A Second Look: Robert Kramer’s ‘Milestones,’ ‘Ice’
Before he made it, the great radical filmmaker Robert Kramer described “Milestones,” the 1975 epic of post-counterculture America that he co-directed with John Douglas, as “the last film.” “Everything has to be in it,” Kramer said. “All the play of the heart. All the fullness of feeling.”
True to his promise, “Milestones,” newly available on DVD through Icarus Films, contains multitudes. In a film that stretches and sprawls and often seems to overflow its bounds, dozens of characters around the country — on communes, in cities, on the road, starting families, finding work, reintegrating into society after time in prison — wrestle with what it means to live in the hangover of their dashed utopian aspirations.
Kramer was one of the founding members of the Newsreel collective, a major force in the production of antiwar agitprop during the Vietnam War. (“People’s War,” one of their better-known films, depicts the conflict from the perspective of the North Vietnamese.)
The Icarus two-disc set includes an earlier film, “Ice” (1969), and even in the ‘60s, Kramer’s picture of his radical-left brethren was never idealistic or straightforward, and often clear-eyed and critical. A near-future thriller with the textures of cinéma vérité, “Ice” is set in a dystopian America that is at war with Mexico. As a band of guerrilla fighters gets ready to wage an armed insurgency in New York City, the film dwells on the divisions among its members and the thickening climate of paranoid infighting.
Kramer moved back and forth between fiction and documentary, and frequently blurred the two modes. “Milestones,” which he and Douglas dedicated to the North Vietnamese and based on their experiences living on a commune in Vermont in the early ‘70s, has elements of documentary (an on-camera birth, for one thing) but was largely scripted. Some of the nonprofessional actors appear essentially as themselves, while others adopt personas (the activist and writer Grace Paley plays a filmmaker named Helen).
In Cahiers du Cinéma, the critic Serge Daney termed it the “anti-'Nashville,’” referring to the Robert Altman film of the same year that employs a similar tapestry structure (Daney accused Altman of treating his characters as “contemptible fauna, a derisory Southern zoo”). In its attention to the flux of moment-to-moment experience and the sense of being plunged into unfolding lives — scenes beginning and ending in medias res — “Milestones” often recalls the films of John Cassavetes.
To watch “Ice” and “Milestones” is often to feel somewhat adrift and unmoored, and this is part of Kramer’s political point, the terms of engagement he sets for the viewer. With their large networks of characters and their searching, open-ended forms, these are films that insist on the unpredictability and complexity of life as it is lived. The experience of watching them — making our way, without clear narrative signposts, through unresolved conversations and events whose significance often remain elusive — mirrors the experience of its characters.
A few years after completing “Milestones,” Kramer moved to France, where he was a critical favorite, and where he lived until his death in 1999. He returned to Vietnam to make “Starting Place” (1993), a portrait of postwar Hanoi, and to the States for another epic, the allegorical road movie “Route One/USA” (1989).
It is hard to overstate the importance of “Milestones” as a time capsule, a definitive chronicle of the end — and the legacy — of the ‘60s. The questions it raises about the tensions between the individual and the group were especially urgent at a historical moment when the ideals of collective action and resistance were colliding with the realities of the Me Decade.
Times have changed, but those questions remain. As one of the characters in “Milestones” puts it, “Revolution’s not just a series of incidents but a whole life.” The central concern of Robert Kramer’s cinema — how to reconcile the personal and the political, or in other words, how to live a meaningful life — is a timeless one.
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