By Celluloid Liberation Front.
“No hungry man who is also sober can be persuaded to use his last dollar for anything but food. But a well-fed, well-clad, well-sheltered and otherwise well-tended person can be persuaded as between an electric razor and an electric toothbrush. Along with prices and costs, consumer demand becomes subject to management.”
J.K. Galbraith, The New Industrial State – 1967.
“We are not those who put a price on their own, or another’s dignity and convert the struggle into a market, where politics is the business of sellers who are fighting, not about programs, but for clients. We will not be.”
Subcomandante Marcos, EZLN Communiqué – 2001.
In an era when political radicalism has retreated into the sanitised privilege of academic debate and every attempt to escape the ambiguous lure of consumerism seems culturally loosing, to watch these two films by Robert Kramer is to witness the shocking speed at which changes have occurred.
Of a certain time and certain places, Kramer has been one of the most significant figures, a child of Berkley who, with the Newsreel Collective first and later on his own, favoured political intervention and social alternatives to the experimental formalism of underground cinema. His cinema, despite what today may seem radical naivety, refused both illusion and self-commiseration to dissect the inner mechanics of the movement, its many contradictions and limits from the perspective of those young “Americans against Amerika”. There is plenty of dialogue in Kramer’s films, discourses intersect and snarl at each other, bearing witness to a constant desire to confront, question and share opinions without taking refuge in ideologies that often provided readymade solutions inapt to contingent reality. The outworn binomial “private and political” finds in Kramer’s films the most convincing exemplification: individuals’ micro-events and their affective lives are traversed by contemporary American society in transversal ways; their routines incarnate the outside world, its anxiety and unrest. Kramer also managed to listen to that “violent silence”—that Stuart Home posits at the core of the 60s and acknowledges as its lasting legacy—and the isolation of a (counter-)culture unwilling to entertain a dialectic exchange with the alienating society.
Vietnam is not (only) the exotic fetish of a revolutionary dream, but the concrete realization that an outnumbered minority can resist the most powerful army on earth and eventually defeat it. If today to speak about Afghani resistance is a punishable blasphemy, then, despite the historical awareness, the fundamental difference between imperialism and consumer society remained unintelligible. In other words: what is the difference between having your house bombed and your family killed, and coming back to a wife, a mortgage, two kids and a comfortable living room. Chains and comfort were naively equalled and misaddressed on a strategic level. That said, they fought and dared to fail, motivated by, as Kafka observed, “…a longing for something that is greater than all that is fearful.” Ice (1969) and Milestones (1975) are historical documents of an active marginality that affirmed itself outside the imperial superiority of the American dream and of the latter deconstructed roots and funding crimes.
Ice is a film set in a near future, with America at war with Mexico and a group of white intellectuals organizing and carrying out a guerrilla war against the state in New York City. Scenes follow each other in a life-like casual succession: castration by secret police (?) makes way to a scene of naked love, corporeal trust and communion; a representative of an industrial cybernetics firm tries to buy his share of profitable revolution while insurgent potters hide weapons in clay. New York City is deprived of its landmarks and the filmic action takes place indoors or in delineated spaces where the rest of society, “the people”, is rarely featured. The paranoiac menace of a bleak urban landscape emphasizes the difficulty of the insurrectionary action; geographical isolation is mediated by words. In Ice, words that, unlike in The Edge (1967), articulate and lead to political action are nonetheless confined to the view of those who chose marginality as their (battle)field of growth and reciprocal recognition. It is not a case that the only moment when the other part of the nation, the silent law-abiding majority, appears in the film it is listening aghast to the words of a militant after their apartment building has been seized. They listen without clearly understanding, separated by different contextual references; the spectator looks on the failure to communicate between two civil parts irremediably divided by separate existential choices.
Through the film we pass, imperceptibly yet heftily, from the initial optimism caused by an abstract conception of revolutionary warfare to the painful awareness of what its practical implementation entails: compromises, internecine struggles and unaccepted failures. On the DVD cover, Kramer observes: “what at the end of the 60s was a science fiction projection, became in he 70s a diffuse phenomenon”; true, his film not only anticipated the Weather Underground but also diagnosed their inherent limitations and vices. Ice remains, anyhow, a remarkable example and testimony of a cinema whereby the suffix ‘independent’ meant a different sensibility rather than an innovative marketing strategy.
In Milestones, the exploration of the past and the anticipation of the future converge in order to understand the present, and in doing so the necessity of personal transformation in the face of social change is discovered, but hardly achieved. Milestones is a film with many beginnings and no conclusions. The fragmented, incoherent and intermittently epic filmic flux (199 minutes), its choral polyphony and dissipative energy is kept together by the common, if extremely marginal, will to question certainties, conventions and interpretations imposed by the ruling order. Society, “normal society”, is significantly kept out of frame, not so much out of adolescent contempt but rather as the logical consequence of what De Certau will later call “the practice of the everyday.” The confrontational charge of Ice makes room here to an already more personal dimension, the social alternative is sought bypassing the frontal assault against the establishment whose logics have begun to colonise the intimate spheres of its opponents. Characters talking in front of the camera in Milestones are constantly going about their daily businesses: cooking, driving, making pottery, bathing, managing a joint, editing a film and so on. What slowly emerges from the film is the difficulty to apply a revolutionary credo to the tedium of daily life; the film enacts the intangible war between fear and desire, shooting it in a moment of precarious equilibrium. “Fear”, as Kramer will remark in 1989, “produced and imposed, establishes in turn the limits of what can be thought, what can be made”. In that same year Route One will be released, the latter is an extremely interesting “sequel” to Milestones that follows the director and a friend on trip throughout the USA, after having been away for more than a decade—in France the former, in Africa the latter.
Needless to say, the America they left behind had undergone dramatic changes, especially after the tectonic shifts of Reaganism, and the film is a fascinating survey of struggling survivors and mutated values. The child that we see coming to life in the last sequences of Milestones, the only unscripted scene of the film as the director pointed out, is now coming of age in an America drastically removed from the dreams his collective family had cultivated.
In Kramer’s films, history is construed in daily recurrence, developed through the bodies of individuals that enter in relation with the surrounding reality via communicative bonds they modify, choose or refuse on the basis of the pain and pleasure their lived experience dictates. Utopia stubbornly constitutes the engine of history. The American tradition of a cinema, of action and not reflection, of attitude and not thought, is invested in Kramer of a “pioneering” consciousness reaching out to new historical horizons: change, social justice and permanent revolution. When finally fear triumphed, closed in prisons where the keys are on the inside, rage dried into sadness and then shame. Cynicism devoured desire.
Robert Kramer did not see the new millennium…when a new global multitude is rising against the undisputed blackmail of financial terrorism.
Celluloid Liberation Front is a multi-use(r) name, an ‘open reputation’ informally adopted and shared by a desiring multitude of insurgent cinephiles, transmedial terrorists, aesthetic dynamyters and random deviants.
Director: Robert Kramer
Screenplay: Robert Kramer
Producer: David C. Stone
Director of Photography: Robert Machover
Editing: Robert Machover.
Sound: Norman Fruchter
With: Tom Griffin, Paul McIsaac, Robert Kramer, Jonas Mekas, Barbara Stone, Dan Talbot.
Runtime 128 minutes
Directors: Robert Kramer and John Douglas
Screenplay: Robert Kramer and John Douglas
Producers: Produced by Barbara Stone and David C. Stone
Director of Photography: Barbara Stone, Robert Kramer, and John Douglas
Editing: Robert Kramer and John Douglas
Sound: Jane Swartz
With: Mary Chapelle, John Douglas, Sharon Krebs, Jim Nolfi, David Stone, Joe Stork.
Runtime: 199 minutes
Produced and Distributed by: Capricci
Aspect Ratio: 1.33:1
Format: Black & White
Both films were restored by the Cinemateca Portuguesa, Museo do Cinema, La Cinematheque Francaise in collaboration with the Museo Nazionale del Cinema and Love Streams. The DVD is without extras and booklet.