Chris Marker Notes from the Era of Imperfect Memory

Robert Kramer, Point de départ / Starting Place

Robert Kramer tribute to Chris Marker - citation - memory
“I wonder how people used to remember when they didn’t take pictures.”

Take a look at the Marker-inspired Robert Kramer film, Point de départ, from 1993.

“One day or other all these films that I’m making will make up a single long film, a story that is always developing.”
Robert Kramer

Starting Place | Point de Départ
Directed by Robert Kramer
France 1993, 35mm, color, 83 min.
English, French, and Vietnamese with English subtitles

In this film from late in his career, Kramer returns to Hanoi after nearly 25 years to re-envision the city’s struggle through an uncertain and daunting past, present, and future. The Vietnamese characters in the film are diverse: Kramer’s former guide from an earlier visit in 1969; a tight-rope walker in the national circus; a man who took photos of B-52s and another who lost his fingers shooting them down.


Robert Kramer—who, according to Vincent Canby of the New York Times, “seems incapable of shooting a scene, framing a shot or catching a line of dialogue that isn’t loaded with levels of information one usually finds only in the best, most spare poetry”—died unexpectedly in France this past November at the age of sixty.

He left a singular body of work—as far from Hollywood as it was from underground or experimental films—that eventually, he felt, would “make up one long film . . . one ‘story’ in a continual process of becoming.” A committed leftist who emerged radicalized from his studies in philosophy and Western European history at Swarthmore and Stanford, he worked as a reporter in Latin America and organized a community project in a black neighborhood in Newark, New Jersey, before founding the Newsreel movement, an underground media collective which made some sixty documentaries and short films about radical political subjects and the antiwar movement between 1967 and 1971. Kramer made his mark in the 1960s as the great filmmaker of the American radical left with films like The Edge and Ice.

Embraced by the European intelligentsia, he eventually moved to Paris in the early 1980s, where he continued to produce fictionalized and documentary films on a range of subjects from Portugal’s April Revolution and post-independence Angola to the Tour de France—all the while maintaining his “uninterrupted dialogue with America.” Our series offers the opportunity to sample a range of Kramer’s rarely screened work and to pay tribute to this unique cinematic personality.

Harvard Film Archive

Although Mr. Kramer was best known in the United States for his radical early movies, notably The Edge, Ice and Milestones, he remained a prolific filmmaker after he moved to Paris in 1980. Doc’s Kingdom and Route 1/U.S.A. were among his later films that were also released in the United States. At the time of his death, he had just completed a new movie, Cities of the Plains.

New York Times, “Robert Kramer, 60, a Director Of Films With a Political Edge

One of the most insightful essays on Point de départ that I’ve encountered is by Adrian Martin in Rouge, where he discusses orientation and disorientation as a challenge to the spectator. As Adorno reminds us in The Essay as Form, essays start in media res. “It starts not with Adam and Eve but with what it wants to talk about; it says what occurs to it in that context and stops when it feels finished rather than when there is nothing to say.” In Montaigne, there is rarely any beginning, middle and end; the form is more spiral. The point of departure is the crux – it can be anywhere (and any-when), and serves as an initial break from the blank canvas, parchment or page. Its asymmetry and a-systematicity are its strengths, its tactical counter moves to monolithic works of art or philosophy that are enveloped in the mist of completeness, the encyclopedia, the Enlightenment dream. It is, or can be, molecular rather than molar, and to boot in both spatial and temporal dimensions. That may be why space and time often become its internal obsessions, the medium mixing with the message.

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.’ 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?

Adrian Martin, “Robert Kramer Films the Event”, Rouge

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Chris Marker Notes from the Era of Imperfect Memory
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