Route 1/USA

Review by Willard Manus

In 1988, radical filmmaker Robert Kramer returned to America after twenty years of expatriate life in France. As a way of rediscovering his roots, he set out on an epic journey, traveling the entire length of historic Route 1, filming the whole time for five months.

The resulting 4-hour-long documentary, ROUTE 1/USA, was released a year later, winning plaudits from audiences and critics alike. Now Icarus Films has released a freshly-restored version in a 2-disc set which includes an essay on the late Kramer by Peter Gessner.

Taking inspiration from Walt Whitman’s “Song of the Open Road,” Kramer headed south from the Canadian border, bringing his camera into logging camps, Indian reservations, bible-thumping church sessions, old-age homes, schools, and Pat Robertson rallies.

His technique is kaleidoscopic: one scene follows another without explanation or introduction. Some scenes are long; others as short as thirty seconds. Kramer, soft-spoken and inquisitive, makes an occasional appearance but mostly lets the visual images speak for him.

And what a story it is: a gutsy and provocative excursion into the heart and soul of America. Sometimes what’s revealed is depressing, such as the narrow-mindedness and dogmatism of our religious institutions; the ignorance and racism of many of our citizens. But just as Kramer exclaims, “This is appalling, nothing has changed, what am I doing here?” he discovers uplifting things in unexpected places: a family Thanksgiving dinner; Thoreau’s Walden House; Boston’s Beacon Hill where John Brown’s statue was being honored by a group of visitors.

The deeper Kramer goes into his odyssey, the more he begins to value community and commitment. The realization hits him when he visits Fort Bragg, NC, where he once trained as a paratrooper, and reconnects with an old army buddy. Pat, now on staff at a local newspaper, keeps investigating and writing despite having been shot in the face by a drug dealer. “I can’t change the way the world works,” he tells Kramer, “but I can make a difference in the way this town functions.”

Whether talking to Pat or presidential candidate Jesse Jackson or a southern drag queen, Kramer remains open-minded and non-judgmental. Above all, he manages to show America to itself in a frank and intimate way.

(Icarus Films Home Video)