PRINT January 1976



The things these kids have lived through.
—from Milestones

To stand still, to mark time on one spot, to be contented with the first goal it happens to reach, is never possible in revolution. And he who tries to apply homemade wisdom . . . to the field of revolutionary tactics only shows that the very psychology and laws of existence of revolution are alien to him and that all historical experience is to him a book sealed with seven seals.
—Rosa Luxemburg

The apocalyptic and its companion, the eschatological, dominated the thinking and rhetoric of the American sixties “movement” and the “counterculture.” These frames of reference, however, were not used in any traditional sense. Apocalyptic language was politicized and implied a threat: “A hard rain’s a gonna fall,” “Revolutionary suicide,” “Burn baby burn,” “Shut the mother down.” Eschatology was neither the eschatology of Christianity nor of Hegelian and Marxist historicism, but rather the eschatology of immanence prefigured by Rimbaud, Nietzsche, the young Paul Nizan: “Freedom now,” “Peace now,” “Paradise now,” “Get it while you can.”

Patience has never been an American virtue, even in the best of times, and the sixties were not the best of times. In certain contexts, of course, such as demanding an immediate end to racist repression or an immediate end to imperialist murder in Vietnam, the language of the movement made sense; it expressed a moral imperative, and a psychological necessity as well. But in its widespread and more mystical manifestations (both in the political and cultural spheres), this insistence on immediate gratification took on a deforming and childish tone, and often amounted to a withdrawal from day-to-day reality, a denial of historical complexity, and a denigration of the intellect (typically, in favor of “feeling”). One must be immensely grateful for the political education and the liberating modes of thought and action the sixties brought. But one cannot deny the pathos of a generation whose (only half-ironical) catch phrase became, “Come the Revolution . . .”

For, of course, the Revolution—a mystical, vaguely defined, but extremely compelling Idea—didn’t come. “Men make their own history,” Marx wrote in The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte, “but they do not make it just as they please,” a simple lesson which came to many of my generation, the “youth” generation, as a belated shock. The movement seriously underestimated the economic and political power and, especially, the will of its opposition. The war in Vietnam dragged on and ended pretty much at the speed Nixon and Kissinger desired. The government showed unsuspected and truly baroque talents for repression. The popular media moved quickly and efficiently to co-opt and neutralize dissent. And, perhaps most distressing of all, many aspects of sixties “liberation” proved imprisoning (like blowing one’s brains out on drugs) and decidedly “counter-revolutionary.” Other aspects (like feminism and gay liberation), far from being rapid, magical switches of consciousness, were discovered to be very long processes indeed.

Milestones, a three-hour-and-fifteen-minute film by John Douglas and Robert Kramer, is a study of the aftermath, a group portrait of what’s left of the movement, an anthology of some of the attitudes I’ve mentioned. Although the film’s time is 1975, Milestones is about the way the broken and stalled promises of the sixties haunt, sometimes enrich, and often impoverish the lives of those who came of age during that decade. Douglas and Kramer have scripted much of Milestones (exactly how much is difficult to tell), and so the film is not, strictly speaking, nonfictional. However, thematically and structurally, Milestones can be located within the documentary tradition. Rather than a story, one finds here a collage of episodes and interviews that weave together and overlap, and that work toward a “representation of conditions” (Walter Benjamin). “America grinds me down, eats away at my dreams,” says a young woman, a sentiment clearly shared by most of Milestones’ characters. The central conflict, as in most documentary films, is not between individuals, but between a group of outsiders and the dominant political and social powers.

Milestones uses (with a few exceptions) nonprofessional actors who seem to be “playing” themselves in situations close to their own lives and in settings (communes in the country, apartments in the city, bars and restaurants) that are probably their usual stomping grounds. Many of these people are representative sixties types (a College Dropout, a Movement Lawyer, a Vietnam Veteran, a Radical Organizer, etc.), and all are defined not by actions they perform in the film, but by what they’ve already done, whether that be having participated in the Freedom Rides, dropped acid, or taken a trip to Hanoi.

Because interviewing people is a natural means of conveying information about the past (and perhaps because Kramer and Douglas are such awkward dramatists), the interview becomes the film’s dominant format. Sometimes Douglas and Kramer use standard documentary interviews. More often they create “scenes” with two or more people conversing, but the content of these conversations is exactly what one would find in an interview, and the effect is of the characters interviewing one another for the audience’s benefit. The untrained players emphasize this predilection for told over shown material: most are incapable of embodying emotion; instead they strike attitudes about their “material.”

This material itself lacks concreteness, specificity. The characters state their very familiar beliefs and opinions, but do not give their reasons for holding them or examples of what forms the beliefs take in their daily lives. Their talk about their pasts is curiously generalized (e.g. when referring to being in Mississippi for the Freedom Rides, a character does not use details about specific incidents or people, but merely clues us in to the fact that she was there, and then talks about how difficult it was to get television coverage). The characters constantly appeal to their “feelings,” but seem unable to articulate them. Their language consists, for the most part, of draggy romanticisms (“I’ve got to get back to my roots”), political abstractions (“The difference is in peoples’ classes”), and cliched responses (“It blows my mind”). Perhaps this paucity of vocabulary and syntax is essentially expressive of a withdrawal from the standard culture and its learning.

When Douglas and Kramer occasionally try for standard dramatic sequences, the film flounders badly. The only scenes that work as drama involve Peter, an upper-middle-class kid just returned from jail, where he did time for draft resistance counseling; and these move one, in large part, because Peter is acted by the gifted Paul Zimet, formerly of the Open Theater. Zimet has the film’s best moment. When he does an impromptu version of “That Old Devil Moon,” he gets a chance to take off as a performer and he soars. The camaraderie in this scene between Zimet and John Douglas, who accompanies him on the saxophone, says more about love and trust than the many lengthy testimonials from the other characters.

In a sort of mimic of the dialectical process, Douglas and Kramer intercut their characters’ lives with old black and white photographs, newsreels, cinescopes, and a documentary film about Vietnam. The past comes to haunt the present and the past consists mainly of the Exemplary Issues of the sixties: Vietnam, Attica, Cuba, black rights, the crimes perpetrated by white civilization against native Americans, etc. According to the Hegelian formulation, consciousness can be conscious of itself only through its sense of the past. But can consciousness be conscious of itself if its sense of the past is limited to the decade in which it grew up?

Because Kramer and Douglas do not situate the issues in an interpretive historical framework, their evocation seems sentimental, another example of the wistful turning back to the excitement and action of the sixties that lies at the heart of Milestones. The characters themselves, perhaps because only a few of them are now engaged in explicitly political activities, wax nostalgic when they talk of their political pasts. One man speaks of “the demonstrations in D.C., the Panthers, the Chicago Days of Rage, university complicity.” He adds, “Seems like people never withdrew from that.” Indeed. Milestones’ vision of history is distressingly narcissistic.

Visually Milestones is most successful at giving a sharp and affectionate look at its characters’ daily existence, which means giving a phenomenology of anti-consumerism: worn parkas and jeans and work shirts; unstyled, flowing hair and beards; unmatched plates being laid on a big round table; spinach leaves being picked, then washed for cooking; coals being shoveled into a stream in preparation for a communal bath; an old white Chevy moving down the highway; sparsely furnished bedrooms and kitchens, cluttered with books, posters, and childrens’ drawings. Sometimes Douglas and Kramer capture images that startle by their beauty and thematic resonance. There is, for example, a very long, very slow zoom, which begins with a man and woman walking through a village on an overcast afternoon. As the camera pulls farther back, the couple gets very small, a vista of snow-covered fields and darkened mountains moves into the frame, and the shot becomes an affecting visual metaphor for the emotional desolation that pervades much of Milestones.

Through most of the film, however, Kramer and Douglas couldn’t care less about “beautiful” images. Their approach to film technique involves a studied primitiveness, a willed naïveté. Their color footage is usually grainy. Some of the indoor scenes are lit so badly that it’s difficult to tell where the characters are. The handheld camera tracks people restlessly, with no discernible formal patterns. Sometimes characters are cut in half at the edge of the frame, at other times they’re studied so closely every pimple is emphasized. Milestones’ lousy soundtrack includes much extraneous noise, and the dialogue is often slightly out of sync with the speakers’ lips.

The (mostly favorable) reviews of Milestones I’ve read all discuss the film’s content and ignore its technique, perhaps working on the assumption that Kramer and Douglas’s political expressions are more important than, and can be divorced from, the form and manner in which they’re embodied. This approach vastly oversimplifies and ignores one of the most important questions Milestones (implicitly) raises. For film is, after all, an art, and a central question one must take into account about Milestones is precisely the connection between its political and esthetic levels. That is, how does style function politically? Or, reversing the question, how do politics function within an esthetic medium?

Milestones’ “antistyle” is, of course, a style, and one with obvious ideological implications. (It is also a very familiar style: Milestones’ abandonment of conventional narrative patterns, of existing “professionalism,” and its over-feature length show affinities, in varying degrees, with many films of the last 15 years, ranging from cinema vérité documentaries to the “underground” cinema to the political “weapons” from the Dziga Vertov group.)

In his 1969 “Essay on Liberation,” Herbert Marcuse writes,

. . . today’s rebels against the established culture also rebel against the beautiful in this culture, against its all too sublimated, segregated, orderly, harmonizing forms. Their libertarian aspirations appear as the negation of the traditional culture . . .

Milestones’ techniques and structure can indeed be described as a reaction against the beautiful and harmonious forms of Western culture. What, Marcuse is talking about above is the “new sensibility” that emerged in the sixties. Although Milestones is very different from the artistic examples Marcuse gives of this “sensibility”—Happenings, the “living theater,” rock music—it shares both their formal (or antiformal) qualities and their “position of immediate denial” of the dominant culture (italics mine).

Like much “immediate” art of the sixties, Milestones gains considerable emotional energy because of its negating and deliberately crude style. Its various “amateur” elements (acting, camera work, etc.) give the film a feeling of “authenticity” and create a certain amount of goodwill (for example, when an unidentified child suddenly shows up in a scene and just as suddenly disappears, one is much more willing to accept it as a matter of course than one would be when watching, say, a commercial film). When a lively episode follows two or three pedestrian episodes, one is grateful and responds accordingly. Sometimes the fusion of the “real” and the “imaginative” create effects wholly extraneous to the “fiction,” but which are curiously moving, like the way Jim Nolfi and his young son Dylan, who play themselves, are awkward when they speak lines to one another, but convey their obvious affection in glances and touching.

Some viewers have complained that the film is too long. However, all questions of quality aside, Milestones seems to me one of those obsessive, very American works—like Dreiser’s novels and The Making of Americans and Intolerance—that benefit from their extraordinary length. The alternation from the interesting sequences to the longueurs creates its own rhythm, and the film builds cumulative emotional power until, by its end, one feels that one has, indeed, watched an “epic.”

Ultimately, though, Milestones’ emotional resources cannot compensate for its intellectual blankness and political shallowness. The survivors of the movement, 10 years after, would seem to provide a great, original subject, but Kramer and Douglas have blown it. The fictional/documentary/pseudo-documentary/pseudofictional/home-movie approach seldom generates much political elucidation (mainly just snapshots from the past), and the sixties homemade antistyle seems, well, anachronistic.

Douglas and Kramer attempt, understandably, to justify as well as portray their characters’ lives, but surely, as Marxist-Leninists, they should have filled in more material details in the portraits. One often doesn’t know what part of the country the action takes place in, and, worse, the film fails to explain what most of the characters’ economic bases are. One regrets that Douglas and Kramer have not taken a more detached look at their subject and that their justification of the movement, instead of growing out of a critical analysis, must rest, in the end, on the viewer’s sentimental identification with the characters and their beliefs.

The filmmakers have spoken of “the real limits of Milestones’ usefulness as a tool to be used in the raising of consciousness,” without elaborating. A primary limitation stems from the film’s class basis, from the fact that most of the ex-movement people are, obviously, from the upper and middle classes, and that many aspects of their life-styles (like wandering around the country and retreating to their houses in the woods) are not directly imitable unless one has leisure and money.

If one turns, on the contrary, to four recent film examples, all of them very different, Jean-Marie Straub’s Introduction to Schoenberg’s Music for a Film Theme, Susan Sontag’s Promised Lands, Godard and Gorin’s Tout Va Bien, Cinda Firestone’s Attica, one sees rigorous analyses of conditions—whether economic, cultural, historical, or psychological. These works, while emotionally exalting, recognize that emotion must be mediated by critical intelligence and appropriate formal strategies. By honoring the mind as well as the heart, these become not only superior films, but are, I think, superior as political films to Milestones.

Steven Simmons, a filmmaker, has written film criticism for Film Comment and Harper’s Book Letter.