The Best Jewish Director You've Never Heard Of

Considering the Unjust Obscurity of Michael Roemer

Camera Obscura: The common thread of all of Michael Roemer’s scripts is a quintessential American theme — family dysfunction.
Harold Shapiro
Camera Obscura: The common thread of all of Michael Roemer’s scripts is a quintessential American theme — family dysfunction.

By Jonathan Rosenbaum

Published January 31, 2013, issue of February 01, 2013.
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I’ve seen only two features written and directed by Michael Roemer — “Nothing But a Man” (1964), restored by the Library of Congress and “The Plot Against Harry” (made between 1966 and 1968, but released only in 1989 and recently revived at New York’s Film Forum ). Either of these would suffice to make him a major American filmmaker.

And two other Roemer scripts I’ve read — one of which he managed to film (“Pilgrim, Farewell,” 1982), the other of which he hasn’t (“Stone My Heart” — undated, but apparently from the late ‘60s and/or early ‘70s) — show equivalent amounts of conviction, originality, density and courage. But there’s a fair chance you’ve still never heard of him. And I think one of the reasons why could be that he’s a man who knows too much.

What do I mean by this? Partly that these films are politically incorrect, meaning that they all grapple with life while posing diverse challenges to people who think mainly in established and unexamined political and ethnic categories. Partly also that in filmmaking we often confuse advertising and hustling with other kinds of talent — most obviously when it comes to the Oscars, but also when it comes to how we categorize and package various achievements.

Some filmmakers tell us more than we know how to process and cope with, unlike Hollywood fantasies that, by design, are much easier to consume.

And apart from being a bit of a pessimist, Roemer is a fanatical believer in research. For “Nothing But a Man,” he traveled extensively through the Deep South during the height of the civil rights movement, staying with black families; and for “The Plot Against Harry,” a comedy about a Jewish gangster based in the Bronx, he spent a year working as a caterer’s assistant at bar mitzvahs and Jewish weddings and following an attorney around Manhattan law courts to investigate the numbers racket.


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