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Icarus films, the folks who brought us irreplaceable disc offerings like Marcel Ophuls' Hotel Terminus, Middletown and Chris Marker's A Grin without a Cat, moves on to even more politically challenging material. The '60s counterculture had its media-friendly exponents and its outright outlaws, but among the filmmakers that have retained a righteous set of radical convictions are John Douglas and Robert Kramer.
Who? These writer-directors are not exactly household words, as their films received the kind of distribution that would reach only, shall we say, specialized screening situations - film festivals, some university screenings. I can only judge by my experience at UCLA, which had well-developed student-run screening programs. In 1967 through 1973, more or less, flyers could be seen for film showings that likely got the attention of whatever federal agents were on campus -- pictures like La hora de los hornos. On the weekends we saw movies about CIA depredations in Latin America, while documentary classes in Film School occasionally showed movies from Cuba about the Bay of Pigs and Agit-prop cinema from North Vietnam. Did these pictures really radicalize anybody? It's hard to say. In the film school we mostly debated finer points of cinema: the difference between documentary and propaganda filmmaking, and how handheld "news film" cinematography made staged action appear to be real.
Both pictures in this set come direct from the Vietnam years. The almost elegiac Milestones examines what had happened to the radical generation by 1975. The second film, Ice, is a fairly legendary epic about a fictional revolutionary movement in a future or alternate United States. As it is claimed by the Science Fiction genre as a prime example of 'alternate futurism', my focus is on it.
In the beginning, someone said, "If you want to change the world, pick up a gun". But adventurous filmmakers have altered that to read, "If you want to change the world, pick up a camera". The films of Robert Kramer and John Douglas, or some Cuban or Russian propagandist, for that matter, interest me greatly. Do the ideas in these films have any value? Some of us need to see for ourselves.
Milestones is a sprawling (three hours) epic that follows a group of at least forty characters enacting a number of stories about various ex-radicals and free thinkers, the lost generation of the anti-war movement. It is 1974, and what look like ex-hippies are on the road or trying to settle down in commune-like groups, living in unconventional arrangements, etc. The film is scripted and the acting is sometimes rough but the show is never insincere or false. These people are really living these lives. Writer and co-director Robert Kramer keeps the stories mostly separate. Some seem original and others appear staged to permit long discussions between characters. A well-developed feminist angle is present, with women of different generations discussing their lives and opportunities. A mother and daughter bare personal stories of failed relationships and later discoveries in the radical part of their lives. As it turns out, the film's best material is the discussions about motherhood and raising children in a politicized world.
It's fairly easy to say which parts of the movie are "real" and which are scripted, and some of the subplots are more compelling than others. A helper of draft evaders gets out of jail and doesn't know what to do with his life: we care because the actor is so sympathetic. A scene of an attempted rape rings false, but a prison interview of a woman arrested for resisting a rape grabs us by the throat. The movie begins on a quizzical note, examining the life of an elderly lady who runs a chain of shoe stores. By the fifteen-minute mark we're convinced that she's a paragon of personal strength and has endured life experiences that the 'radical' generation has never had to deal with.
Intercut with these scenes are montages that at first might seem to be totally unrelated. They contain images from Vietnamese propaganda films and hideous stills of political and racial crimes at home -- lynchings, prison abuses, violent reactions to anti-war demonstrations. They make sense only when the viewer realizes that they are the reason that so many Americans became radicalized. These idealists were not idle dreamers - they applied human values to an ugly political climate.
Milestones can be credited for not giving a damn whether or not the right, the silent majority or anybody might take offense. There is copious female nudity, non-exploitative situations of same-sex relationships and a couple of fast images that would be rated "X", were the filmmakers to bother to submit their work to the censors. The final chapter is built around an unflinchingly graphic home childbirth scene. A woman decides to have her baby among friends, and we see the entire process. It's hard to watch without being affected -- the situation is emotionally draining. The mother has her husband at her side but also at least eight female helpers, offering encouragement, wiping away perspiration, kissing and caressing her -- the exultation as the baby is born is strong stuff, very human.
Icarus Films DVD of Milestones is from a 2008 film restoration performed in France. The 16mm color cinematography looks quite good and the audio is exceedingly clear.
In hindsight, the notion that America in the 1960s was in any way headed for a general revolution now seems absurd. The nation indeed needed a good shaking up, but life here was simply too good for a large and basically contented middle class. Activist opposition to racial injustice and resistance to the War almost invariably led to reactionary violence, which Middle America then blamed on the activists themselves. Sheltered college students like myself, if not radicalized, were forever changed by the sight of unarmed Ohio students being shot down by National Guard troops. When my parents insisted that "the student protesters asked for it", all political discussion in my family ceased.
In Los Angeles, the American Film Institute was formed with the mission to foster film education and the tradition of American filmmaking. Big Hollywood names were behind it. An established political filmmaker named Robert Kramer had already made a film critical of the U.S. political system, The Country. Kramer received one of the first AFI grants to make a feature film in 16mm. The result was Ice, a disturbing guerilla epic about a future or alternate United States undergoing an armed insurrection by covert militant groups. 1.
I don't remember Ice being shown at UCLA, or anywhere. I've been personally trying to catch up with it for about thirty years. Until Icarus Films' DVD release the film had existed only as vague descriptions in books about science fiction films. The original Variety review was fairly positive about the film's possibilities for distribution, but warned exhibitors that it lacked the action and emotions of the current liberal favorite "Z". The AFI connection is always noted, but I don't see Ice featuring proudly in any history of the non-profit organization. Their involvement may have been limited to a grant; Robert Kramer's producer was David C. Stone, who six years before had helped Adolfas Mekas' with his counterculture hit Hallelujah the Hills.
In a slightly altered present, the United States is divided into "security zones". It's heavily engaged in a war in Mexico, where student rebellion has led to a mass uprising against a government considered to be a U.S. puppet state. 2 A group of radicals in New York City has taken charge of dozens of militant groups around the country: the White Student Union, the Women's Front, the Church Union, the Black Army, etc. In anticipation of a major Spring Offensive the New York central group launches an immediate armed action just to keep the groups together, spread the word and serve notice on the government that support for the revolutionaries is growing. Messengers smuggle guns and cans of film through the city: the movement relies on film propaganda to get its message out. We occasionally break for a written communiqué or a filmed party manifesto on one subject or another, delivered in agit-prop / Jean-Luc Godard mode. The leaders check the story of an army deserter who went AWOL because he was assigned to "domestic pacification" instead of the fighting in Mexico. The revolutionaries bicker among themselves. A black unit in Chicago and a New York Spanish speaking group will not take orders from the central committee but agree to coordinate their separate actions with the main group. Various couples must work out their personal lives while living on a perpetual war footing. An isolated bookshop owner guarding files of stolen government records is cut off from other people, and growing more eccentric in his demands. One woman works in a computer center and is able to access corporate records and even police patrol schedules. Training in weapons is limited mostly to one member showing another how a gun works. Less committed members are coerced into taking greater risks for the cause.
The group lives in isolation but preaches that its members must be part of the community. They claim that the government is weak and that its media represents revolutionary strikes, such as the sabotage destruction of an entire Texas oil refinery, as industrial accidents. The group also claims that civilian cooperation is widespread.
The coordinated strike takes place in one night. A government "Secretary" is assassinated and some bombs are set off. Residents in apartment houses are herded together to listen to harangues about the cause and the need for their support. Although the revolutionaries explain how the government is feeding the people lies and taking away their freedoms, the only repressive measures we see are people being stopped on the street for random identity checks. At one point a cell member is caught and tortured; another concerned revolutionary loses sleep thinking about police torture methods. When the government strikes we see a few shootouts with plain-clothes detectives. When a police squad breaks in his door, one revolutionary greets them with a shotgun. One of the more committed female cell members is wounded and is kept in an apartment belonging to a member's parents. When they demand that she be moved he threatens to kill them.
who've never even been in a fistfight before"
Ice does not suffer from the usual low budget problems of poor camerawork and bad acting. The handheld cinematography (unbilled 3) is excellent and the cast uniformly professional and convincing. The charismatic leader "Ted" visits the director of a theater group to get a commitment for more subversive activity. He stays a while to rehearse a scene with other actors in giant pig masks. The three or four female revolutionaries we meet are no less committed to the cause. In a couple of cases they might be using their bodies to keep wavering key personnel on task, but the show doesn't make this explicit. The lack of large-scale action scenes is no detriment, as what we see has a you-are-there docu feel that works quite well. Kramer's recreations of Agit-prop film lectures are (to coin a phrase) right on: the revolutionary rhetoric avoids Marxist phraseology but hits the nail on the head for form and content. As a narrator lists the "false consciousness" reasons why civilians stay uninvolved in the revolution, the screen alternates black and white, with subliminal flash frames of photographs.
The urban guerrillas haven't adopted other Marxist qualities, either. Nobody thrust their fists in the air or calls each other 'comrade'. This is apparently home grown insurrection that has adopted standard communist tactics.
It's possible that Ice was inspired by Gillo Pontecorvo's The Battle of Algiers, the recreation of the Algerian War for Independence filmed on a big budget in 1965. The makers may also have been aware of Philip K. Dick's "alternate reality" science fiction novel The Man in the High Castle, which deals with a 1962 United States living as a conquered nation under the Germans and Japanese. One cell member who has lost his mind tries to convince a colleague that he's a time-traveling visitor from the future. That sounds coincidentally like another Philip K. Dick theme.
What almost seems amusing now are scenes with the revolutionary cell's Film Unit, which must relocate from Boston because the cops have found their secret lab. The militants screen their own Agit-prop films in darkened rooms, apparently for morale purposes. These highly incriminating films are circulating, along with audiocassettes carrying important messages. As the top command must use pay phones on the street as a main communication tool, it would seem easy for the police to tap the lines and watch some street phones to quickly round up the whole militant shebang. And one would think that dressing more like straights would be a good idea for the guerillas as well.
Filmed in 1969, Ice is in a strange position vis-à-vis the activities of real militant groups. Although the Black Panthers were already drawing a strong police response, the Weather Underground and other groups were just getting going. That makes Ice much more of a speculative work of political science fiction. The high level of harmony, cooperation and commitment shown here looks like wishful thinking ... organizing a million Vietnamese with their backs to the wall is a lot easier than getting fifty Americans to look beyond their personal situations. In 1969 America was the land of plenty for a majority of the population.
Ice possesses a gravity mostly lacking in the infantile "radical chic" exploitation pix most of us saw back in the day: Wild in the Streets, etc. It is naturally not for everybody, but it certainly holds a high roost in the annals of radical filmmaking. Behind the provocative fantasy, the makers are not dilettantes. They definitely subscribe to the ideals they present. Ice can hold its own against the entire wave of "committed" filmmaking that accompanied the 1968 student strikes worldwide.
Icarus Films' DVD of Milestones and Ice have been very handsomely remastered. Ice is slightly cruder but is presented in an excellent transfer. The audio is clear and the dialogue audible, which is a relief -- the discs do not come with subtitle tracks.
The 16-page insert booklet contains several older essays by the filmmakers that for the most part do not directly address the content of the films. They do whet our appetites to learn more about John Douglas and Robert Kramer (a helpful web page is here. Understandably, Kramer moved to France for his later career. The film restorations seen here were done in that country.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
Milestones / Ice Blu-ray rates:
1. I presume that ICE is the name of the main "revolutionary action cell" we see, but I don't recall the word being used in the film itself.
3. It's difficult to pin down most of the personnel that contributed to Ice, which has an abbreviated credits list. Politics have become so polarized these days that watching the movie is an odd experience. What would Homeland Security think? If the dialogue, slogans and attitudes presented in this film appeared with any regularity on the hard drive of one's personal computer, one might indeed become a target of interest for security snoops.
Reviews on the Savant main site have additional credits information and are often updated and annotated with reader input and graphics.
Also, don't forget the 2011 Savant Wish List.
T'was Ever Thus.