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DVD Review: “Providence” (1977)

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Alain Resnais was going strong when he passed away on the first of March. Not long before, at the age of 91, he released a new movie. The great director’s filmography is ripe with fascinating and original work, from his groundbreaking poetic document of Auschwitz Night and Fog to his studies in romance and remembrance, Hiroshima Mon Amour and Last Year at Marienbad. Frequently slighted as a maker of incomprehensible art pictures, Resnais is anything but — Marienbad is an exacting study of the nature of memory that takes a cinematically unique and wholly appropriate form.

Much more conventionally accessible is one of Resnais’ best middle-career efforts, 1977′s Providence. A superb cast takes part in a Borges-like narrative spun from the imagination of a bitter author in failing health. Expressing a thought process that allows whatever creative associations come to mind, the movie seems to send out connection-feelers in all directions. The screenplay by David Mercer (Morgan: A Suitable Case for Treatment) functions like the thought process of a writer at work. And what at first might seem a cynical exercise eventually becomes an emotionally positive statement about universal anxieties.

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Alain Resnais filmed his picture in English, with an anglophone cast. Although a modest hit in the United States (many pictures of its year were overshadowed by the very different Star Wars), Providence has not yet seen a worthy video release. Columbia Home Video gave it a nice release on VHS and Beta back in the very early days of home video and Tartan Video had a limited window in the UK for a while. This new disc from the French video company Jupiter Films is a PAL DVD limited to Region 2 exhibition.

Refusing to check into a clinic, famous author Clive Langham (John Gielgud) remains in his large country estate called Providence. At night he drinks heavily to distract himself from severe pains in his lower abdomen, while inventing characters and dramatic situations in his head. He uses the members of his own family, casting them and re-casting them in different roles and with extreme, invented personalities. He sees his son Claude (Dirk Bogarde) as an offensively pompous and hyper-rational attorney, as he prosecutes Kevin Woodford, a longhaired nonconformist. Imagined in the form of Clive’s other son Kevin (David Warner), Woodford’s murder defense is that the man he killed was a werewolf begging for a merciful death. Moved by Woodford’s sincerity, Clive’s bitter wife Sonia (Ellen Burstyn) invites the newly exonerated defendant home, and teases Clive with the notion that she might take him as her lover. Reeling in pain and cursing his poor health, Clive reveals himself to be a festering knot of resentments and regrets. Unsatisfied with his ‘fictional’ characters, he reconfigures them into a pattern closer to his ‘real’ family. Helen Weiner (Elaine Stritch) is first seen as Claude’s long-time extramarital lover, who happens to strongly resemble Clive’s dead, lamented wife, who committed suicide. But later she switches identities to simply be Mrs. Langham. Clive decides that Kevin Woodford should actually be Kevin Langham, Claude’s brother. That leaves ‘Woodford’s’ brother Dave (Denis Lawson), a famous footballer, without a fixed role to play, although he still wanders in and out of scenes. Clive maintains a heightened sexual tension at the heart of his story. Claude attempts to murder his brother/Woodford out in the forest, the same place where Woodford was arrested for killing the werewolf.

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Providence is a cinematic construction that will seem awkward in any verbal synopsis. As directed and edited by Alain Resnais the pattern of the puzzle is almost immediately clear and surprisingly easy to follow: what we witness are free-flowing ideas from writer Clive Langham’s mind. Clive is ‘directing’ his invented storyline and the movie we see is the result of his direction. At several points the fussy Clive backtracks for an immediate do-over of part of a scene. Dialogue is repeated in a different tone or in a different setting.

The drunken, suffering Clive keeps doubling over in pain from a sensation that he describes as a hot poker being stuck up his rear end. So it’s no surprise that his play-narrative has many undigested elements, detours and dead ends. The setting is a city apparently under the authority of a repressive government. We see people arrested on the street and herded into holding pens. That and the likewise unexplained “werewolf” theme seem a metaphor for something else, perhaps the alienation and forced isolation of people near death. Introduced and then dropped, the werewolf idea later returns to bring Claude’s story to an ironic impasse. Like a rough draft, Clive’s tale isn’t quite hitting the right notes. The most extraneous interruptions are two unflinching cutaways to an autopsy in progress. Clive is certainly musing about his own mortality, and reaching for the ultimate image.

As might an experimental play about “characters in search of a theme”, Providence poses difficult acting problems for its stars. All come through brilliantly, embodying Clive’s exaggerated emotions. Claude expresses Clive’s withering disdain for ‘inferior’ people, along with a yearning for a lost purity. A jumble of frustrated emotions grasping for an outlet, Sonia outrages her husband just to shake him up. David Warner perfectly suits the somewhat passive Kevin (or Kevin #2), yet quickly learns how to parry Claude’s insults and provoke him in retaliation.

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This is of course the surface of Providence. Critics, essayists and cinema analysts have had a field day working over legitimate allusions and constructing elaborate theories about its form. For instance, different areas of Clive’s house have been aligned with parts of his psyche, as Leo Marks seems to have done in his screenplay of Peeping Tom.

The big shock in Providence occurs outside of Clive’s invented fictional narrative. As he drinks and suffers, sometimes sinking to the floor when the pain becomes too strong, Clive savagely criticizes his grown children and even finds cruel words for his beloved lost wife. These people are coming to celebrate his birthday, and he seems intent on preparing himself for a terrible scene. The birthday get-together does indeed finally occur … and is nothing like what we expect.

To some degree the Clive Langham character is modeled after John Gielgud, as both are opinionated, contrary and caustic personalities. Dirk Bogarde introduced Resnais and author John Mercer to the actor for just that purpose. Sir John Gielgud typically had little good to say about his film work, But he’s on record as considering Providence one of his top two pictures, that he thinks actually amount to something meaningful. Like an X-Ray machine, his tour-de-force performance shows us the man, the fantasies he acknowledges and those of which he’s unaware.

No less impressive is Dirk Bogarde. We’re accustomed to seeing the star playing insecure and conflicted Englishmen for Joseph Losey. Here Bogarde must convey several versions of the ‘unfinished’ character Claude. As Claude is Clive’s mouthpiece, one of the ‘Claudes’ exhibits Clive’s articulate speech and cruel hauteur. The other characters are even more plastic. Ellen Burstyn’s Sonia is the most consistent, which oddly makes her the least interesting. David Warner and Elaine Stritch’s multiple characters are probes into possibilities, as Clive is still working out the relationships. The only thing Clive seems sure of is that he likes drama boiling with anger, frustration and sexual aggression.

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Providence was a big picture for Alain Resnais. Three years had passed since his previous film Stavisky, a gap of time sufficient to derail any directing career. Stavisky’s designer Jacques Saulnier returned to put together this film’s handsome interiors. One setting with a view of the ocean uses static painted backdrops. In this film they seem wholly appropriate, as if Clive Langham’s mind was too occupied by his characters to construct a full setting, like the brain-generated ‘realities’ of Philip K.Dick’s novel UBIK. Even more impressive is the film’s romantic music score, composed by the legendary Miklos Rozsa. Providence really needs a quality Blu-ray release, in all regions.


Jupiter Communications’ Region 2 PAL DVD of Providence is an acceptable presentation that isn’t quite up to present standards of quality. Apparently Jupiter acquired the rights, recovered the negative from the lab and performed a 2K scan restoration. The director of photography then supervised the timing so that it matched the release prints and early video masters. The colors are good but the image still looks soft, especially in a large screen home theater situation.

Much of the dialogue is post-synched, which adds a strange quality to the dream scenes. Odd reverberation has been added to lines of dialogue, and even partial lines of dialogue, that indicate Clive’s intervention in the character’s action. Decoding the sense of this obviously requires multiple viewings. It’s much like Synecdoche N.Y., a picture that owes a lot to the film.

Jupiter does make a good effort to be thorough with its extras. Their disc contains video interviews with cameraman Ricardo Aronovitch, actor Pierre Arditi and the designer Jacques Saulnier, and an audio interview with Alain Resnais. American viewers will be happy to know that the disc is encoded with its original English track and a dubbed French track, and a choice of either French or English subtitles.

Reviewed by Glenn Erickson

Providence

Region 2 PAL DVD

Jupiter (Fr.)

1977 / Color / 1:78 widescreen / 99 min.

Starring Dirk Bogarde, Ellen Burstyn, John Gielgud, David Warner, Elaine Stritch, Cyril Luckham, Dennis Lawson.

Cinematography Ricardo Aronovich

Production Design Jacques Saulnier

Original Music Miklos Rozsa

Written by David Mercer

Produced by Yves Gasser, Klaus Hellwig, Yves Peyrot

Directed by Alain Resnais

Supplements: Interviews video and audio (see above)

Deaf and Hearing-impaired Friendly?
YES; Subtitles: English, French

Packaging: Keep case

Its a Mad Mad World 1083_013275.jpg

Special Report: Criterion’s Reconstruction of “It’s a Mad Mad Mad Mad World”

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One of the most eagerly-awaited titles of this or any other year, Criterion’s new Blu-ray of It’s a Mad Mad Mad Mad World offers a long-desired reconstruction of the film’s original roadshow version, a cut of the film not seen by anyone a few months after the movie’s November 7, 1963 premiere.

An epic, all-star comedy directed by Stanley Kramer, it’s as divisive as Hillary Clinton: people tend to either love or hate it. Indeed, some of the more extreme haters harbor an inexplicable resentment toward those who don’t share their opinion. I’m squarely in the other camp. I’ve adored and have been endlessly mesmerized by Kramer’s film since childhood. For me it never gets old, but I can also understand why it might not click with everyone who sees it. It helps to be familiar with the dizzying array of stars, supporting actor-comedians, and even bit players who populate it. It also plays better viewed cold, without any awareness of what’s to come, with no promises or expectations of a “comedy to end all comedies.”

It is, unquestionably, misunderstood by many. Though dominated by broad, large-scale slapstick, It’s a Mad Mad Mad Mad World works as much for other reasons. The movie has an unusual structure, introducing a group of characters which it then breaks up into, eventually, six major groupings, cleverly intercutting their various adventures before they all meet up again at the climax, with additional characters picked up and encountered along the way. This cutting among the various sub-plots as they converge on a potential $350,000 jackpot several hundred miles away is a big part of the film’s charm. Structurally, a comparison to D.W. Griffith’s Intolerance (1916) is not inapt. That silent epic doesn’t make much of an impact when its multiple stories are viewed separately (as they frequently were), but intercut as Griffith intended that picture, like IAMMMMW, it becomes an entirely different viewing experience.

Some reviewers have also mistaken the film as some sort of tribute to silent comedy. Certainly its Harold Lloyd-like climax has elements of that, but overall the film is its own animal. It’s not an attempt at an old-fashioned tribute the way The Great Race (1965) later was. Despite Kramer’s reputation for socially conscious drama and despite IAMMMMW’s greed-driven plot there’s no  attempt at any social significance or a “message” of any kind. Despite the presence of comedians and comic actors drawn from silent films, Vaudeville, burlesque, nightclubs, radio, television, and other venues, William and Tania Rose’s screenplay brings these widely-varied performing styles into a solidly-plotted cohesive whole, though it does draw inspiration from various sources and gives each performer breathing room to ply their craft. (For me, parts of the film play like a more cynical Preston Sturges script, particularly in scenes featuring actor William Demarest, in all but name reprising his Officer Kockenlocker character from The Miracle of Morgan’s Creek.)

Mainly, this review will explore the 197-minute reconstruction – not “restoration” – of the original 202-minute roadshow version, what was put back and in what form, and how these added elements play against the more familiar and subsequent 163-minute roadshow/general release version.

If you’re reading this review you already probably know It’s a Mad Mad Mad Mad World backwards. If somehow you’ve made your way through life without ever seeing it, like audio co-commentator Mark Evanier I recommend that you first watch the shorter version of the film, then the longer cut some time later, and then come back to read this review.

To summarize: Trying to elude detectives hot on his trail, career crook “Smiler” Grogan (Jimmy Durante) spectacularly crashes his car in the Mohave Desert many miles north of Los Angeles. Before expiring he tells the five motorists who’ve stopped to help – dentist Melville Crump (Sid Caesar); Vegas-bound pals “Ding” Bell (Buddy Hackett) and Benjy Benjamin (Mickey Rooney); milquetoast seaweed entrepreneur J. Russell Finch (Milton Berle); and simple-minded furniture mover Lennie Pike (Jonathan Winters) about $350,000 buried several hundred miles away at Santa Rosita Beach State Park, under what he describes as “ a big ‘W.’” (In a nice touch, Durante repeats this important clue for the audience’s benefit, looking straight into the camera, ensuring that they will be on the lookout, too.)

Joined by Russell’s straight-laced wife, Emmeline (Dorothy Provine), and domineering mother-in-law, Mrs. Marcus (Ethel Merman), and Melville’s wife, Monica (Edie Adams), the group quickly abandons any thought of calmly driving down to Santa Rosita together as a group and dividing the stolen money equally. As Benjy says, “it’s every man, including the old bag (Merman), for himself.”

Meanwhile, Chief of Detectives Capt. T.G. Culpepper (Spencer Tracy, top-billed) of the Santa Rosita Police Department closely monitors their actions. An honest cop four months away from retirement, Culpepper is equally anxious to close this 15-year-old case, believing that he can finagle its successful resolution into an upgraded pension so that he can “retire with honor.”

As the treasure hunters leave an awesome trail of destruction in their wake – “withholding information, causing accidents, failing to report accidents, reckless driving, theft, at least three cases of assault and battery…” – they pick up other strangers along the way, notably British army Lt. Col. J. Algernon Hawthorne (Terry-Thomas), unscrupulous con-man Otto Meyer (Phil Silvers), and Russell’s spaced-out brother-in-law, Sylvester Marcus (Dick Shawn)

It’s a Mad Mad Mad Mad World was filmed in Ultra Panavision 70, an anamorphic 65mm process, and originally exhibited as a road show, meaning that instead of saturation bookings on hundreds or thousands of movie screens simultaneously, the film rolled out across the country (and around the world) slowly, methodically. It typically opened in just one big downtown movie palace in each of the country’s biggest cities, playing on a reserved-seats basis for an average run of one year, then after that went into general release and neighborhood theaters and, eventually, drive-ins.

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The movie premiered at the Cinerama Dome Theater in Hollywood on November 3, 1963, and by mid-December had also opened in New York, Chicago, Boston, London, and Atlanta but few, if any, other theaters, partly because most Cinerama houses were still playing How the West Was Won to packed houses, and partly because theaters had to then be converted from the original three-strip Cinerama process to the more standard 70mm equipment needed to run IAMMMMW. By mid-December 1963 distributor United Artists, working with Kramer, decided to cut about 43 minutes of movie out of the long film which, taking into consideration its overture, intermission break, entr’acte, and exit music clocked in at nearly three-and-a-half hours.

And so it was the shorter, 163-minute version that played everywhere else, as a roadshow throughout 1964, in general release, during its 1970 rerelease, on network television, in syndication, and on home video. In 1991 MGM cobbled together its own 175-minute reconstruction, but that release was far from perfect: some of the footage was incorrectly integrated, and least one shot included in that release was apparently never part of any official version.

Criterion’s reconstructed Blu-ray version, supervised by Robert A. Harris, consists mostly of MGM’s HD transfer of the short version integrated with the same deleted footage included on the 1991 home video version, footage derived from 70mm theatrical print trims of the long version. For the 1991 laserdisc and VHS release, this footage retained the optical squeeze added to the extreme left and right sides of the frame so that, when projected onto Cinerama’s deeply-curved screen, the image would stretch back out to more or less normal. This has been optically corrected and properly integrated with the rest of the film. In the 22 years in-between these two home video releases, the color on the trims had faded so badly that the decision was made to layer the color from the 1991 transfer on top of the remastered-for-HD trims. Because the older transfer cropped the Ultra Panavision framing slightly, the area around the edges of the frame look almost monochrome. It’s noticeable, but not nearly as distracting as frame grabs of these scenes suggest. Because of where the magnetic soundtrack matching the action was placed on 70mm release prints, the audio drops out a second at the end of each cut. Harris has included these bits, using English subtitles so that viewers don’t miss any of the dialogue.

So, the vast majority of reinstated material consists of these trims, the same material integrated for that 1991 release. There is a bit of new material, though probably not as much as many were hoping for, and some of that has audio but no picture. The previously unreleased material with both picture and sound is easy to spot, as it’s the footage without the monochrome borders at the edges of the frame. There’s not a lot of this, but what’s there is worthwhile, most notably footage that expands the build-up to the intermission break, particularly at the Santa Rosita police station. The short version edits the build-up to the intermission extremely well, but the build-up in the long version is just as good, just a little different.

There are three short scenes in which there is sound but no picture: Sylvester’s theft of his girlfriend’s car, some more footage of the Crumps locked in the basement of a hardware store, and Culpepper’s telephone conversation with Jimmy the Crook (Buster Keaton, who in the short version has but one line and is onscreen for less than ten seconds).

Each of these three scenes offers a few surprises previously unknown to most Mad World fans: that Sylvester’s girlfriend is actually a married woman, for instance, and that it’s her car he steals. The telephone scene in one respect is almost heartbreaking: the audience hears Keaton’s voice but is denied the chance to actually see him and his reactions to Culpepper’s plotting.

But the sequence also completely changes one aspect of the film. In the short version it appears that Culpepper has suffered some sort of nervous breakdown. (“You know what I believe I’d like?” he asks his fellow cops. “A chocolate fudge sundae, with whipped cream and a cherry on top.”) In the short version, Culpepper’s decision to steal Smiler’s 350 Gs for himself isn’t made clear until very late in the film and comes as a genuine surprise, though there are clues earlier in the picture pointing to that.

In the reconstructed version all surprise is gone as made clear by that phone call to Keaton’s character. Further, Culpepper’s desire to have that chocolate fudge sundae is no longer the pathetic non sequitur of a broken man, but a ruse so that he can get out of the station and call Jimmy from a nearby drugstore. Nice as it would be to see and hear Keaton, the movie is better without that scene.

The brief audio-only footage of the Crumps in the basement is seriously damaged by one truly terrible decision. Unlike the other two audio-only scenes, which use publicity stills (possibly unreleased stills from contact sheets), this footage incorporates behind-the-scenes and set stills. In addition to Sid Caesar and Edie Adams, these stills make visible members of the film crew, including director Stanley Kramer himself, along with a massive Ultra Panavision camera in one shot. This has the effect of completely taking the viewer out of the movie. They’re interesting as photographs but they have no business in a reconstruction like this.

Likely no appropriate stills of the missing scene exist, but that was also true of some of the scenes missing from the 1954 A Star Is Born. In that Gold Standard of movie reconstruction, producer Ron Haver cleverly found ways around the problem, making those missing scenes play as seamlessly as possible. Clearly any evidence of the crew should have been cropped or matted out.

Overall, the long version has its advantages and disadvantages. Except for one early scene showing the mad motorists driving recklessly through a small desert community, with a few exceptions the cut footage mostly extends scenes from the short version and is no great loss without them. While some would argue the reinstated scenes merely make the long film even longer, in some ways it actually improves the pacing. In its short form the movie at times is a little schizophrenic and cuts too abruptly among the various subplots. The build-up in the longer version is more carefully and deliberately paced, in some respects making the payoffs that come later more satisfying. Interestingly, much of the cut scenes relate to the incredulous monitoring of the fortune-seekers by various law enforcement officers driving black-and-whites or riding in helicopters.

The cut footage also offers a short scene between Winters and Provine that provide Winters’s character with a selfless motive to want his share of the loot, a motive that’s completely absent in the short version. Moreover, there are a handful of great comedy bits the short version should have retained: Culpepper’s $5 bet with Police Chief Aloysius (William Demarest); Rancho Conejo air traffic controllers Carl Reiner and Eddie Ryder shaking hands, a last goodbye as Ding and Benjy’s out-of-control twin-engine plane is on a head-on collision course with their tower; a funny deleted line from cab driver Eddie “Rochester” Anderson near the climax.

Original Cinema Quad Poster - Movie Film Posters

The cut footage also make sense of continuity issues created by the short version, which had left viewers familiar only with that version baffled for years. They explain that the silver mine Otto Meyer speaks of is the place where the character played by Mike Mazurki lives. (I never realized this.) The long version also explains just why Hackett’s character is soaking wet in a couple of shots.

If ever there was a special edition prompted by consumer demand, it’s this. Though a popular catalog title, MGM was loathe to spend the vast sums of money a restoration/reconstructed would have required back in the ‘80s-through-early 2000s. Like David Strohmeier’s Cinerama restorations, IAMMMMW is only possible now because of cost-effective computer technologies that, combined with MGM’s preexisting HD master of the short version, now make such a release cost-effective.

The transfer of the extra-wide Ultra Panavision process (65mm, at 2.76:1) is impeccable, but then again it already was when the beleaguered MGM transferred the short version to HD a couple years ago. Excerpt for the new scenes, this is a same transfer as that, with only minor tweaking. The 5.1 surround, adapted from the original 6-track magnetic stereo, sounds great, a more noticeable improvement from MGM’s earlier Blu-ray of the short version. In addition to the original overture, entr’acte, and exit music, this release incorporates audio-only “police calls” heard sporadically throughout the intermission. All of this is over black, no title card, and there’s a lot of dead air between these calls but, apparently, that’s how they were spaced back in late 1963.

Criterion’s release offers both cuts of IAMMMMW on two Blu-ray discs and three DVDs, the third SD disc consisting of the same extra features spread across the two Blu-rays. The foldout packaging is nice, incorporating Jack Davis artwork commissioned for the 1970 rerelease. Inside there’s a booklet featuring an essay by Lou Lumenick and details about the film and sound elements sourced. Also included is a colorful but impractical map identifying some of the film’s shooting locations (Google Earth comes in very handy here).

Supplements are voluminous though curiously missing the “Something a Little Less Serious” documentary made for the 1991 home video version. That documentary featured Kramer and many more original cast members, all in better health and in greater number than they appear in the newer extras included here. “The Last 70mm Film Festival,” for instance, literally wheels-on Jonathan Winters, Mickey Rooney and Marvin Kaplan (one of the two gas station attendants whose business Winters’s character destroys), with Winters in good spirits but clearly not long for this world. Hosted by Billy Crystal and also featuring other cast and crewmembers, it’s a bit rambling, but enjoyable. (It’s a shame there’s no good video of the American Cinematheque screening I attended some years earlier, which had more of these folks and in far heartier shape.) Also included is a long excerpt from AFI’s 100 Years…100 Laughs focusing on IAMMMMW.

Other extras include original and reissue trailers; Stan Freberg’s TV and radio spots, which Freberg himself introduces; a two-part CBC program documenting the movie’s giant press junket and premiere; one-sided press interviews from 1963, featuring Kramer and his cast; an excerpt from a 1974 talk show hosted by Kramer and featuring Caesar, Hackett, and Winters; short but enlightening featurettes about the reconstruction process and another about the film’s visual and aural effects, including some fascinating behind-the-scenes footage.

And, best of all, there’s an informative and cozily personal audio commentary track on the long version by “Mad World aficionados” (they’re much more than that) Mark Evanier, Michael Schlesinger, and Paul Scrabo. It’s worth all 197 minutes.

On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
It’s a Mad Mad Mad Mad World rates:

Movie: Excellent

Video: Excellent

Sound: Excellent

Supplements: Audio commentary, trailers, radio spots, press interviews, 1974 TV reunion, 2012 cast and crew reunion, Mad World locations map, AFI 100 Years…100 Laughs excerpt, featurettes on the reconstruction, sound and visual effects, booklet.

Deaf and Hearing Impaired Friendly? YES (for the general release version).

Criterion 1963 / Color / 2.76:1 Ultra Panavision 70 / 197 and 163 min. / Street Date January 21, 2014 / $49.95

Starring Spencer Tracy, Milton Berle, Sid Caesar, Buddy Hackett, Ethel Merman, Mickey Rooney, Dick Shawn, Phil Silvers, Terry-Thomas, Jonathan Winters, Edie Adams, Dorothy Provine and a Few Surprises.

Director of Photography Ernest Laszlo

Music Ernest Gold

Written by William and Tania Rose

Produced and Directed by Stanley Kramer