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

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Revolutionary Style:
and Milestones, Part Two

For Kramer, the confusion of realms is not a regrettable state of affairs, but simply the way things are. Personal issues in his work are always mixed up with ideological ones; emotions inevitably color our intellectual stances. This lumpy, mixed–up nature of experience isn't something to be gotten beyond. It simply must be accepted and dealt with.  Life is riddled with contradictions and complexities and ill–fitting roles. We can be revolutionaries and be afraid, have doubts, be sexist, be mothers and artists too. One role, one emotion, one idea doesn't blot out every other one, but is overlaid on top of all the rest of experience. For Kramer the self is not monotonic in the Hollywood way, but cubistic.

Though most past commentators have focused on the political content of his work, I would argue (in line with the statement that heads this essay) that Kramer’s great contribution to film history—and it is extraordinary—is stylistic and formal. The form of his work is as much a breakthrough to a new way of seeing as Degas’ or Picasso’s was in their own day. His stylistic juxtapositions capture the collage nature of experience. He finds a way for film to represent the fragmentary nature of our lives, the way experience is actually experienced in bits and pieces of this and that. His comparisons and contrasts of intellectual and emotional truths, his shuttlings between present and past time (especially in his more recent work), his mixes of verbal ideals and physical realities capture the jagged, zig–zagging, unsorted quality of real life. Kramer’s cinematic style is more revolutionary than anything the radicals in his films pontificate about (as long as we understand, as Kramer and Howard, the bookstore owner, do—that the real revolution is a revolution of consciousness).

There is really too much to say. Ice and Milestones offer a series of concatenated stylistic insights, each of which I'll unfortunately only have time to touch on briefly. In the first place, Kramer dethrones the lead actor from his accustomed cinematic place of preeminence. Hollywood in particular thrives on depictions of rugged individualism, but there are no stars in Kramer's universe. Both Ice and Milestones have casts of at least a dozen co–equal characters whose lives are densely interwoven, and both narratives jump from one character or group to another in ways that tell us that we are always ineluctably interconnected. Whether the connections take the form of the bureaucracies of intrigue in the earlier film or the networks of friendship and historical responsibility in the later film hardly matters; the interconnectedness of every character’s destiny with every other’s is the ruling fact in Kramer’s work. Even when the characters themselves don't realize it, Kramer's visual and narrative presentation tells us that they are always part of something larger than themselves. They are woven into a tapestry of sociological, economic, political, bureaucratic, historical, personal and other relationships. No one lives or dies alone.

In fact one of the few mortal sins in Kramer's cosmology is to be (or, to put it more accurately, to attempt to be) a loner. In Milestones, a character named Jerry is doomed from the first scene in which we encounter him, simply because he is so obviously estranged from ties and bonds with others. Another character named Peter is explicitly given the narrative task of rebuilding his connections with others after being released from jail. For Kramer, identity is relational. We share our identities with others, and they share theirs with us.

What that means is driven home by a sequence early in Ice in which various revolutionary committees meet to debate the appropriate action to take for the "spring offensive." In a series of intercut scenes, Kramer presents excerpts from meetings at various levels in the hierarchy of the revolutionary movement. We not only see how little independent power any one person has at any one meeting, and how enmeshed each of these figures is in the destiny of each of the others, but we also see how many different roles each person must play. The same individuals participate in the different meetings at different levels—so that someone who is a leader at a low–level meeting is simply a face in the crowd at a more senior gathering. One may be important at one level, and unimportant at another; one may lead one group and be compelled to follow the lead in another. Rather than being a “well–made,” psychologically coherent, monotonic character, each one of us is many different people in one. Our identities are loose and baggy.

Kramer's relational sense of life may seem like a small matter; but it has large consequences for human values. Because almost all other American film (and much foreign film as well) subscribes to a hierarchical, star–system view of human relations, it implicitly elevates power above other human qualities—both in its narratives and in the performances that actors render within them. An actor commands a viewer's attention by dominating the visual and acoustic space he inhabits. To control the beats and dictate the course of a scene (in the Jack Nicholson, Harvey Keitel, or Meryl Streep way) is the goal of life—for both actors and characters. In Ice and Milestones Kramer offers a different view of life—one that values interactional ability. Where there is no such thing as a star, one proves oneself to be worth paying attention to by interacting lovingly and sensitively with others.

Characters' maintenance and adjustment of this state of interconnection in effect becomes the subject of Milestones. The film features a sprawling group of friends, relatives, and acquaintances whose principal narrative task is to keep the lines of communication open with those around them. Children work out their relation to parents; parents to children; friends and lovers to each other; younger generations to older; and older to younger.

As that should suggest, one of the most important forms of connection in Kramer's work is temporal. Just as his characters have relational identities with respect to the groups they belong to, they, in effect, have no present existence except in terms of their relationship with the past. Again, the difference from Hollywood values could not be more stark. While Hollywood films are more or less amnesiac, creating American Adams who are born full–grown with the first frame of the film, Kramer reminds us of the extent to which the present is continuously informed by the weight of previous times and persons. While Hollywood characters inhabit a world that has only present and future tenses ("what I am" and "what I shall be") and ban the past tense from view ("what my dreams were," "what my parents were," "what my background was"), Kramer's characters weave their presents out of inherited encumbrances and memories. The past heaps his characters with cultural, institutional, and personal baggage they can never put down. (The inescapability of the claims of memory and the burden of entailment is one of the themes of Kramer's late work in particular.)

The opening seconds of both Ice and Milestones plunge the viewer into worlds dense with history. Both works begin in medias res. Ice begins with excerpts from a film made by the revolutionary cadre with a voice–over narration surveying the history of American imperialism and the group's ongoing struggles and resistance to it (cultural history), followed by a conversation between a young woman and man in which they remember their college days (personal history), followed by a backroom gathering of several of the revolutionaries to debrief an Army deserter (institutional history).  Milestones begins with shots that present events in the life of a grandmotherly figure juxtaposed with a voice–over historical narration in which she talks about her childhood and young adulthood (personal history) and the difference between the working conditions for women and children at present and early in the century (cultural history), followed by a scene involving young people on a hippie commune that speaks volumes about the cultural and personal changes that have occurred since the grandmother's youth.

What is true of the beginnings of both films is true throughout them. Virtually every event in Milestones has a historical dimension—ranging from the history of American slavery, racism, and imperialism, to the history of the struggle of the Vietnamese people, to the many personal histories that are embedded in the film. Characters are up to their eyes in history, immersed in the stream of time. Consider the temporality of the following examples: the period of Karen's mother's youth and young married days that Karen discusses with her; the time during which Peter was in jail and the time that it takes him to readjust and to build new relationships following his discharge; the time during which Jan was in jail, and the history of her subsequent legal work; the history of Jimmy's dissatisfaction with the sterility of his research in a university biology department. But there is no need to multiply examples. Suffice it to say that while other films may attempt to give us eternal or timeless truth, for Kramer truth always has a temporal dimension. History is not something out there, but reaches into each and every individual life.

Time is important to the effect of Kramer's work in another sense as well: the temporal experience of viewing of the films. Kramer creates a powerful feeling of duration, as if one were actually living the experience one watches on the screen. Indeed, the most frequent comment my students make at the conclusion of a screening of Ice or Milestones is that, more than with the work of any other director they have ever seen (with the possible exception of Tarkovsky), they feel that they have lived with the characters and lived into their situations in the course of watching either film. They comment on the fact that watching a Kramer film is less like seeing a movie than like encountering people and events outside of a movie theater.

Although Milestones is, admittedly, more than three hours long and has several extremely lengthy scenes, the reason a viewer feels duration in it is traceable less to mere length of the film than to Kramer's avoidance of the sorts of shorthand presentation other films heavily rely on—all of the narrative, photographic, and editorial tricks that boil characters, interactions, and scenes down so that they telegraph a series of abstract "points." Kramer doesn't use close–ups or key lighting to show us where to look in a shot. He doesn't employ mood music to key us in to particular emotional responses to his scenes. He doesn't organize his narrative so as to pose a concise series of questions which are then answered by subsequent scenes. In the other sort of film, the pull of the plot also provides a continuing commentary on the events to tell us what to pay attention to, how to understand it, and how to feel about it at every moment. It provides a conceptual road map through the jungle of experiences.

The effect of Kramer’s denials is to radically alter the viewing experience. In not having our responses narrowed and guided, we are forced to become much more active and alert than in the other sort of film. In the absence of a tendentious narrative, the viewer is at sea, forced to navigate uncharted territory. Denied clarifying close–ups and lighting cues to tell us where to look, our eyes are free to rove around in the frame. Faced with figures who won't be boiled down to essential traits or pigeon–holed in terms of having simple, monotonic "characters," the viewer entertains alternative hypotheses as the film proceeds, changing his mind about the meaning of characters and interactions as he watches.

Something along those lines is, I believe, what my students were sensing about the difference between Kramer's work and most other movies. They were registering the fact that Kramer forced them to stay unusually open and on the qui vive—watching, wondering, and thinking about things similar to the way they did with experiences outside the movies. They encountered events in his work similar to the same way they encountered events in their own lives— denied quick insights and flash knowledge—they were forced to living into them, to mull them over, to ponder them.

Kramer's work resembles documentary film (and in fact is sometimes confused with it by viewers who don't know better), not because it is actually non–fiction, but because it avoids so many of the reductive simplifications of conventional feature filmmaking. Kramer presents something that might be called "unanalyzed" experience, placing the viewer in the middle of a muddle of relationships and situations without simplifying stylistic indications of what it all means.

From the first shots of Ice and Milestones to crawl of the final credits, the viewer is plunged temporally and spatially into an unanalyzed world. That is what is potentially misleading about plot summaries of his work: They inevitably make the experience seem simpler than it is. In the summary I offered a few pages ago, I wrote that the first scene of Ice consists of a film made by the revolutionary group of which we meet a few members in the next scene; but in fact we don't figure out who or what we are seeing for a long time. Similarly, in Milestones, who the grandmotherly figure is, why she is telling the story of her life, or who the girl interviewing her is not clear to us until much further along in the film. It takes a long while for even basic questions to be resolved.

But to talk about something becoming "clear" or getting "figured out" in the course of viewing a Kramer film is misleading. The experiences in Kramer's work never get clear in the way experiences in Potemkin, Citizen Kane, Vertigo, or 2001 do, and that is in fact what makes them so distinctive.  (There are certainly no Rosebuds or Monoliths—no secrets to be revealed—in Kramer's work.) Events never retrospectively snap into focus the way those in a Hitchcock movie do at its end. The greatness of Kramer's achievement is that, like all of the greatest artists (which needless to say, leaves figures like Kubrick, Welles, and Hitchcock out), he doesn't pose questions and provide answers, but allows us to run a complex course of events. His films' styles, the events in their narratives, and the nature of their characters do not present puzzles to solve but experiences to have—extraordinarily intricate and demanding sets of experiences that to some degree stay fuzzy and shaggy no matter how many times we experience them. In denying themselves the phony mystifications of The Movies, the experiences Kramer offers accrue the true mysteriousness of life.

Kramer imagines a universe in which meanings are entirely different from  those in most other art films. Directors like Welles, Hitchcock, Kubrick, and Altman are acknowledged masters of various forms of symbolic portentousness and semantic overdetermination. They are great at making big meanings. But for Kramer truth lies in the opposite direction: away from myths, symbols, and grand significances, and down the path of particularity, concreteness, casualness, mutability, and possibility. Kramer rejects forms of presentation in which meanings are general, abstract, and overdetermined, to offer something that, despite its apparent simplicity, is far more complex: an apparently meandering, linear, open–ended journey of discovery. To adapt a phrase from Walt Whitman (a poet who is a ghostly presence in both Milestones and Route One), Kramer asks us to "go down the open road" with him. We shall have many experiences en route, and discover many things along the way, but only if we hold each experience lightly and delicately, let it go when we meet with the next experience, and are willing to adjust our responses in the light of each successive one. The very meaning of these meanings is their partialness, their shiftiness, their localness, their looseness. They are not tightly and portentously over–determined (the way meanings Psycho, 2001, and Citizen Kane are), but are casual and baggy—open–ended, freely floating, and in motion, like the best of lived experience—as it comes to us outside of the movies.

One of the ways that Kramer keeps his meanings in motion is by employing an sequential rather than a hierarchical structure. In Milestones certain issues and situations come up over and over again—without ever being answered or resolved, and without building toward a dramatic climax. While Welles, Hitchcock, and Kubrick make points, Kramer leaves things open–ended. While they tell us what to know and feel—look here, think this, feel that—Kramer asks us to go exploring along with him. While they give us answers, he asks questions: questions about possibilities of personal and sexual intimacy; questions about what it is to be a child or a parent; questions about the transmission of values from one generation to another; questions about individuality and community; questions about the inadequacies of traditional family life and individuals' attempts to form surrogate families through various nontraditional living situations; questions about the value of political action and the meaningfulness of work; questions about the differences between the rootlessness of contemporary American culture and the rootedness of Native American and third–world culture; and many others too numerous to list.

Characters discuss some of these questions directly and illustrate many of them indirectly simply by living their lives. The film is organized less in terms of the presentation of a sequence of actions and events than as glimpses of a large number of characters' efforts to grapple with a few fundamental issues. As I already suggested was going on in Ice, in Milestones, Kramer presents a series of comparisons and contrasts in which the words spoken by one group of characters comment on the situation of others, and actions and events in one part of the film are used to explore issues broached in other scenes.  Milestones is organized less like an argument, than a piece of music in which certain tones, chords, themes emerge over and over again in varied contexts. It is an echo chamber, a house of mirrors designed to encourage deep reflection on fundamental questions. Robert Lowell's For the Union Dead is alluded to at several points in the film, and the loosely associational and deeply reflective style of Lowell's writing during his For the Union Dead and Life Studies period offers a poetic analogue to Kramer's cinematic style.

Kramer's are not question–answering films, but question–asking ones. The viewer is asked an unending stream of questions: Have you considered this? How about that? Have you noticed this other thing? What do you do about the fact that it conflicts with the first thing? In a culture that prides itself on its knowingness, its mastery of snappy comebacks, its stylish smartness (whether these attitudes take the form of Woody Allen's verbal witticisms, Robert Altman's thumb–nail vivisections, or Quentin Tarantino's movie–buff in–jokes) is it any surprise that the work of a filmmaker so humble and exploratory has been ignored by fashionable American critics?

Since Kramer's work—from Ice and Milestones in the sixties and seventies to Route One, Doc's Kingdom, and Starting Point more recently—is not organized in terms of the presentation of a dramatic problem to be resolved, but in terms of a voyage to be taken, there is no resolution at the end of any of the films.  There is nowhere for the characters or for the viewer to "get to." The point is to have the experience of circulating through these compared, contrasted, occasionally jarring shifts of perspective. The goal is not to arrive at an intellectual destination, but to circulate.

The final, and possibly most important, point to make about Kramer’s style is that it reacts against the triple schism Western society has inherited from Plato and the Greeks—the idealist schism that separates ideas from actions, beauty from truth, and art from everything that is weirdly called "real life.” The soul and the body are put in different places. Being is separated from doing. Our entire culture is erected on this fault line. We put our art in museums and our paintings in frames. We put our religion in churches and save it for Sabbaths and holidays. We box up education in our schools and universities as if learning were something that took place only in certain situations.

Once this division occurs, a host of bizarre notions are born: the idea that work and play are different from one another; the idea that the imagination is separate from reality; the idea that style is separable from content. In film, once these divisions are institutionalized, cinematic beauty becomes separable from cinematic truth. Style becomes a matter of gorgeous lighting effects and pretty photography cut off from the goal of changing life. In a word, art becomes irrelevant. The concept of entertainment is born, and movies become another kind of Disneyland in which you go on a ride on a roller–coaster to escape the more demanding roller–coaster of life. Works of art become mausoleums in which you can entomb your imagination so you don’t have to live it.

Kramer's style reconnects art and life. He takes the work of art out of the museum and brings it back into contact with our ordinary lives and concerns outside of the movie theater. He takes art out of its frame and puts it back into contact with the dirt and sprawl and duration of lived experience. He deliberately breaks down the barrier that usually separates art from life. His style in Ice and Milestones is deliberately assaultive. It addresses the viewer directly at moments. It makes pointed references to current events. It attempts to implicate us in the events on screen—to prevent us from holding the film at a safe “aesthetic” distance from our lives. It gets in our faces and under our skins. It denies us an easy relation to what we are looking at (which is why it eschews certain mind–numbing forms of narrative pleasure). It wants to make us at least a little uncomfortable. It wants to force us to see ourselves onscreen and to have to take the movie home with us after we have seen it.

One of the things that has always made American film critics uncomfortable with Kramer’s work is precisely that his films won't stay fictional; their styles and narratives won't stay abstract and theoretical. The world flows into them; and they flow into the world, bleeding off the screen, flowing into us. That makes Kramer an ideologically engaged filmmaker, but, fortunately, one whose work is not hobbled by the reductiveness of virtually all other ideological understandings and presentations of experience in film. The subject of Ice and Milestones is nothing less than what it is to be alive here and now.

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.

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