Saturday, February 18, 2012

MILESTONES and ICE: Robert Kramer films make a belated North American DVD debut

Thanks to Icarus Films, a couple of movies from the late American filmmaker Robert Kramer recently made their North American DVD debut: MILESTONES (reviewed below) and ICE (a film which TrustMovies hopes to cover at a later date). Kramer was born in New York City but died in France, after moving there to continue his film work in a Europe where his kind of left-wing philosophy and commitment were a good deal more understood and appreciated than here. Made in 1975, Milestones attempts to give voice and visuals to an increasingly disaffected youth (some of them a little older than that) whose -- and I do not use this term lightly or disrespectfully -- "hippie" ideals from the decade previous turned out to be, well, unobtainable.

Kramer, shown at right, and his co-director/editor/
cinematographer John Douglas, use a documentary style that consists of conversations -- between couples, friends, relatives, journalists/
interviewees -- that take place all over the country: inside, outside and on the road. These conversations have to do with how they (and if you're old enough to think back a few decades, we) lived then, watching some of our/their dreams and goals crumbling. The movie begins with a wonderful old woman, who eventually grows mortally ill, describing/showing her life and family, at home and work, to a young journalist. It ends (or nearly so) with the birth of a baby, shown below, as prolonged and graphic as any birth I have seen, even in this day and age of oh-so-special "special effects" (I believe this birth is all real, by the way).

The above sounds as if you might be watching a documentary, and at most times during the movie, you'll swear that you are. TM certainly thought he was. It was not until some point, probably more than half way along this very long (three hours and fifteen minute) film, that -- with the attempted rape of a young woman and the non-interference from the filmmaker -- it suddenly dawned upon him that this was no documentary.

This says something both for and against the film and its performances. The acting is at once so "real" and finally a bit plodding and single-note, that it is perhaps too easy to imagine it as a documentary in which the people being documented are just a little too cowed by the filmmaker to be completely real. There is a sameness to many of the performances here that either connote amateur acting and/or amateur film-making.

The discussions -- particularly those between the couple (above) who later travel the road with their son -- go back and back and back again to what she wants, and what he wants, and how she says he won't allow himself to experience his own feelings, etc. that I thought for a horrible moment that I had been transpoted back in time to my "couples therapy group" circa the mid-1970s. There is way too much jargon being spouted, and a little of this, as usual with any kind of jargon, goes a long way.

Other relationships fare better -- like the odd, sweet connection between a blind potter (above) and his new friend who, as you observe them, seem like they might be... well, gay? But no mention is ever made of sexuality. In a later scene, as one reads to the other and they cuddle in bed, no explanation is necessary.

In addition to that attempted rape, there's an attempted burglary and a shoot-out. Plus a prolonged fantasy/nightmare section in which one character (above), a recent prison inmate, dreams/imagines all kinds of unpleasant stuff (below), most of which has a decidedly political/social/economic/cultural/historic undertone. These are among the least effective sections of the movie because they stand out from everything that surrounds them -- in a manner that makes them seem more artificial, "dramatic" and consequently fake than most of what we've seen.

One of the real treats of the film is watching the acting of Grace Paley -- yes, the writer and subject of a wonderful documentary that has yet to be released here in NYC. She plays a character named Helen who pops up several times throughout the movie, and if you're a Paley fan, this alone might make Milestones a must-see. If that doesn't, then maybe the movie's "take" on the American Indian, or its occasional shots of full-frontal guys and gals (below), or its rather charming scene set in a restaurant/bar complete with the music of its time will draw you in. (The specter of Vietnam also hangs over the whole movie.)

However, no one else I can think of works in quite the way Kramer did, combining documentary style with narrative and putting his ideas on politics, love, family, work and life together in a way that shows how difficult it is to separate these into any neat little categories. His movie may clunk from time and to time, as he seemingly lurches into a different genre, but finally there is enough coherence to hold the thing together.

If you've never seen a Kramer film (as I hadn't), you probably owe it to yourself to take a look. Neither Milestones nor Ice is available for rental via Netflix or Blockbuster, so maybe sharing a purchase with a group of like-minded film fans will work for you. (And if the film is available via streaming, I don't know where. Mubi maybe? Hold on: I just checked, and, yes -- Mubi's got both Milestones and Ice!) Available for sale via Icarus Films, the films come in a two-for-one package-deal from their distributor, or, of course, you can order the DVD from that behemoth Amazon.

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