A Rare Brand of Honesty: Robert Kramer's Milestones / Ice

Reviewer: Simon Paul Augustine
Ratings (out of five):

Milestones ****
Ice ** 1/2 

“I was having this dream, the feeling of a gap between what I believe in, and what my life is like day to day…” – from Milestones


Even in the context of underground cinema of the late 60’s and 70’s, Robert Kramer’s Milestones stands as a dizzying confluence of genres and styles, reality and fiction. Kramer is a prominent figure in the American DIY scene that existed forty years ago – a time when auteurs outside the Hollywood system, in lieu of the unprecedented access to video and computer technology that fuels today’s indies, were heir to a tradition that used real film stock and mother-of-invention ingenuity to plumb the possibilities of how celluloid, including its physical tangibility, could harnessed for expression. Part of a lineage that included predecessors like Stan Brakhage and Kenneth Anger, Kramer and his contemporaries merged text, still images, graphic design, and unconventional, daring editing and sound choices in endless ways.

Milestones is a loose, meandering (in a good sense) three hour epic entry into that patchwork tradition: avoiding a linear narrative, it presents us with various, related characters perpetually coming and going, entering and exiting the frame to have discussions about their lives – talking about the crises of being parents, being children, having children, and negotiating the divide between personal fulfillment and the rapidly changing conventions and demands of society that is widening before their eyes in the mid-seventies. If the film were a poem, it would be free verse, with a rambling rhythm, but there is great assonance in its many voices expressing the same essential problem – a parade of people, in one way or another living out the counter-culture, rhyming and echoing each other in their persistent attempts to adjust the ostensible sovereignty of individual emotion to group dynamics – whether that group be a family, a commune, the members of a Native American reservation, or America at large.

We see a mother (played by real-life famed short story writer Grace Paley) trying to finish a film about her travels in Vietnam, while interacting with her two daughters, one of whom has just left her own children with an ex-husband, the other of whom is pregnant; we observe a man return from jail after doing time for helping war deserters escape to Canada, only to face the anxieties of rejoining his former collective of protesters; and several storylines center around members of a commune, including a father who wants to leave the group and try the nuclear family approach with his young son and wife, as they attempt to resolve the tension between the comfort of belonging and longing for autonomy. Although Kramer’s title may refer to the different “milestones” in the lives being enacted – impending births, divorces, moves, realizations – the most vital narrative at work is one binding all of these motions, gestures and conversations together, telling us about a cultural milestone – namely, the transitional period in American life when the thriving counter-culture began to slowly burn out, acceding to more conventional lifestyles – a change of which not even Kramer could have been fully aware at the time of the making of his masterwork.


Made in 1975, the film pinpoints, in often excruciating and fascinating “close-ups” of interpersonal relationships, a pivot our country made during the year it was released: from being a place obsessed with ending the war, recovering from Watergate, still hoping the cultural revolution begun a decade earlier could fundamentally alter not only the country’s guiding values and governance but the basic social structures of everyday life, to one becoming an exhausted wasteland of sorts in which the former dreamers attempted to pick up the scattered fragments of a lost vision. Disco, cocaine, divorce as a norm, and the more vapid half of the Me decade were only a year or two away from the people we see in Milestones, and the pain and confusion of this turning away from a burning idealism and sense of actual foment to dealing with the necessities of economics and family units is in vivid evidence here. We see the scarring effect in their eyes, in their unsure words and gestures, in their fumbling between emotional and external realities. A brand of self-conscious innocence still reigns, but is flickering out; cynicism, decadence, and resign have not yet taken over completely. As one man tells another, in a line reminiscent of Easy Rider’s famous refrain (“we blew it”) about the 60’s: “Remember the Washington demonstrations and the days of rage and the panthers and the Chicago conspiracy… it seems like maybe people sorta never quite, never quite…like they withdrew from that; now, seems like we never really learned the value of living close to our values in a revolutionary way at the same time we are struggling in the streets.” His friend responds: “I think one of things we figured out was that a revolution was not just a series of incidents but a whole life.” That answer, potent with a bitter wisdom and maturity not quite possible five years earlier in history, when Easy Rider came out, captures perfectly the dilemma of Milestones: how to make revolution and actual life fit. And so, at least thematically, Kramer’s poetry is also very much about reconciling a great dissonance.

Appropriately, if there is a new element Kramer and his contemporaries (such as Jonas Mekus) brought to experimental filmmaking, it was a willingness to focus deeper into the fabric of their own personal lives and of those around them, often investing themselves into their creations, recognizing their own position as self and filmmaker in creating narrative. This emphasis is also reflected in the new journalism of the era, spearheaded by writers like Hunter S. Thompson and Tom Wolfe, and cinematically, in the work of John Cassavetes, who helped bridge some of the gap between the potential of independent film, especially its sense of personal reality, in all its grotesquerie and ripe imperfections, with the more glamorous and traditional aesthetics of the mainstream. It can also be seen in groundbreaking American films like Coming Apart (1969) with Rip Torn, in foreign ones like Bergman’s Scenes from A Marriage, released two years prior to Milestones, while also resonating with the tone and spirit of more recent forays into counter-culture like Sean Penn’s Into the Wild.


Within the larger panoramic scope of many interweaving characters moving across a similar landscape, Kramer brings a microscopic investigation of the personal to the viewer in a manner still jarring and intriguing to this day, with a rawness not artistically affordable even to Cassavetes or Bergman. This is the most important and innovative aspect of Milestones: the stories and conversations are told by means of a completely odd combination of the actual and fictive, or rather fiction always teetering on the bounds of reality, threatening to collapse all distinctions. As we watch the “characters” it is easy to get the strong sense that they are not actors but just people playing themselves, or versions of themselves, or people very like themselves; at some points they seem to be amateurs reading very awkwardly scripted lines, while in others the dialogue appears to flow into a spontaneous conversation authentic to the persona of the actor speaking. Grace Paley (whose voice charmingly combines the inflection Ruth Gordon circa Rosemary’s Baby with a thick New Yawk accent), for instance, plays “Helen,” but the role barely disguises Paley’s own biography, in which she was a peace activist deeply involved in protesting the war, who traveled to Vietnam and had two children (a daughter and son). Pictures of Paley standing in Vietnam are intercut with her dialogue.


In some shots, Kramer is working on what would approximate a “set,” (scenarios in which a woman is nearly raped in a sculptor’s loft and one depicting a botched robbery are a few of the more obviously planned segments) while in others he seems to be following the action as it unfolds, racing with his camera to keep up. Sometimes the actors or people around them behave as if they are being surprised by the camera, or have always been aware of its presence, barely disguising the fact that they know they are being filmed, on occasion even acknowledging its lens with a glance. Yet other scenes seem more concerned with maintaining the illusion of a fiction masquerading as reality, if only temporarily, using conventionally scripted and staged action.

Because Kramer moves from these modes without cues or obligation to alert his audience, the result is a thoroughly disorienting experience – we are never sure if what we are watching is a documentary, or a story, or some strange hybrid – a documentary lurking beneath the structuring device of story. This method is both a strength and a weakness. But perhaps the weakness is integral to the strength. The fact that Kramer allows these holes in his construction to remain visible makes for an incredibly distinct piece, one unusually honest and forthcoming about the constant dialectic between person and persona, as well as between cinema and real lives. A film that at times makes you wince because of the shoddy performances, and at others because of the genuine personal struggles exposed, it features that most rare thing in Hollywood fare – true unsurety, rife with pauses, and emotions seemingly being processed as the film is running.

Growing out of this extemporaneous atmosphere, there are also some acutely beautiful, lyrical scenes worthy of any Hollywood director: one of naked men and women playing and working in the mottled sunshine of the mountain commune; a tremendously aching scene in which a father and son linger by the ocean side, talking in voiceovers amidst scenes of the sea’s languorous grandeur; a meditative trip to the aquarium with busily commenting children countering lingering shots of animals and water; a hypnotic, gorgeously rendered journey through mesas and ruins on a Native American reservation and in Taos, New Mexico; and a culminating sequence of a riveting (and very real) home birth that will most likely blow you away and make you shed tears. Yet also in abundance are images that challenge eyes accomstomed to the lacquer of Hollywood: we see real faces, with acne and unkempt hair, natural bodies, flubs of speech.

As an audience, we are always unsure ourselves of the exact nature in terms of authenticity and artifice, and it keeps us off-guard, simultaneously drawing us deeper into what is happening, not only to sort out the events but to explore the tenuous boundaries between reality and performance, personhood and social mask. We are privy to nuances in speech and facial expression that more traditional films cannot capture. This makes the scenes truly exciting – not in the sensationalist, pseudo-authenticity of today’s “reality TV,” nor in that of getting swept up into the masterful illusion of classic Hollywood, but of seeing how not only the absorbing stories we tell on screen are related to the realities upon which they are based, but how performance (and our attempt to escape the merely performative) is also embedded in our actual lives, especially as relate to other people, or even ourselves. Here all the stitches show, on purpose, and to great and cumulative effect. Viewers could investigate to find out more about what is “real” and what is not in the film, but it seems more interesting and productive to let Kramer’s film work on us on its own terms.

And such cinematic playfulness around the nodes of authenticity and “making it up,” what is done privately and what is done for an audience of others, goes right to the heart of a defining human negotiation suggested over and over in the “rap sessions” and encounters between family, friends, and lovers. It is a negotiation that treads the precarious and ever shifting line between remaining true to one’s feelings as a guiding social instrument (as Helen points out to her daughter, a relatively young concept in American life) while still relating to and being part of a community. It is the divide between idealism and alienation, freedom and responsibility, the bravery of the separate self and the reassurance of the whole, through which many adults and kids tragically slipped through during the era during which Milestones was made. As Helen puts it to a young assistant editing her Vietnam film, who is struggling to find the balance herself: “I don’t think there is anything more frightening than a private, selfish life.” Having finished seeing Kramer’s film, I still don’t know if that was a line written for Grace, or was her own thought. And I don’t really want to.

"Freedom was never really real before. Revolution is permanent."                                                    – from Ice


Kramer’s prelude to Milestones is Ice, a gritty black and white tale about the galvanizing of a people’s revolution against a dystopian totalitarian US government. Similar to the design employed in films like Godard’s Alphaville or the more recent City of Men, Ice, though it takes place in a quickly impending future (one that to the revolutionary mindset portrayed here may as well be the present), the film makes no pretense in changing the look of contemporary America – there are no flying cars or ray guns (in Kramer’s case, this is not only an aesthetic choice but a budgetary concern.) In a sense, such an approach provides a pro-active kind of entertainment, as the audience must supply enough imagination to fill in the gaps and maintain the semi sci-fi illusion. Revolutionaries meet in rooms, trade information, disseminate ideas and manifestos by producing films, and plan operations in a heightened, cloak and dagger atmosphere that is all melodramatic suspense and suggestion. In comparison to Milestones, the acting is of relatively professional quality, and the story moves in a clear arc; however, although it must have been incendiary and startling in its time, and still holds some punch, Ice cannot match the emotional depth and power of its follow-up, even when the action starts and the bullets fly.

Partly, this is because its fantasy scenario is more akin to a wish fulfillment of the sum of the counter-culture’s longings at that time, in which all the oppressed, dismissed factions and communities in America are able to organize to mount a major offensive against the government, than it is to the harsh and moving actualities composing Milestones. (However, today’s viewers will notice curious parallels with the Occupy Wall Street movement – the idealism, the confusion, the response of violence on the part of authority. There is even a drum circle.)

And although the paranoia and barely controlled hysteria on the part of the revolutionaries provoked by the terrors and powers of the State hinted at in Ice are not unwarranted, and in some cases pretty closely approximates the dynamics of the time – like those between such organizations as the FBI and the Black Panthers (especially given incidents like that in which the former notoriously burst into Panther leader Fred Hampton’s apartment and assassinated him in cold blood), Kramer also leaves room for doubt about the causes with which he clearly sympathizes. There are unflinching scenes pointing to the self-deluded and misguided aspects of the revolutionary movement – it’s reliance on retaliation, its belief in violence, its myopia about consequences and effects on individual lives. In one of the propaganda films-within-the-film that appear, a narrator, warning of the “ruling class ideology” gives us this quote as an example of “false consciousness” : “Liberalism is man’s fullest attempt to reconcile the desires for individual liberty with the necessities of social organization.” It is the very truth contained in those words, and Kramer’s generation’s dawning reluctance to accept the compromise it implies, that makes the disillusionment and painful growth in Milestones five years later seem so inevitable.

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