Michael Roemer left Harvard in 1949 with an A.B. in English, and entered the movie industry as a director's on-location stenographer. He got the job because a film he and his classmate Robert Young had made in college was mentioned in Life magazine. Fifteen years later the same pair hunted up 48 investors and made, practically by themselves, the film which represented the U.S. at Venice. They wrote the script of Nothing But A Man together; Roemer directed it, and Young photographed it.
Last week Roemer accompanied his film to Boston. Although he grew up in Germany, Roemer speaks highly articulate American. He perfected it by writing a trunkful of plays "to acquire an ear." The modesty and straightforwardness which inspired that venture show up again and again as he describes his pilgrimage through the film industry: "I botched my first script and lost my job as a writer... I was lucky enough to get a job in deRochement's cutting room... I wrote five more scripts, none of them commercially robust enough..." Roemer doesn't apologize for his failures any more than he discounts the force of ambition--"I never realized until I was at Venice how much I wanted to be successful. Until then I thought only that I wanted to make good films."
Throughout this account he grins like a newlywed monkey. But he tries to look a little hard-boiled when he reminds his young audience that there is nothing pure about moviemaking. It involves too many interests and too much money. He quotes James Joyce's answer to the man who asked if he could kiss the hand that wrote Ulysses: "That hand has done a lot of other things."
Such candor and modesty has a direct bearing on Roemer's work. He has spent most of his career working on educational and documentary movies; objectivity is the first thing he looks for in any film--"I'm not even interested in the filmmaker. The best photography is that which I don't even look at." Few directors would express innocent amazement at the quality of acting in their films; Roemer points to Abbey Lincoln, who had never acted before, and Julius Harris (the father) who had been a male nurse. "They put themselves in a situation where they were living their own lives. We never even rehearsed Julius's dying scene."
But Roemer's modesty is deceptive, like his naturalistic technique. He spent six or seven hours with Julius Harris on each one of his lines. Roemer doesn't mean to suggest that he simply transfers reality to film, by aiming a camera at life. He explains, "I'm not a very physical person... I first got the idea of what Duff was like by reading Jack London, who used to row a boat across to an island and listen to the seals singing... I thought of Duff as me, which is the only way you can make a film really."
The Harvard English Department introduced Roemer to the neo-classicism of T.S. Eliot. He admits, smiling, "I was very romantic, which is what all neoclassicists are really--trying to step on themselves." He identified with Eliot's search for "objective correlative"--form and imagery which allow a reader to relate the poet's subjective experiences to his own. He wanted to believe what he saw in the theatre, but plays only worked on the printed page. So he turned to the movies--"Considering the intimacy of the film, you must believe."
Film spoke directly to his own experience; it rendered the speed and randomness with which things happen to modern men: "You pick up the phone in your office and hear that somebody has died." Films, lacking the conventional devices of the theatre, have to deal with what Roemer calls "this contiguity of unrelated affects." Nothing But A Man, for instance, switches without warning from inside to outside, from a home to a factory, from one city to another. "I had not though of my life as heroic, at least in any classical sense. But film made me aware of a deeper, classical meaning in the surfaces of ordinary life."
Roemer and Young's Harvard movie, A Touch of the Times, was a sort of individualism. The hero inspires mankind to go outside and fly kites. This was the pilot venture of Ivy Films, a full-length movie which took two years and $2300 to make. Roemer reflects that "the ambitiousness of the enterprise gives it what little life it has." He had to replace the starring actor five times because his cast kept graduating or going on probation during those two years.
Although Roemer insists that the film had a very silly theme, a hint of the same idealism appears in the ending of Nothing But A Man. Roemer says candidly, "Art is in a very deep sense an idealization of life--trying to get not only at the way things are but at the way they should be."
To call Roemer's film, then, a "slice of life" is entirely insufficient. His desire to make invented stories seem like real life, to create complete belief in a screen illusion, is unsophisticated by comparison with the symbolic exertions of some modern moviemakers. But Roemer did not arrive at this idea, or realize his current film, by proceeding from the obvious. "Ingenuous as I may seem," he said last week, "I am not ingenuous at all."