PRINT November 2011


Robert Kramer’s Milestones

Robert Kramer and John Douglas, Milestones, 1975, still from a black-and-white and color film in 16 mm, 195 minutes.

DESCRIBING MILESTONES, his epic dirge from 1975 on the failed dreams of ’60s radicals, the late expatriate American director Robert Kramer broke his film down into a series of mystical-sounding components: “Fire-Water-Air-Earth-People.” Though it may ring as grandiose, this multihyphenate accurately encompasses the mood and registers the magnitude of the seismic shift revealed in this beautifully shot (on 16 mm) hybrid of documentary footage and staged reenactments. The film chronicles the painful process through which the New Left’s collective action and utopian hopes gave way to the Me Decade’s enraged narcissism.

Like many of Kramer’s movies, Milestones, codirected and cowritten with John Douglas, is a semifictionalized account of the experiences of the filmmaker’s friends, stalwart members of the “movement.” (A few characters in Milestones are never identified, many use their real first names, and others, such as writer and activist Grace Paley, who plays a filmmaker named Helen, create separate personas.) Born in 1939 in New York and educated at Swarthmore and Stanford, Kramer was one of the founding members of Newsreel, a collective that made roughly sixty documentaries and short films devoted to far-left and antiwar causes between 1967 and 1971; he was part of the team behind The People’s War, a forty-minute paean to the North Vietnamese, shot in the summer of 1969. Kramer’s non-Newsreel projects focused on the agony of activists at home, paying scrupulous attention to the ways in which the personal began to dominate the political. In the psychodrama In the Country (1966), an unnamed couple retreats to a bucolic setting where the man stews in self-hatred for abandoning his work in the movement, frequently lashing out at his companion. The unraveling of young revolutionaries, one of whom wants to kill the president, continues in The Edge (1967), while fact, fiction, and agitprop mix in Ice (1969), which imagines the underground fighting against a fascist Amerikkka, at war with Mexico.

Though Kramer’s earlier works touch on the fissures already present in the New Left, none has the deep melancholy of Milestones, which premiered in the Directors’ Fortnight program at Cannes in May 1975, just a few weeks after the fall of Saigon. Dedicated, per a closing intertitle, “with deep gratitude to the Vietnamese people,” the film traces more than fifty characters—almost all of them white, most ranging in age from late twenties to midthirties—across the country: on the road, in sylvan communes, sprung from jail, in New York apartments. This kaleidoscopic chronicle is more or less bookended by vérité footage, opening with a shot of an elderly woman shuffling past Julius’ bar in the West Village; born in 1891, she regales an interlocutor with details of her early life working as a seamstress in Manhattan. At the three-hour mark of this 195-minute mosaic, we witness an actual home birth: The newborn’s mother, who has appeared intermittently throughout Milestones, has, during the preceding thirty minutes, been ceaselessly coached and ministered to by her partner and several friends in a wooded outpost.

A woman in her twilight years, a viscous infant: In between near death and birth, a group of adults, just past their quarter-life, struggle to move on, their hopes dimmed and the future ill-defined. Six central story lines emerge in this generational portrait; in one, two men—a union organizer and an extravagantly hirsute father named Lou looking for a place to settle with his partner, Amber, and their toddler son—reunite somewhere outside Detroit and reminisce on a deserted street: “It seemed like we were at the center of things. . . . Remember the Washington demonstrations and the Days of Rage and the Panthers and the Chicago conspiracy and local stuff—anti-imperialist, university-complicity stuff? It seems like maybe people never quite—they withdrew from that. We never learned the importance, the necessity of living close to your values in a revolutionary way at the same time that you were struggling in the streets,” the labor leader remarks to Lou. Agreeing with his friend, Lou ruefully responds, “I think one of the things we figured out was that a revolution was not just a series of incidents but a whole life.”

Yet the days of rage that once gave meaning and purpose to these activists are being inexorably supplanted by the weeks of endlessly processing emotions. “You refuse to acknowledge what my feelings are,” a musician protests to his housemates, who include a blind, gay potter (played by Douglas) and his boyfriend. Similarly, Amber also erupts at Lou at a roadside diner: “I feel like there’s no space for me to deal with any of my feelings and I’m starting to feel lousy.” Even as these men and women recall their specific political actions—civil rights work in Mississippi in ’65, getting deserters out of the country, defending prisoners—their language becomes fuzzier as they burrow ever more inward; feelings become incontrovertible facts.

Kramer doesn’t judge his characters and comrades; mourning for those who are adrift, he anticipates his own professional situation just a few years later. Finding it increasingly difficult to secure funding for his projects in the US, the director moved to France in 1980, where he continued to make films until his death in 1999. During those years, he helmed another American epic, the four-hour documentary-fiction hybrid Route One USA (1989), about life along the titular highway, which runs the length of the East Coast. But Milestones, which traverses the entire nation and marks the passing of an era, remains Kramer’s most unforgettable expedition.

Milestones and Ice are now available on DVD from Icarus Films.

Melissa Anderson is a regular contributor to The Village Voice.