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MILESTONES di Robert Kramer e John Douglas
Film capitale degli e sugli anni 70, Milestones (1975) è un vortice esploso di frammenti di documentario e di finzione, di società e individuo, di tensione comunitaria e ripiego nel privato, di parti filmate e materiale (spesso fotografie) di repertorio. Tutto si interseca con tutto, il Vietnam con le persecuzioni degli indiani con le vite di questi (numerosi) personaggi che vivono la propria vita discutendola e ridiscutendola.
and ICE (an early Kramer film w/NEWSREEL)
By RICHARD EDER Published: October 8, 1975
If it had rained only 20 days; Noah and his passengers would have had to disembark and find a way to live in their same old water-logged country. The nineteen-sixties in America turned into the seventies. The waters of protest had seemed to rise pretty high, but when the New Left's ark grounded it was still somewhere in California.
"Milestones" is the most honest, complex and moving film exploration yet made of what has happened to the survivors of what came to be called the Movement: the young people who were radicalized by civil rights campaigning and the Vietnam war into forms of passive and sometimes active resistance.
The authors of "Milestones," Robert Kramer and John Douglas, are veteran radical film makers. They made a documentary in North Vietnam in 1969, and a year later Mr. Kramer wrote and directed "Ice," a fictional film about guerrilla warfare in the United States.
Both men remain Marxist revolutionaries, at least in theory. But the marvel of "Milestones,"which will be shown tonight and Saturday at Lincoln Center, is that it is not so much advocacy as a voyage of discovery, propelled by the author's own uncertainties.
It looks at the battered politics, the groping lifestyles, the search for meaning of a whole sector of society that has lost its revolutionary tactics and certainties but remains apart. One that lives turned inward, but uneasily, in a tangle of hope, futility, experimentation, apathy, valor and self-analysis.
The film's authors have taken more than 50 members of the Movement and shown them as they are living now: on communal farms, in burned-out squatters' premises, shared apartments, lofts, and on the road. They are experimenting with nudism, drugs, homoerotic groupings, crafts, farming, personal relationships of every conceivable size and shape, and even local radical politics.
There are dozens of sequences in which the characters talk, reminisce, discuss their problems, join and break up. The scenes are written—fictional to that extent—but they concern the real thoughts and experiences of those who enact them, and their authenticity is overwhelming.
The young prophets are older, the burnishment of five years ago—most came from a glossy upper middle class—now slightly blurred, their ideas tentative. They circle around the void left by their old commitments. The future is a bed they have slept in too long.
They are people trying to make decisions for a life whose rules they are devising at the same time. They are often tired, confused, incompetent.
There are more bright pieces in this mosaic than can possibly be mentioned. In a communal farmhouse, at sunset, a young man makes his farewells, saying vaguely "Maybe I'll visit a few middle-sized cities." Once on the road he remarks to his companion that he has had trouble relating to the friends he has just left.
A mother and her two grown daughters try to disentangle their past relationships. "You kids have a better relation to your feelings than I did. You trust them," she says.
A young man, just out of prison for helping military deserters leave the country, revisits his former comrades and makes them—all pulled slightly into their private worlds — uneasy. "There's something beautiful going on in Peter, but also he's frigid and brittle," one girl says.
Peter, the former prisoner, keeps reappearing, tentative, uncertain, a symbol of all those the film is about. He talks with a potter who finds his workshop both a haven and a prison. He talks with his doctor father—both of them are marked and gentled by the bitter differences that flared between them in the past, but they are not really closer.
The movie is full of the children of these wandering souls. They are bright, brave, overstimulated, carried too long from place to place, kept up too late too often. They would be more assured in their gypsy life if their parents had more assurance about it themselves.
"Milestones" has some flaws. It lasts three hours and a quarter, though for most of the time it is so absorbing that only in the last half-hour—a childbirth scene that seems to me seriously misjudged—does the length really tell. The complex interweaving of its characters makes for some initial confusion. One or two of its scripted sequences seem stagy.
But there are so many affecting and instructive things in it—it is a deadening and unhealthy part of American life that there has been so little news from a sector from which formerly there was so much—and it is made with such a compassionate, hilarious, and desolate eye that it must be seen.
MILESTONES, directed, photographed and written by Robert Kramer and John Douglas; produced by Barbara Stone and David C. Stone. At the New York Film Festival. Running time: 195 minutes.
Mama . . . . . Mary Chapelle
John, blind potter . . . . . John Douglas
Erika . . . . . Kalaho
Lou, with beard . . . . . Lou Ho
Helen, film maker . . . . . Grace Parey
Elizabeth, Heeln's daughter . . . . . Tina Shepherd
Karen, gives birth to Lella . . . . . Suie Solf
Joe of Joe's Bar . . . . . David C. Stone
Peter, released from prison . . . . . Paul Zimet
Robert Kramer and John Douglas interviewed
“Reclaiming our past,
reclaiming our beginning“
by G. Roy Levin
from Jump Cut, no. 10-11, 1976, pp. 6-8
copyright Jump Cut: A Review of Contemporary Media, 1976, 2004
My interview with Robert Kramer and John Douglas took place at the Cannes Film Festival, May 17, 1975. We talked about their film, MILESTONES, which was shown there as part of the Critics’ Fortnight series.
Robert Kramer, born in 1940, was one of the founders of Newsreel and has made six films: FALN, a documentary about American imperialism in Venezuela, 1966; IN THE COUNTRY, 1966, THE EDGE, 1968, and ICE, 1970, three features about the growth of the New Left; PEOPLE'S WAR, a documentary made in Vietnam at the invitation of the North Vietnamese with Douglas and Norman Fruchter, 1969; and MILESTONES, with Douglas, 1975. In 1970, he and Douglas were part of a political collective in Putney, Vermont. At present Kramer lives in California where he is completing a new film on Portugal and Angola.
John Douglas, born in 1938, was a civil rights worker for SNCC in the South in the 1960’s and was one of the early members of NEWSREEL. He has made four films: STRIKE CITY, a documentary about a group of black farmers in Mississippi, 1966; SUMMER 68, a documentary about radical Movement activity in the U.S. culminating in the Chicago 68 Convention, 1968; PEOPLE'S WAR, with Kramer and Fruchter, 1969; and MILESTONES, with Kramer, 1975. At present Douglas lives in New York City.
MILESTONES was written and directed by Kramer and Douglas; produced by Barbara and David Stone; shot by Douglas; lighting by Philip Spinelli; sound by Spinelli and Jane Schwartz; research and sound editing by Marilyn Mulford. It’s in l6 mm color; 195 minutes long.
LEVIN: What first gave you the idea for MILESTONES? It seems it was a film that grew organically.”
DOUGLAS: It came after four or five years when we hadn't made any films at all. After working in Vermont, we got to a place where we had to look at our own lives in terms of what we were going to do. Filmmaking was something that we had been really close to and was something that we could rely on in a certain way, given the confusion of that time. We'd lived and worked together for a long time. We'd worked on PEOPLE'S WAR together with Newsreel, and that in certain ways, had been this really strong and clear period of time for us. We tried to bring together different aspects of the past period we had initially felt to be really clear and strong, and show how lives had grown through that period of time. We wanted to piece together those different parts of our lives in a way that seemed to represent a growth and development in a whole different aspect of political work.
LEVIN: Are you saying that you wanted the film to explore what had happened to you and your friends, and people like yourselves, during that period of not making films?
KRAMER: Well, yes, if you want to say that we make films out of our lives. It’s like one of the characteristics of how we end up defining filmmaking for ourselves, which is that the scope of the film is the scope of our concerns. It’s not like a product. We mine what we're living through. And that’s been true for the other films and documentaries we've made—that they're basically concerned with whatever our experience was at that time. A lot of people say that the 70s is like a time of falling away from political militancy. There’s a sense in which that’s true—if the emphasis is put on the word militant, and a strong, sustained confrontation with the powers that be.
But there’s another sense in which that’s not true, because we came to a dead end, and it seemed as though we couldn't continue to be militant in that same way. That’s to say we didn't have the stamina. We didn't have even a perspective that could carry us through. What certainly began for us was a period of time which represented a falling away from day-to-day political work as we had defined it before.
We traveled a lot, and got a better sense of what was going on around us everyday. At the same time we began to reclaim our personal history. As we got a better sense of what was going on around us every day, that was reflected in all the traveling in the film. Personally, it was the first time I had spent a lot of time traveling in the United States.
LEVIN: When you first started going around the country visiting, were you shooting?
KRAMER: No. We were just traveling, going to Glacier, stuff like that. We're really talking about this whole period when we basically stopped doing anything and weren't making a movie. We were finding ways to live, doing what we had to do to live; but we were traveling a lot, bumming around. And it wasn't always together—it was in different combinations of people. And part of that process was the splitting up of our collective and just getting out.
The second thing is the claiming of our personal histories in terms of our families. In a lot of ways—earlier—we had to find our political life in a way that cut us off, say from our parents, from our own earlier experiences which we had denied. It seemed that militant politics back then had rejected all that. And so for me anyway, it was really important to reclaim my past, and to think about the different kinds of importance that culture had, that poetry had for me—the really striking discoveries, for example, of how important the Beat Poets had been, how important Ginsberg had been for me personally. It’s just that none of it fit in with our politics at the height of our activity. Then suddenly discovering that the importance of these things was way beyond the limits of the politics and culture that I had been a part of was really crucial ... and the relationship to my parents and.. even the relationship to what had been good in my education, which I had thought about only in negative terms. A lot of that is reflected in the film in the sense of families, of people trying to find ways to get back into contact with their parents—and with each other—and to explore that past.
DOUGLAS: I was rejecting my son, who was a year old at that point, and so there was a period of time that I lived with him. That was like eight or nine months of trying to piece together what hat relationship was about, because prior to hat there was no way for me to deal with that at all. There was no way to even prepare for that reality.
KRAMER: And I had been rejecting a very deep and important relationship that I had been unwilling to wrestle with in a new way. I had just been ignoring completely my sort of complete isolation.
Then the third thing is reclaiming our beginning—which is a process that’s really only beginning to pick up now—beginning to reclaim our history in America, in the sense that there is an American history of opposition to imperialism that’s much deeper and broader than we knew.
A concrete example is the Communist Party, which I have no special love for, but which I had no knowledge about at all during the 60s—it’s just that there were very heroic periods in the party’s history. And that’s a history shared by zany, many other groups which had a strong and militant resistance that preceded ours—and we had arrogantly felt that we were the first ones who had said, “This is fucking shit.” But now to begin to understand that we're the children of that past and there were things for us to learn from that. The reflection of that in the movie is, say, the old woman at the beginning, that immigrant history. So the film emerges out of that period.
I was in New York doing mostly aikido, which is sort of like tai chi, and we didn't have any plans, but finally we generated this script. The script doesn't have a story. It builds up from all the fragments of the things we've been doing.
DOUGLAS: It came out of people, ideas, situations that we wanted to see in the movie, people that we had lived with, had been close to.
KRAMER: Our method of working was basically we kept a file over a period of six months in which every time there was an image or a bit of dialogue or a thought or a character that appeared, we'd just put the bit of paper into the folder and never even bother to look at it. Then one day I sat down and sent John a 50-page packet, which was nothing more than these images in an arbitrary order determined in an hour by throwing them on three different piles. Then we didn't do anything for another few months, just talked about it all, and made a few more notes. Then, at a crack, we sat down and tried to do a thing some kind of film could come out of.
How much is script and how much is verite? It’s hard to give percentages—but you could say that overwhelmingly the film is scripted. But the film is not cinema verite, is not a documentary, in that sense. Scenes like the old woman in the beginning aren't scripted, but we asked all the questions and we sometimes told her what we wanted her to say. And we shot enough footage so we could basically compose her. The historical footage around her doesn't relate to her at all—I mean it’s not from her life. In fact it’s a free mixture of some photographs from her life with material from the immigrant past.
LEVIN: Okay. The cost of the film, where the money is from, the distribution of the film, what’s going to happen with that, and why and how is the film at Cannes and why are the two of you at Cannes. To take a few questions at one time.
DOUGLAS: David and Barbara Stone, whom we had worked with in Newsreel, they found $30,000 from London—where they live now. That was like a whole chunk to start making a movie with. The film finally cost maybe twice that much.
KRAMER: About the distribution—there are a lot of problems with that; the length, the content, the style. The best that we could hope for in distribution is that the film would open in New York, get good reviews there and then go to perhaps eight other major cities in the kind of theatre that could support that kind of film, and stay in those theatres for a while and do well; and then have a broad university and community distribution. Unless there was something really surprising, that’s what we could hope for. The way the system is set up now, it’s still based on this high regard for Europe, so in order to get into a New York theatre and make some kind of a deal, we basically have to have same kind of credentials for the film—unless we had a lot of money to buy a house, which we don't.
So you come to Europe. That’s one of the traditional underground film strategies, and it’s the one our distributor knows best anyway and is best suited for us. So the way it’s working is real simple: Cannes is the most important festival—it’s a total marketplace, and at the same time there’s a high degree of critic’s attention. So here we are in Cannes, and the film will open in Paris in the fall. But the most important things are the reviews that come out of Cannes and the possibility that it will go into something like the New York Film Festival—which we don't know about yet—and then right from there into a New York theatre.
[MILESTONES was subsequently in the New York Film Festival—GRL]
So that’s the reason the film is in Cannes. And the reason we're in Cannes is our pact with the film. Basically it’s a personal favor to Barbara and David (Stone). It’s been very interesting, because we've had a very privileged existence as filmmakers: we've been in a position where we haven't had to raise the money that much ourselves; we've been lucky to have producers, distributors who have supported us down the line, and we haven't had much relationship with the whole machinery that makes the film industry run. So though I feel that it’s terrible here—it’s almost unredeemed at any level—it’s been very important to be here. At one point it was explained to us that our being here was like another 50,000 admissions in Paris.
DOUGLAS: It’s part of the reality of getting a film distributed on this level, which we haven't taken on in that way in the past.
KRAMER: Another thing that’s sort of related to that: one of the characteristics of the people in the film is that they're not actually connected to society, or to the economic base of society in a clearly definable way. They have jobs and everything else, but they have an almost lumpen lifestyle in which they drift. In a sense that’s true for us as filmmakers in that we haven't had any relationship either to the financing or the distribution of these films, although we did in the case of Newsreel. Now the other step is that we don't have a relationship to the world of filmmakers. I don't know many. filmmakers, John doesn't know many. In the last five years we have not talked to filmmakers. And one of the things that’s come up here is the question of what is our responsibility as filmmakers.
DOUGLAS: Each of us tried to talk with filmmakers before we left the country, because in our past experiences we had been connected to a political group of filmmakers, and the work on this film has been in incredible isolation.
LEVIN: One of the things implicit in what you've been saying is that before, when you made films. for Newsreel, there was an alternate distribution system, and now, in effect, what you've done is gone over to a commercial distribution system. What do you see in the implications of that switch?
KRAMER: It’s not quite the case, because Newsreel was actually supported by commercial distribution. From the very start, Barbara and David Stone had the knowledge to place Newsreel films in theatres in these eight cities, to move them in universities. It’s not strictly like a commercial distribution, but it’s definitely in the l6mm market—and also in Europe. So the hidden financing of Newsreel was the ability to actually move the films commercially. And we therefore were able to spend all our time on non-commercial distribution, on what you could call political distribution.
Can we make films that will really say what we want to say, and can they really go into theatres, and can we do even better than MILESTONES? I mean, hasn't MILESTONES raised the question for us of still holding back, the obscurity of the form, that there seem to be ways to open that material to other people in another film? The problem, very simply, for me, is that if we're going to be filmmakers and we do films all the time, somehow we can solve those problems. But if films serve the function of coming up every three or four years as a way of assessing all the material that we've lived through, and sorting it out in that way, we won't be able to do it.
LEVIN: Have you made any decisions about future plans, about whether you're going to be fulltime filmmakers or whether you're going to go on being politically involved people who sometimes make films?
KRAMER: We don't have any real plans. What is clear is that it would be terrific if we were invited to the Republic of South Vietnam now, and we were able either to assist them, or ourselves make a film, say in a small village, which actually documented in some detail the incredible upheaval of people actually being able to take power into their own hands, it would be such an amazing film to make and it would be such a joy to be any part of something like that. But that’s like out there, and the reality of it is that we don't have any plans—or that I don't have any plans.
DOUGLAS: At this point I feel we really want to find some way to continue to work on films for some period of time. That was part of the commitment to work on this film—which I don't see as an isolated film—but tine to really explore that as a commitment. No so much in terms of my making films, but really trying to see how we can continue to work on films, and to find a group of people to work on films that need to be made at this point.
LEVIN: The earlier films were propaganda films, they wanted to make a point, to say that America did this, that or the other thing, as in Vietnam, and that this was bad news. The political purpose in that sense is not clear in this film, MILESTONES, and presumably you're still interested in those same political problems, and in that same political way of dealing with life and making films. So, in what way do you see MILESTONES as being politically relevant?
KRAMER: The way into it in this case is somehow through people’s lives, through people’s lived experiences in the attempt to expose the choices that we've made and what they mean within the context of America right now. That’s important political work. Now there are a lot of different questions. One of them is like the particular class of the people involved: basically déclassé middle class people. I mean they're for the most part white In white America, and the choice to focus on them is again a choice to say that we're going to make a film about the reality that we know. If we claimed the film was a political declaration, then we'd be in a lot of trouble, because we haven't filled out the whole spectrum.
DOUGLAS: I think it’s interesting that when we finished MILESTONES that the Vietnamese were victorious, simultaneously; it’s coincidence. I feel that we're now pushed into a whole new space, that we were pushed into a whole new space a couple of years ago in relationship to like seeing how we could identify and work clearly politically.
But the trouble spots were our lives, our reality and our relationship to the society. And I think that in a lot of ways that that’s one thing the film really, really makes clear—the real isolation, the incredible inability to be clear about what those choices should be; but at the same time talk about the real problems that people have to deal with and solve in their own lives. In other words, it was the first time that we had been able to deal with that, and not just in our film, but even in our own lives on a certain level. So I think of the film as valuable, as honest to the extent that it opens up some of the real and deeper problems of our lives.
LEVIN: It also relates to what you said at the conference after the showing of the film the other night, that when you made films for Newsreel, you made films within a political structure, and that now you have no political structure, and you're making films simply as private persons who have to make personal decisions as to the film. Isn't that problem in making the film in effect one of the problems presented in the film?
DOUGLAS: That’s right.
KRAMER: But it’s all one piece, sc that basically, dependent on the mood we were in, if you ask what’s the political significance of the film, we might say, we make no claims for its political significance because the space that it grew out of was the space in which that was the basic question—what is the political significance of our lives? And that’s the guilt that basically everyone in the film experiences at one level or another.
DOUGLAS: The openness of the dialogue in the film, the dialogue between two people, constantly, could be almost a dialogue between the two filmmakers because of their isolation.
KRAMER: And the clear politics that grew out of the 70’s couldn't be carried forward because of our own limitations. It’s the responsibility of revolutionaries to claim all the good things in the world, in the revolution, not to make lives that rule it out, not to say, you can't have beautiful films, for example. You can have beautiful films and be a revolutionary. It was an error of Newsreel to believe that to proletarianize was to uglify.
There’s a wonderful thing in a book on Cuba, an argument very early in the revolution because America had withdrawn all of the glass producing materials, about what should Cuban glass look like. The first thing they came up with were all kinds of pissy yellow, and it was one position in the Central Committee—it became a Central Committee issue—that that was fine because there were a lot of other things that had to be done. But Che took the position that revolution is not about ugliness and they carried on through—it was a specific technological problem—until they had finally produced a kind of glass that didn't turn everything into this milky, unappetizing sort of thing.
LEVIN: In the late 60’s and early 70’s there seemed to be a clear crisis situation, and there seemed to be something to focus on, work toward, and it seemed as if people were really moving forward, changing things. But that focus seems to be lost now, dispersed. In a sense a lot of that movement and the ideas have been co-opted, right? And our politics don't seem to be anywhere near as clear as they were. What a lot of people seen to have ended up with is a personal life style. It’s not meant as a reproach, but I don't see that the film deals with that.
KRAMER: I don't agree with that. It seems to me that in a certain sense there is far more crisis in America than ever before, that imperialism has entered its final crisis, and that we're going to be called upon to carry out much clearer tasks now. The second thing is that I think we have a better politics now than we ever had before, that we're at the beginning of a really rich anti-imperialist politics. And I think that elements of that politics are in the film. What’s missing in the film is the specific struggle against the state, and it’s absolutely true that that’s a failure of the film—there’s no question about it.
I guess it’s not there because it took the making of the film to realize what had fallen out of our lives—and one of the sections is all about that. But I think it’s still wrong to think that the film doesn't address that, because what the film describes is the situation where people choose not to make that fight. It’s a small investigation about a large group of people in the United States who have been a very important force over the last fifteen years.
And I think that one of the things that the film also reflects is a real attempt to change the idea of who our friends and enemies are—and that really has to be a foundation of our politics. That’s why you really need a creative Marxism-Leninism. You need a scientific tool, the beginning of some kind of mechanism for actually being able to dissect a situation so you can figure out in some objective way who you should be working with and who you shouldn't be working with. And the answer becomes that you should be basically working with almost everybody and hating very few people.
After so many years of struggle, the revolutionary government comes into Saigon and declares amnesty for everybody except for a very, very few. That’s really a tremendous lesson. It’s not just about forgiveness or humility, it’s about science, an understanding that people can change.
Directed by Robert Kramer and John Douglas
US 1975, 16mm, b/w and color, 195 min.
With Mary Chapelle, Grace Paley, Susie Solf
Milestones is a richly observed, many faceted portrait of those individuals who sought radical solutions to social problems in the United States during the 1960s and 1970s. The film cuts back and forth between six major story lines and more than fifty characters as it scans across a vast American landscape to explore the lifestyles and attitudes of those survivors of the American left who faced both personal and political transitions in the period following the Vietnam War. The filmmakers touch on such subjects as black and Native American rights, on the readjustment experiences of a Vietnam veteran and an ex-convict, on parent-child relations and the family, and on sexual alternatives, communal farming, drugs, and regional politics.
US (1975): Drama
195 min, No rating, Color
An acted-out cross-section view of what the young radicals of the 60s are doing in the 70s--how they're trying to find a revolutionary way of life. It's so long (195 minutes) and so miserably structured that the viewer can't tell who is living with whom, or where, or what the economic base of any of the groups is. The directors, Robert Kramer and John Douglas (who also wrote and edited the film), cut back and forth among people living in communes and burned-out apartments and on the road, who talk about their feelings, and the need to be open about those feelings, in banal, strangely indirect, and abstract terms. It's all so maundering and haphazard that it looks like an after-apocalypse movie; this is certainly part of the point, but we never get to understand what the directors' principles of selection were. With Douglas playing a blind potter, Grace Paley playing a filmmaker, and David C. Stone as Joe, of Joe's Bar.
A Second Look
By Dennis Lim, Special to the Los Angeles Times
December 11, 2011
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 ó on communes, in cities, on the road, starting families, finding work, reintegrating into society after time in prison ó 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 cinÈma vÈritÈ, "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 CinÈma, 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 ó scenes beginning and ending in medias res ó "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 ó making our way, without clear narrative signposts, through unresolved conversations and events whose significance often remain elusive ó 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 ó and the legacy ó 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 ó how to reconcile the personal and the political, or in other words, how to live a meaningful life ó is a timeless one.
Milestones in others’ words
by Bill Horrigan
from Jump Cut, no. 10-11, 1976, pp. 9-10
copyright Jump Cut: A Review of Contemporary Media, 1976, 2004
Judging from the comparatively scant attention paid to MILESTONES in this country, one might be surprised to learn of the extensive coverage it received in France following its Cannes showing last year. Those so inclined could argue this is simply the latest installment in a long series if discredited U.S. phenomena being rescued from neglect and rehabilitated by the French (Jerry Lewis being a notorious example). But in this instance, to leave it at that would be to ignore the particular inhering irony—an irony deriving from the fact that MILESTONES is at least an attempted meditation on, and engagement with, an historically specific culture that is distinctly U.S..
MILESTONES has failed to redound to much consequence in its native land. One can interpret this as evidence of the United States’ mistreating its artists as usual, or as evidence of the film’s generally inept political analysis, or indeed as any type of evidence, depending on one’s sympathies. The readings it has received in France—I am here referring especially but not exclusively to the lengthy discussion of it inCahiers du Cinéma, nos. 258-59—have been ones that begin by noting that the radical movement, its traces and its ruins, dealt with in the film has no previse equivalent in Western Europe. Yet MILESTONES’ status as exemplary political film is to a large extent based on an unquestioned faith in the documentary veracity of what Kramer and Douglas have presented.
While such cultural relativism may not necessarily be an absolute liability (after all, the auteur theory, virtues and limits aside, emerged from a comparable misunderstanding of actual Hollywood procedure), with MILESTONES one can argue that it is, in fact, of some consequence. The film pretends to nonfiction about a political environment that claims a unique legacy and practice. While a U.S. audience expresses ideological dissatisfaction based on the distance between Kramer and Douglas’ rendering of the “truth,” the French audience evidently feels no such impulse, having, precisely, no assurance that things are otherwise than as given in the film.
It is one thing to acknowledge that a sizeable portion of the global population believed the United States to be exactly as Hollywood had self interestedly fabricated it. But one operates in a different register with MILESTONES, since its achievement is assumed to reside not simply in its depictions, but in the exemplary nature of what is depicted. What is scarcely acknowledged in most of the French criticism is the nature of the reference. This criticism focuses instead on artistic mediation principally on the level of narrative structure, with minimum doubt expressed as to the accuracy of the scenes from political lives sketched by Kramer and Douglas.
Nearly every French film journal that reviewed the film did so in favorable terms, though characteristically praise is offered up with only the most cursory comments on the political line maintained by the film. In describing what is, if it is nothing else, a self-styled political film, this amounts to a rather serious omission.
Positif, nos. 171-72, for example, traditionally sympathetic to Hollywood cinema, could be talking about any favored auteur’s latest masterpiece:
“No other extreme-left radical movement, in any other country, has produced an equivalent of this film, at once exemplary and inimitable. Kramer’s latest work confirms his place in the front ranks of those searching for a new language with which to articulate their humane and political points... In a sense the most exemplary metaphor (and in all of Kramer’s work) is that of the clay the potter fashions... MILESTONES does not surprise those who already know Kramer’s work.”
The film itself is thus absorbed into a discussion of its position and significance in the context of the directors’ careers.
Generally, both Positif and Écran 75, no. 42, are trading in abstractions, and the reviews fail to recognize the points at which the film becomes problematic both cinematically and politically. It is less surprising when, to choose two less than random examples, Le Monde and Le Nouvel Observateur fail likewise. The following quotation, undifferentiating and romantic, could have been taken equally from either of the film magazines instead of La Monde, its actual source:
“It grows like a cell, expanding with its own vital intensity.... It flows like a great river swollen by st