PRINT October 2014


Michael Roemer

Michael Roemer, Nothing but a Man, 1964, 35 mm, black-and-white, sound, 95 minutes. Josie (Abbey Lincoln) and Duff Anderson (Ivan Dixon).

“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 by 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 1949. 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 Touch 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), Cortile 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.

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. (Conversely, Roemer’s next nonfiction film, Faces of Israel, from 1966, again photographed by Young, features no voice-over at all. An assignment frompublic television, the roughly half-hour movie, made the year before the Six-Day War, also eschews all other conventional documentary signposts, including identifying titles—a strategy that anticipates Susan Sontag’s more oblique, less hopeful examination of the same terrain, 1974’s Promised Lands, filmed during the final days and aftermath of the Yom Kippur War.)

Undeterred by the last-minute yanking of Cortile Cascino, Roemer and Young became intent on making, as the latter described it, a “meaningful film that no one could take away from us.” As Roemer recounts in the first volume of his Film Stories: Screenplays as Story (2001), Young, who had shot sit-ins in Nashville in 1960, suggested that their next project should be a feature about African Americans in the South. The research for Nothing but a Man began in 1962, when the two white men, with the blessings of the NAACP’s Roy Wilkins, “left on an Underground Railroad in reverse,” as Roemer put it, staying with black families from South Carolina to New Orleans for three months.

The unassuming veracity that defines so much of Nothing but a Man, written and produced by Roemer and Young, the latter reprising his cinematographer duties, bloomed from this fact-finding mission. Set in Alabama, the film quietly but potently examines the iniquities of racism through their impact on a newlywed couple, Duff (Ivan Dixon), a railroad worker, and Josie (Abbey Lincoln, the celebrated jazz vocalist), a schoolteacher. (An impossibly dangerous place to make a movie with an interracial cast and crew during the summer of 1963, the Heart of Dixie was played by Atlantic City and Cape May, New Jersey.) Just as important, the film considers class: During their early courtship, solidly blue-collar Duff, with some defensive, macho bluster, badgers Josie, a college graduate and a preacher’s daughter, about what she could possibly want with him. Undaunted, she answers, “I thought we might have something to say to each other.”

Josie’s response exemplifies the film’s assured yet natural dialogue, so markedly in contrast to other movies of the ’60s that attempted to tackle race (namely, Sidney Poitier vehicles), in which characters speak in bromides and slogans. As Duff tries to protect his dignity, and sometimes his very existence, from constant cracker assault—buffeting that begins to corrode his joyful life with Josie—the film’s title takes on greater, more complex meaning. “Nothing but a man” suggests both diminishment and an essential, unshakable core; the expression assumes deeper significance when juxtaposed with a civil rights motto that took hold later in the decade, “I am a man.”

Decades after Nothing but a Man’s release, Roemer admitted to having some misgivings: “I think we were honorable and honest, but it wasn’t our community and there are things we got absolutely wrong.” With The Plot Against Harry, which dissects with incisive if gentle humor the foibles of a cross section of New York Jews,Roemer, even if not a native of this milieu, at least felt on more solid ground in his storytelling. (He was the sole writer and director of Harry; Young shot it.) Tracking Harry Plotnick (Martin Priest, who had a small role as a peckerwood in Nothing but a Man)—a Bronx-born numbers runner who, failing to put his enterprise back together after nine months behind bars, tries to buy his way into middle-class respectability—Roemer’s comedy is enriched by its quasi-documentary style. This effortless authenticity is, as it had been with Nothing but a Man, the result of Roemer’s prodigious research: To accurately portray the various businesses, both illegal and legit, that Harry circulates in, the director worked as a caterer’s assistant at bar mitzvahs and Jewish weddings, shadowed a Manhattan attorney, and interviewed call girls. The film’s vérité vibe is also heightened by the tremendous cast of supporting characters, almost all of them nonprofessional or first-time actors, that Roemer painstakingly assembled: Harry’s ex-wife is played by a psychoanalyst (Maxine Woods), his former brother-in-law by an auditor for the New York State Department of Labor (Ben Lang); one of the female escorts is none other than Hollis Culver, aka Holly Solomon, the future art dealer.

Harry’s initial failure ended Roemer and Young’s partnership; of Roemer’s three (presumably) final projects, the PBS documentary Dying (1976), an unflinching chronicle of a trio of adults of varying ages in their last months of life, remains his most successfully realized. Pilgrim, Farewell (1982) and Haunted (1984)—tumultuous dramas about women reconciling with their pasts that aired as part of PBS’s American Playhouse series and screened at European film festivals—are at times excruciating, owing largely to their central characters’ rages and perilously tenuous mental health. But even if I can’t praise these works, there is something about their ferocity and rawness that I respect, much as I admire this candid assessment from the man who made them: “No doubt my stubborn indifference to career considerations—I approached each film as though it might be my last—made me indifferent to the sensibilities of the audience. Haunted and Pilgrim, Farewell have both the strength and the limitations of deeply personal work. They are genuine, but hardly entertaining.” Yet even these lesser works bear the hallmark of Roemer’s greatest films: his insistence on truthfulness—or, as he put it, on “finding out what actually goes on in the world.”

The retrospective “Michael Roemer” will play October 7–9 at Film Forum in New York.

Melissa Anderson is a frequent contributor to Artforum.