Route One is a historic American highway with a rich history spanning three centuries. It starts in Key West, Florida and ends in Fort Kent, Maine and some of the cities along the way include Miami, Washington, New York City and Boston. Filmmaker Robert Kramer decided to travel the entire route in 1988 with his friend Paul McIsaac and make a film about the journey. Part of his intent was to explore and document the lives and mind set of the people he met along the way but also to come to terms with his own feelings about America after living abroad for almost a decade. The completed film, Route One USA (1989), is a fascinating mosaic of American culture and much more than just a time capsule since it reveals the roots of the polarization and fragmentation that is affecting our country today.
Presented in two parts, Route One USA runs four hours and 15 minutes but it is not an endurance test for the viewer. It unfolds like some epic home movie that is both intimate and contemplative but also poetic in its narrative sweep, mixing Stephen Shore-like imagery with literary allusions (Paul quotes some of Walt Whitman’s Song of the Open Road at the film’s beginning). On the surface, Route One USA might look and feel a cinema-verite documentary but the façade is deceptive and viewers are not informed at the get-go about the off-screen realities of the filmmaking process.
Paul McIsaac, who serves as the on-screen interviewer and observer for most of the journey, is a doctor who has just returned from Africa where he treated patients for ten years. Doc (his nickname in the film) is actually a fictitious character who serves as a stand-in for Robert Kramer, who was a recently returned expatriate. The bits and pieces about Doc’s background that are revealed in the course of the trip are semi-autobiographical reflections of both Kramer and McIsaac’s own experiences. “Doc is a synthesis, one expression of our generation and of the creative tension between two very different people,” McIsaac once noted in an appraisal of Kramer’s work.
The other aspect of the film that blurs the line between documentary and fiction is that all of the people who are filmed and interviewed in Route One USA were informed in advance that Doc is an actor playing a part. What is remarkable is the fact that this kind of artifice was not problematic for the interviewees. “I can’t remember a single person who said, ‘Get out of my face’ or who didn’t get it,” Kramer recalled. “They immediately played their role. People know what it is to play themselves.”
Filmed over a period of six months, Route One USA was made with a minimal crew of six people including McIsaac as the talent. Kramer was the cinematographer/director, producer Richard Copans handled the lighting and additional camerawork, the sound was recorded by Olivia Swab and Christine LaGoff and Jordan Stone served as production assistants. Kramer launches his road trip in New York City’s harbor as Doc arrives by ship and they travel to Fort Kent, Maine to begin their journey.
McIsaac’s experience as an actor – he appeared in two previous Kramer films, Ice (1970) and Doc’s Kingdom (1988) – serves him well in his portrayal as Doc. He has a relaxed, natural screen presence and his casual interview style is less like a professional journalist than an emphatic stranger who has a genuine curiosity about everyone he meets. Among the many people he encounters on the road are a lobster fisherman who plays the bagpipes, a religious couple who attend a Pat Robertson benefit, a female doctor in an abortion clinic, a tour guide at the 54th Regiment Memorial near the Boston Common, a Cuban social worker, a house painter turned Santa Claus impersonator, a transvestite prostitute who services tricks from Fort Bragg and many others.
Many of these people are representative of what used to be called “the silent majority” while others are scrapping by on the fringes of society. Kramer will sometimes juxtapose one of these subjects against someone from the other end of the economic spectrum such as a high-profile businessman from D’Addario Industries (a waste management company) or a prosecutor who proudly shows off his new lakeside home while describing his work with juvenile offenders: “I live a schizophrenic existence. I go to the courthouse. I see kids who live in the ghetto and the projects who are freezing in the course of a winter’s night because they don’t have any heat. I come home to a nice, warm house, a wife, two children, two cats and a dog and it’s fantastic. And yet I have to put what I see at the day in the juvenile courthouse out of my mind because if I keep it in my mind, I would literally go out of my mind.”
Kramer doesn’t try to make overt political points or reveal some snarky bias toward his subjects through Doc’s interactive with them or the editing process. He simply allows his interviewees to speak for themselves in their own voices. How the viewer reacts depends entirely on their own subjective viewpoint. What can’t be denied, however, is what a diverse and yet polarized vision of America emerges from Kramer’s travels and this was 32 years ago. As Doc puts in an onscreen confession, “I’ve been gone 10 years and I come back and everything’s different except nothing has changed, the same battles are going on here.”
There are startling discoveries along the way such as a New England minister who calls his congregation’s attention to the atrocities in South Africa but his views on the racist policies of apartheid have a strange twist. He blames the media for perpetuating the idea that the victimization of the black population is due to the white minority in control of the government. Instead, he insists the real problem is black on black violence and he shows them harrowing film footage of a black mob setting a fellow citizen on fire and then crushing him.
Equally surprising is Doc’s encounter with Pat Reese, a former army buddy who became a reporter at the Fayetteville Observer (he covered the infamous Jeffrey R. MacDonald murder case at Fort Bragg in 1970). He became a national news story in 1983 when he was shot in the face by Billy K. Graham, the director of mental health for Cumberland County and the subject of his investigative story. Graham killed himself but Reese survived with medical complications that plagued him the rest of his life. Despite that, he soldiered on as a reporter until his death in 2000 at age 73. Doc points to Reese’s achievements in journalism such as his famous expose of a white supremacist ring but we never learn if Paul McIsaac aka Doc and Reese have fictionalized their relationship. What is undisputable is that Reese is a legendary journalist in his native state of North Carolina. In a strange aside, IMDB lists Reese as a supporting actor in the 1990 remake of Night of the Living Dead. It might be true since Reese was also an actor and the co-founder of the Fayetteville Little Theater.
In case you have gotten the impression that Route One USA is merely a talking heads marathon, you should know that a great deal of the film functions as a very eclectic travelogue. You won’t get postcard perfect snapshots of famous places and landmarks but something more akin to entries in an ethnographer’s video diary. A ravaged forest in a muddy logging region, a roadside attraction called Hubcap Heaven and a bingo parlor on a Native American reservation all fit together as pieces in Kramer’s jigsaw puzzle of the Eastern U.S. Some of the brief stops could easily warrant their documentary such as the Tragedy in US History Museum in St. Augustine, Florida which houses the Jayne Mansfield death car and Bonnie and Clyde’s bullet-ridden getaway car or Walden Pond, Henry David Thoreau’s nature retreat in Concord, Massachusetts or the Haitian community in Dade County, Florida where Doc finally settles down and takes a low-paying job as a doctor in a health clinic.
Some of the interviewees will also linger in your mind for days after seeing the film like political activist Cecil Young, the first black man to run for mayor in Bridgeport, Connecticut (he is still active today) or the homeless man Doc meets at a charity-run Thanksgiving feast who talks about his kids and says, “I robbed, I stole but they went to college.” Is he acting or telling the truth? We never know the answer but the encounter seems spontaneous, not scripted, and so does most of Route One USA. It might be Kramer’s most remarkable achievement and invites comparison to other great non-fiction cinema like Frederick Wiseman’s Belfast, Maine (1999) except that it encompasses a much broader canvas. It does start to unravel toward the end after Doc’s departure as our narrator and Kramer seems to jump around from Jesse Jackson on his campaign bus to a ballroom dance demonstration for senior citizens to glass-bottom boat tours in Key West. But I doubt you’ll see a more engrossing repertory revival in this year of 2020 (The film recently had a limited engagement as a virtual film presentation on the Film at Lincoln Center website).
For those who are not familiar with Robert Kramer, here is a thumbnail sketch. He was a filmmaker from the radical left who was one of the founders of the Newsreel movement, a New York-based collective that produced and distributed films on hot-button issues like the Black Panthers, the anti-war movement and civil and human rights. The collective later became known as Third World Newsreel but Kramer soon embarked on a solo directing career first attracting attention for In the Country (1967), starring William Devane as a former political activist who moves to the country for a new life and perspective, and The Edge (1968), in which an anti-war protestor plots to assassinate the President of the U.S. Kramer’s big breakthrough film, Ice (1970), about a revolutionary movement in the near future, was considered a pioneering work that blended fiction and documentary filmmaking in powerful ways. Jonas Mekas called it “the most original and most significant American narrative film of the late sixties.” Despite the incendiary nature of the film, Ice actually received theatrical distribution in some cities while Kramer’s earlier work remained obscure and hard to see.
Five years later, Kramer would profile a number of sixties activists and their thoughts on the changing times in Milestones (1970), a documentary that would make a great companion piece to Route One USA. Then in 1980, after he directed Guns, a drama set against the backdrop of the oil industry featuring a rogue Arab group, Kramer left the U.S. for France and would remain in Europe where his work was widely seen and much more highly regarded than in America. Kramer would also co-write the screenplay for Wim Wenders’s The State of Things (1982) and show up in a minor supporting role as a camera operator.
Even though he returned to the U.S. to make Route One USA, Kramer would remain in Paris until his premature death in 1999 at age 60 from meningitis. Many of his films look more prescient now than they were at the time and the recent revival of Route One USA will hopefully lead to more retrospectives of the director’s work.
Currently Route One USA is not available on DVD or Blu-ray but you can rent it as a streaming video on the Icarus Films website. A double feature of Ice and Milestones, which was released in December 2011, is also available on DVD from Icarus. Other links of interest: