk with vocals that hint at ancient Indian traditions,” many songs in Bombay Dreams are undisguised rearrangements of Rahman’s earlier hits: dance-floor warhorses “Chaiyya Chaiyya” from Dil Se (1998) and “Mujhe Rang De” from Takshak (1999) become dance medleys, the twinkly ballad “Ishq Bina” from Taal (1999) loses luster in English as “Love’s Never Easy.” US reviews of the show I’ve come across consistently fail to acknowledge this recycling, which is also to miss a crucial point of its appeal for Bollywood-wise audiences: sing-a-long-ability. Still, as with many crossover projects, the songs of Bombay Dreams are ultimately so unsatisfying because they’re neither here nor there, rather than, say, the best of both worlds. The show’s primary appeal for me when I saw its March 29 preview was Farah Khan’s choreography: winsome razzle-dazzle, a lot more impressive than any chorus line.

Further proof of the affinity between the Victorian novel and Bollywood cinema: Farah Khan was hired by director Mira Nair (of Mississippi Masala, Monsoon Wedding) to choreograph a scene in her forthcoming adaptation of Thackeray’s Vanity Fair, starring Reese Witherspoon as Becky Sharp. (The lengthy trailer looks pretty good. Nair talks about the film in this interview.) It’s in academia, too: UC Berkeley Victorianist Priya Joshi’s next book will be on nationalism in Bollywood.

Incidentally, Farah Khan also choreographed the dances for this $60-million château shaadi.

Anno Anna

A few very recent, admissibly notable events:

Anna Karenina bolts to No. 1 in bestselling paperback fiction. On her May 27 show, still days before the official announcement, Oprah whispered a few hints to guest Sharon Stone about her next Book Club selection. For any alert lit-critter, Stone’s remarks in response were a dead giveaway: a timeless story, a long novel that isn’t as intimidating as it seems, about a woman of yore, her passions, her todestrieb. This is an event impervious to high-brow snickering: for better if also for (i.e., symptomatic of) worse, Oprah will have done more for this classic than many a literature professor. Just think: across the beaches of North America thousands of women will be reading Tolstoy for the first time! Will there ever have been more copies of a single novel open at the same time under the sun? WGBH Boston seems clued in: this weekend it begins re-airing the 2000 UK/Masterpiece Theatre adaptation, starring Helen McCrory (Anna), Kevin McKidd (Vronsky), Douglas Henshall (Levin), Amanda Root (Dolly; excellent as Anne in Persuasion), and Paul Rhys (Nikolai; excellent in Gallowglass). Ophah’s Book Club proceedings can be found here.

Listening to Furtngler again and more, thanks to the wonderful Wilhelm Furtwängler Orgy on wonderful WHRB. What other conductor, apart from Knappertsbusch, can make Bruckner’s plodding transitions sound so convincing, inevitable even? The EMI remastered 1952 Tristan & Isolde is a fulgent force of nature.