Magazine article Artforum International

Nothing but the Truth: Melissa Anderson on the Films of Michael Roemer

Magazine article Artforum International

Nothing but the Truth: Melissa Anderson on the Films of Michael Roemer

Article excerpt

"I'M SLIGHTLY OUT OF SYNC with my own time," the staunchly independent Filmmaker Michael Roemer, who has taught at Yale University School of Art since 1966, told the New York Times in 2004--an observation. borne out by the initial reception of most of his work. Roemer's comment was made forty years after the premiere of Nothing but a Man, a film that boasts one of cinema's most 'fully realized African American couples, on the occasion of its DVD release. Although Nothing but a Man was heralded at both the Venice and New York Film Festivals in 1964, it did negligible box office during its limited theatrical release, owing largely to exhibitors resistant to attracting black audiences. Only with its intermittent revivals would Nothing but a Man's singularity--it remains the rare film about race that forgoes sentimentality--begin to be fully appreciated.

Similarly, Roemer's low-key, detail-rich comedy The Plot Against Harry took decades to find acclaim. Shot in 1969 but shelved lw studio executives nonplussed by its understated humor, the movie was invited to the New York Film Festival only in 1989; the following year, it opened theatrically in the US and played out of competition at Cannes. Nothing but a Man and The Plot Against Harry, the director's best-known works, screen this month as part of a long-overdue Roemer retrospective at New York's Film Forum. The seven films on view, including three documentaries, are populated by shrewdly observed characters, whether real or fictional, who are often on the margins, a place that Roemer refuses to taint with pieties.

Roemer's own early life was marked by precariousness. Born in Berlin in 1928 to a wealthy Jewish family soon to be financially ruined with the rise of the Nazi party, Roemer, along with his sister and hundreds of other Jewish children,. was sent to England to escape Hitler's .regime in 1939's Kindertransport. Soon after the war, Roemer and his sibling reunited with their mother in Boston; he began college at Harvard shortly thereafter, earning his degree in I 949. While an undergraduate. Roemer spent two years making A Touch of the Times, a feature-length fantasy about kite flying that, in his words, "was intended as social satire"; student films were such a rarity then that Life magazine ran a piece on the project in its October 3, 1949, issue. In the 1950s, Roemer worked for the producer Louis de Rochemont, a creator of the influential March of Time newsreel series. That same decade, Roemer produced and directed scores of educational films.

In the early 1960s, he began a crucial partnership with Robert M. Young, a Harvard classmate (and one of the cameramen for A Much of the Times) who asked him to collaborate on an NBC-commissioned documentary about a slum in Palermo, Italy. Written and directed by Roemer and Young (with the latter also serving as cinematographer), Col-tile Cascino (1962) was the first of their projects to be killed: The network, proclaiming that the unsparing footage of the squalid district of the title was too strong for American audiences, pulled the forty-five-minute film shortly before it was to air.

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Cortile Cascino is indeed unremittingly bleak, depicting, among its scenes of deprivation, a severely deformed child navigating an overcrowded street; a five-year-old ragpicker; a twenty-three-year-old mother of four who, after her infant dies, can only declare, "She is a thousand times better near God." Significantly, though, that overwhelmed mamma's words, like those of all the film's interlocutors, aren't subtitled but spoken in English, here by an impassive female narrator, typifying what film scholar Bill Nichols has called documentaries' "discourse of sobriety." When encountered today, this practice, even if dominant in nonfiction filmmaking at the time, has the disjunctive effect of alienating Cortile Cascino's subjects from their own experiences, vitiating an otherwise robust project. …

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