Kramer vs. Kramer

Left: Robert Kramer, Ice, 1969, still from a black-and-white film in 16 mm, 135 minutes. (Image courtesy of Kramer Ink.) Right: Robert Kramer and John Douglas, Milestones, 1975, still from a black-and-white film in 35 mm, 195 minutes. (Image courtesy of Kramer Ink/Douglas.)

ROBERT KRAMER'S POLITICAL RADICALIZATION, like that of so many of his generation, coincided with the tumultuous period known as the '60s. Kramer became one of the most innovative chroniclers of the era, a fact that will surely be fleshed out in a substantive retrospective, his first in nearly a decade, at Anthology Film Archives. (The retrospective will be almost entirely limited to the seven films he made before moving to Europe in 1979, with the period afterward represented by his epic road movie Route One/USA [1989]). Organizationally and aesthetically affiliated with the avant-garde, Kramer was a vital contributor to at least two important movements in underground cinema. The first was Newsreel, the left-wing filmmaking collective he helped form. Kramer’s The People’s War (1969) features raw footage of North Vietnam’s struggle against the United States and includes narration from fighters and educators serving the North Vietnamese cause; the film epitomizes Newsreel’s mission of offering a militant perspective on current events diametrically opposed to said events’ portrayal in the mainstream media.

Kramer identified with the determination and focus of the North Vietnamese (his Milestones [1975] is dedicated to them), which he contrasted with the confusion, violence, and misdirected rage that plagued his fellow radicals in the US. In the Country (1966) marks the first of his critical fictional depictions of alienated revolutionaries from white, middle-class backgrounds; in this case, the protagonists are an isolated couple who painfully incriminate each other for abandoning their principles, much in the style of Ingmar Bergman’s marital wars of attrition. Filled with obsessive, purposely oblique dialogue evincing a passive-aggressive impotence, In the Country would set the contemplative, hand-wringing tone for The Edge (1967), which imagines the unraveling of an underground left-wing organization that is forced to confront its members’ lack of commitment when one of them assassinates the president.

In casting friends and cohorts, Kramer was, in his own way, working on the edge of documentary and fiction. By the late ’60s, the liminal space between these two cinematic realms was fertile ground for exploration, and Kramer was at the vanguard. Ice (1969) welds quasi-improvisational sessions captured in tense, vérité-style long takes to a narrative that explores just how far a network of radicals will go in taking up arms; group debates and personal misgivings mirror the real left’s ongoing attempt to define its values. Boundaries collapse further in Milestones (which Kramer directed with John Douglas), the film widely considered Kramer’s masterpiece. Interweaving different modes of address and multiple story lines about his generation’s move toward spiritual and familial pursuits, Milestones plays on a theme evident in earlier Kramer films: the idea of revolution as a living process.

“The Films of Robert Kramer” runs July 17–23 at Anthology Film Archives. For more details, click here.