Robert Kramer was one of the many unsung heroes of the first generation American independent filmmaking movement. In his great works, Ice, Milestones, Route One, Starting Place, and many other important films, he was the great cinematic historian of American life, thought, and culture beginning with the Vietnam era through the Reagan-Bush years. For more than 30 years, along with Jon Jost, Kramer was the conscience of American film. The essay included on these pages was written by Ray Carney for a book of French criticism. It has never been published in English.

Part 1: Introduction and Ice / Part 2: Milestones

Click here for best printing of text

Revolutionary Style:
and Milestones, Part One

To all filmmakers who accept the limited, socially determined rules of clarity of exposition, who think that films must use the accepted vocabulary to “convince,” we say, essentially: “You only work, whatever your reasons, whatever your presumed ‘content,’ to support and bolster this society. You are part of the mechanisms which maintain stability through re–integation. Your films are helping to hold it all together. And, finally, whatever your other descriptions, you have already chosen sides. Dig: Your sense of order and form is already a political choice. Don’t talk to me about ‘content’—but if you do, I will tell you that you cannot encompass our ‘content’ with those legislated and approved senses, that you do not understand it if you treat it that way. There is no such thing as revolutionary content, revolutionary spirit laid out for inspection and sale on the bargain basement counter.”

We want to make films that unnerve, that shake assumptions, that threaten, that do not soft–sell, but hopefully (an impossible ideal) explode like grenades in people’s faces, or open minds up like a good can opener.

—Robert Kramer

I’m a revolutionary, but not in the political sense…These small emotions are the greatest political force there is.…We have problems, terrible problems, but our problems are human problems.

—John Cassavetes

Just because escapist art is bad, doesn't mean socially engaged art is necessarily any good. Political filmmaking may be escapist too: an escape from the complexity of human emotions, an escape from the parts of life that politics doesn’t reach. Sociological understandings leave a lot of experience unaccounted for. Life is more than ideology, and in fact the most important parts of experience may completely elude ideological understanding. Political structures and power relations only touch the outside of our lives; the depths of experience are on the inside. There is no place in ideological analysis for love, kindness, worry, fear, or hope. The mystery, wonder, and unpredictability of experience disappear. Who knows how much greater an artist even Eisenstein might have been if he hadn't been trapped in reductive ideological analyses? A baby carriage bouncing down a flight of steps may be an arresting image, but the view of experience it provides is of limited value in helping us understand ourselves. At times, even Godard has been guilty of using political stances and slogans as a way of avoiding emotional complexities.

One of the things that makes Robert Kramer such an important artist is that his work is ideologically informed without being limited by the shallowness of ideological forms of understanding. It is political without yielding to the tendentiousness of political analysis. It is sociologically astute without succumbing to the depersonalizing tendencies of sociological knowledge. In fact, Kramer's two early masterworks, Ice and Milestones, take the limitations of ideological understanding as their subject. Both films imagine groups of figures who have organized their lives around political analyses of experience, and who get into emotional trouble as a consequence. In Ice, it is a cadre of revolutionary terrorists who inhabit a dystopian future that bears more than a passing resemblance to the period in which the film was made—the late sixties in America. In Milestones, it is a group of political radicals and former war protesters attempting to put the pieces of their shattered lives back together in the post–Vietnam era. Both films are ideologically engaged in the extreme—mounting powerful attacks on American imperialism, social injustice, and bourgeois complacency. But what makes them so remarkable is the ways they indicate how much more there is to life than is encompassed by political understandings—whether those of the characters or those of the viewer. Kramer brilliantly demonstrates how experience overflows ideological containers.

Both Ice and Milestones are organized in terms of a series of rapid, understated ironic juxtapositions of political ideals and personal events that highlight the limits of purely ideological stances. In Ice, a serious young revolutionary pauses in his work of translating an audio tape about the struggle for equality of blacks, Chicanos, and women, to berate his girlfriend for not having supper ready. At another moment, Kramer cuts from a revolutionary polemic about "false consciousness" to a scene in which the same figure as the one in the earlier scene is shooting up heroin. The clear implication is that one way of being drugged is hardly superior to the other. (As evidence of the importance of these “counter–statements” to Kramer, it might be noted that the director himself plays the role of the girlfriend–abusing, drug–taking revolutionary in both scenes.)

In Milestones, a bar owner tells one of his waitresses about his participation in the Vinceremos Brigade (a group of people who went to Cuba from the United States in the mid–sixties to help in the socialist experiment), waxing poetic over the beauty of the experience, only to have his monologue slowly segue into a sexual come–on. Being a revolutionary is his way of picking up girls. In a further irony, we subsequently see him interacting with a waitress, a bill collector, and a performer in disturbingly inhumane and unkind ways. So much for revolutionary slogans.

But irony is only one of the ways that Kramer indicates the limits of political stances. Ice and Milestones keep reminding us of areas of life that political analysis doesn't address and revolutionary action can't touch. Kramer keeps expanding our view precisely at the points the political and sociological rhetoric of his characters (or the political commitments of his viewers) would narrow it. Wherever his characters become too single–minded, he forces his viewer to be multiple–minded. His editing and sound design put the limitations of single–mindedness on display.

Sometimes the effect is as subtle as a few sounds laid in on the soundtrack. Early in Ice a woman interrupts her work to wrap guns she is smuggling to a revolutionary group, and we momentarily hear the sound of a child's voice on the soundtrack. At another moment, late in Ice, we see the same terrorist we previously saw yelling at his girlfriend about supper and shooting up (the terrorist played by Kramer), rifling through a file cabinet in a house. He is suddenly panicked by the sound of a door opening in another room and raises his shotgun, bracing himself for an attack. For a few seconds the tension is almost unbearable. We and he expect the police to burst through the door any second. However, the next noises on the soundtrack are children's voices—the last thing we and he expected to hear. All he’s heard was little kids in talking in another room. In both scenes, the effect on a viewer is extraordinarily deep. Amid all the revolutionary posturing, we had forgotten there were such things as children—innocent victims of this whole situation, figures who have utterly no connection with or understanding of guns and power. Further jarring, touching incongruities in the first scene include the additional facts that the woman is not a full–time revolutionary but a potter working in a studio, and that she is using bakery boxes to hide the guns. There is a world beyond ideology.

Even the revolutionaries themselves are not entirely taken in by their own rhetoric. In Ice, during the revolutionaries' preparation for one aspect of the "spring action" (involving going out and persuading residents of a nearby housing project to join the movement), a number of them meet to rehearse what they will say by play–acting both sides of the conversation. At one point in the mock session a young woman is holding forth to a young man about the joys of being a martyr to the revolution. Another young woman Kramer has cleverly framed in the background during the entire shot speaks up to say that she isn't persuaded by the brave talk. All three are revolutionaries, and as part of the mock session, it is all supposed to be just pretend. But what makes the moment gripping is that the young woman clearly has stopped play–acting for a moment. She is not offering merely token objections the way she is supposed to. She sincerely entertains doubts about what they are doing. She is genuinely upset by the other woman's revolutionary ranting, and unconvinced by her overheated rhetoric. It is Kramer's way of indicating that even some of the most committed revolutionaries have doubts about their own jargon. Their own uncertainties keep surfacing. No matter how firm our intellectual commitments to a cause, our emotions can still get in the way.

We see that in a slightly different way a few minutes later in Ice. Kramer focuses on the filmmaking group in the final minutes of their preparations before the "spring action" is to take place. It would have been easy to turn the scene into agitprop: to show the purposeful, focused revolutionaries gathering their equipment together and headed out into the night on their idealistic mission. But he does something artistically more difficult and much greater: He dramatizes the full range of confused, unsettled feelings that such a moment might actually evoke. The leader of the group is focused and purposeful and dedicated to the cause, but he is also obviously rattled and upset and uncertain about the outcome of the upcoming event. His anxiety manifests itself not only in nervously barking out unnecessary orders and insulting questions to his female assistant ("Did you remember this?" . . .  Did you do that? . . . Are you sure?"), but in being so physically jittery that he has a hard time tying his tie and putting his coat on. (She has to help him.) At one point, the scene even verges on tragicomedy—when the leader muses to no one in particular on the weirdness of the fact that, as he puts it: "There are people out there with machine guns who have never been in a fist–fight before." The touching humor and sad commonsense of his observation cuts through all of the cadre's apocalyptic posturing to suddenly bring us back down to earth. What does it mean to be a terrorist who has never been in a fist–fight?

The point of each of these ironies and incongruities is that there is no such thing as ideological purity or consistency of purpose. Grand ideas are well and good, but messy, clumsy life keeps getting in the way. Kramer shows us that like the head of the film unit, we can be on our way to film the revolution, but still be wracked with doubt and fear. Like the woman smuggling guns, we can be revolutionaries but also have to juggle being artists and mothers (and going to the bakery) at the same time. Like the young man doing the translation, we can talk the rhetoric of justice but still be trapped in stunningly unfair patterns of behavior and feeling.

It is not accidental that, in one of the great scenes in all of Kramer's work, one of the most important characters in Ice, the bookstore owner named Howard (who is somewhat apolitical and consequently not trusted by the hard–core revolutionaries) makes a passionate, poetic speech to a young woman named Leslie about freedom not being a political state but an intellectual and emotional achievement. It is not something won on the streets but a quality of our hearts. The truest liberation is inward and spiritual. Howard’s voice is as close as we come to hearing Kramer's own voice in Ice. He tells us in words what shot after shot in Ice tells us visually and acoustically: that political aspects of our experience won't be uncoupled from the rest of our lives.

That is ultimately what makes the movie Kramer makes so different from the films the revolutionary cadre itself produces in Ice. The films the revolutionaries make are proud, confident, self–assured, and tendentious. The film Kramer makes is the opposite: It is humble and exploratory. It asks questions and keeps its mind open to unforeseen possibilities. The films within the film treat ideological concepts like "imperialism," "freedom," "false consciousness," and "revolutionary activity" as if they could be disconnected from the rest of life. Kramer reconnects ideology with the emotional and intellectual untidiness of lived experience.

Part 1: Introduction and Ice / Part 2: Milestones

Robert Kramer was one of the many unsung heroes of the first generation American independent filmmaking movement. In his great works, Ice, Milestones, Route One, Starting Place, and many other important films, he was the great cinematic historian of American life, thought, and culture beginning with the Vietnam era through the Reagan-Bush years. For more than 30 years, along with Jon Jost, Kramer was the conscience of American film. The essay included on these pages was written by Ray Carney for a book of French criticism. It has never been published in English.

Top of Page

© Text Copyright 2005 by Ray Carney. All rights reserved. May not be reprinted without written permission of the author.