Robert Kramer: Cinema/Politics/Community
By DAVID FRESKO
With fellow travelers or on his own, the maverick filmmaker traversed national and formal boundaries to bring his radical politics to the screen.
It is perhaps not so surprising a contradiction that Robert Kramer (1939-1999), the most politically committed American-born filmmaker to come on the scene in the 1960s, would remain, until recently, almost completely unknown in the country of his birth. Kramer’s politics, which were unapologetically forged in the militant fervor of the1960s, as well as the vicissitudes of non-commercial filmmaking, have tended to obstruct his canonization among America’s most significant figures in cinema. His unwavering commitment to anti-imperialism, anti-capitalism, and anti-racism and antipathy for Hollywood (and corporate media more generally) dashed any hopes for his commercial integration into the culture industries. What is more, his often awkward, intimate, and self-critical examinations of the daily lives of déclassé, déraciné dropouts was equally out of step with the militant swagger that characterized sects of the New Left with which he overlapped. And so, the great irony—a filmmaker committed to transforming the United States root and branch through political organizing and cinematic praxis shaped, as a potter molds clay, a self-critical cinema of political contemplation that found acceptance in Europe, where he relocated in 1979 and where, to this day, he is considered second only to Jean-Luc Godard in the pantheon of political modernists.
Over a 35-year career, Kramer directed or participated in the creation of more than 40 boundary-defying films, which are distinguished by three things. First, Kramer understood documentary filmmaking to be an essentially embodied and partisan activity. Second, he fundamentally believed that the dividing line between documentary and fiction was blurred, if not porous. And third, his work demonstrates a conviction that the cinema could be an instrument of community-building, that film could galvanize people politically and catalyze new ways of living, thinking, and being in the world.
These political cinematic commitments are outgrowths of Kramer’s coming-of-age in the 1960s. His political career began in Newark, New Jersey, with the Newark Community Union Project (NCUP), which was part of the Students for a Democratic Society (SDS)’s Economic Research and Action Project (ERAP) to organize Black and impoverished urban communities. Norman Fruchter and Robert Machover, central filmmaker-activists in Kramer’s early orbit, chronicled these experiences with an observational style from September to November 1965 and then fashioned them into their landmark 1966 documentary, Troublemakers. As opposed to “radical cheerleading,” the film provided a sober assessment of organizing’s often agonizing realities. Time and again, we see how this band of white activists fails not only to bend the city to improve housing conditions, alleviate unemployment, wage a successful electoral campaign, and install a traffic light at an intersection that had already witnessed the deaths of several children, but also, and perhaps more significantly, gain the trust of the Black community they hope to help. Investigated by the House Committee on Un-American Activities for its purported role in the 1967 Newark riots, hailed by Black Power advocate Stokely Carmichael because it “graphically points up the dilemma which powerless people face when they try to solve their basic problems of daily life,” and praised by the New York Film Festival as “the best film of the new American left,” this self-described “film about organizing people for change” is a significant ingress into Kramer’s life and work because it proved to the cinematic neophyte that a transgressive cinema made of, by, and for the people not only could, but already did exist.
ROBERT KRAMER’S FICTION FILMS OF THE 1960S ARE SO THOROUGHLY ENMESHED IN THEIR HISTORICAL MOMENT THAT IT’S IMPOSSIBLE TO DISAVOW THEIR DOCUMENTARY DIMENSIONS.
This key insight—that cinema could catalyze political struggle—shaped Kramer’s most well-known contribution to 1960s cultural politics: his status as founding member and all-around spiritual guru of Newsreel, the radical, if not revolutionary, documentary filmmaking collective that formed in 1967 and positioned itself as the propaganda arm of the New Left. Newsreel’s films covered all facets of “The Movement,” a blanket term from the time that referred to the overlapping (though not always intersecting) affiliations between different sociopolitical agitators dedicated to transforming U.S. society from a leftist perspective. Their films reported on Black liberation, anti-war activist, the incipient women’s movement, and more.
These were hardly the conventional newsreels that preceded pictures during Hollywood’s golden age. Newsreel, by contrast, was irrevocably partisan. “We want a form of propaganda,” Kramer explained, “that polarizes, angers, excites, for the purposes of discussion—a way of getting at people, not by making concessions to where they are, but by showing them where you are and then forcing them to deal with that, bringing out all their assumptions, their prejudices, their imperfect perceptions.” Newsreel’s aesthetics of confrontation was about fundamentally—and aggressively—agitating audiences. “[We] prefer disgust/violent disagreement/painful recognition/jolts—all these to slow liberal head-nodding and general wonderment at the complexity of these times and their being out of joint,” asserted an unequivocal Kramer in 1969. “You want to make films,” he continued, “that unnerve, that shake assumptions, that threaten, that do not soft-sell, but hopefully (an impossible ideal) explode like grenades in people’s faces, or open minds like a good can opener.” By filming all facets of alternative political life—from the civil rights movement, strikes in universities and factories, and marches in opposition to the war in Vietnam to protests against the Miss America beauty pageant—early Newsreel endeavored to fashion a vibrant cinematic image of stateside social change that might intensify the revolutionary potential many of its members perceived in late-’60s America. Newsreel’s logo, which appeared on-screen as an aggressive flicker film synchronized to a machine gun’s staccato beat, summarized their sympathies with to-the-point pugnacity.
Kramer’s hands-on contributions to Newsreel’s early films was limited. Though the group was putatively conceived as a collective, Kramer occupied a leadership position of sorts that saw him working to expand the organization’s infrastructure from New York to the rest of the country (and which would soon result in dozens of chapters nationwide). He used his prodigious talents as a writer and charismatic speaker to theorize the group’s interwoven aesthetics and politics in leftist publications at home and during interviews abroad. And he helped consolidate Newsreel’s position within New Left organizations like SDS, Up Against the Wall Motherfucker, and more.
With and alongside his work as one of Newsreel’s primary organizing forces, Kramer directed three fictional dramas: In the Country (1967), The Edge (1968), and Ice (1969). The first two remain hard-to-find cinematic treasures that Metrograph’s audiences have been fortunate to see. Constituting a loose trilogy about the glacial pace of social change that explore, most acutely, the fantasies and anxieties that plagued the New Left in its attempts to actualize its revolutionary aspirations, Kramer’s fiction films of the 1960s are so thoroughly enmeshed in their historical moment that it’s impossible to disavow their documentary dimensions. Slow, awkward, and contemplative, they comprise the antithesis to Newsreel’s belligerence. Made with Newsreel’s people and resources, they are, in fact, symptoms of Newsreel’s own doubts.
Whereas In the Country is a chamber piece about a formerly political couple’s descent into alienation in the spirit of Rossellini and Antonioni, The Edge and Ice incisively critique how groups—like Newsreel—fail in their revolutionary aspirations. The former focuses on the intersecting lives of 16 members of a militant urban cell, who experience the suffocating isolation that separates the them from dominant society, individuals from one another, and each person from their own internal drives and desires. One of the 16, Danial Rainer (Jack Rader), expresses an irrational urge to assassinate the President. Despite emphatic protests from his friends and knowledge that his plan will neither stop the war in Vietnam nor catalyze an actual revolution, Danial’s resolve forces everyone around him to question their commitments to radical action, hastens the organization’s disintegration, and results in his death at the hands of shadowy counter-conspiracy orchestrated by the feds.
Ice extends these themes quite literally into the future. Its fragmentary science-fiction narrative ostensibly centers on a group of mostly white urban guerrillas in New York City, and the media outfit that works alongside them as they attempt to coordinate a regional uprising against a nakedly fascist U.S. government waging an unending war with Mexico. Thematically, like In the Country and The Edge before it, Ice dramatizes debates roiling the New Left and Newsreel: how can cross-racial and cross-class solidarity be realized? What role should violence to play in revolutionary struggle? And how do film and other forms of media—like photography, underground newspapers, and “happenings”—inform broad-based social change? In many ways, the film is clinical and procedural; but in others, it is uncanny, taking pages out of Rivette’s approach to Paris Belongs to Us (1961) to create an overwhelming sense of paranoia and pressure, and from Godard’s Alphaville (1965) to show the surreal sci-fi realities that already surround us.
And like those films, its style belies any drive toward idealist resolution. Gray, murky, and chiaroscuro-laden cinematography indicates the cloudy, if not incomprehensible, politics it sets out to depict. Claustrophobic and indeed oppressive compositions stifle interactions between characters, and thus viewers’ relation to them. And editing, which moves through multiple, competing spaces, narrative threads, and films within the film, generates a framework of alienating address that seems to confirm the film’s indifference to its audience. As it moves from New York City’s film noir networks to the snow-white country and back, Ice divulges a genuine contradiction that remains prescient and thus painfully pertinent: desperation and determination always operate in concert because, as the film’s last words indicate, “Humanity won’t be happy until the last bureaucrat is dissolved in the blood of the last capitalist.”
Ice’s open-ended uncertainty is demonstrative of a self-critical posture that voids the arrogant certitudes, or platitudes, of left-wing sloganeering. After Ice’s rejection by Newsreel (a story unto itself), Kramer abjured from filmmaking for nearly six years before returning in 1975 with Milestones, which he made with Newsreel colleague John Douglas. Mixing documentary and fiction with a poetic, free-associative logic, Milestones is a cross-country journey that moves from the mountains of Vermont to the sculptural landscapes of the American Southwest and back to New York City’s streets. But above all, Milestones is a film about history and how people understand themselves historically, exploring how an American past characterized by slavery, indigenous subjugation, labor suppression, and imperialist aggression persists into the present and therefore weighs upon the future. It was also the last film Kramer would make on U.S. soil until his equally epic, free-floating, and fragmentary Route One/USA (1989).
If Kramer couldn’t find the America that he and his collaborators aspired to on its shores, his cinematic map extended his politics globally, thereby consolidating an international perspective organic to the News Left’s agenda. Newsreel, in fact, distributed films from Vietnam and Cuba to domestic audiences when such acts were construed as “aiding the enemy” by the federal government, and their films juxtaposed scenes of domestic rebellion with liberation movements abroad. In FALN (1965), which he fashioned with Peter Gessner out of footage provided by communists guerrillas in Venezuela, and The People’s War (1969), which was produced for Newsreel with Douglas and Fruchter on location in North Vietnam, Kramer cinematically materialized this internationalism. Later, during the 1970s, Kramer photographed Angola’s revolution in the photo-essay book With Freedom in Their Eyes (1976) and filmed, with Philip Spinelli, Portugal’s Carnation Revolution in Scenes from the Class Struggle in Portugal (1977).
A common charge against New Left internationalism was that it marked an abdication of homegrown social and political responsibility. That is to say: Why don’t you make your own revolution instead of filming someone else’s? Kramer’s films, in fact, are haunted by the spirit of exile—both the inner exile experienced in a country that militates against your very political existence and then the literal exile that comes from leaving it, as Kramer did in 1979 when he emigrated from the U.S. to France.
In this, the cinema, international art par excellence, intervenes, militating against the loneliness and isolation of exile by creating communities with, through, and around the apparatus. “After the 1950s,” Kramer told Olivier Joyard and Thierry Lounas of Cahiers du Cinéma, “community became the cinema’s principal subject: how to recognize one’s own? . . . For me, each film was in itself the creation of a community, a community of gestures, the sharing of a frame, of a space, of time.” Capable of galvanizing people politically, Kramer’s cinema unfolds as a peripatetic exploration of how our very consciousness—social and political, at home and abroad, alone and with others—comes into being. “Eventually,” he wrote elsewhere, “all these movies I make will make up one long film. One ‘story’ in a continuous process of becoming: the detailed account of a consciousness moving through time and place, trying to survive, to understand, trying to find an appropriate home, and throughout it all living with images, with film-form, as the one continuous practice that unified this project.” •
David Fresko is Assistant Teaching Professor of Cinema Studies at Rutgers University, and the program’s Assistant Undergraduate Director. His writing has appeared in Screen, animation: an interdisciplinary journal, The Brooklyn Rail, InVisible Culture, and The Global Sixties in Sound and Vision: Media, Counterculture, and Revolt (Palgrave Macmillan, 2014), and he has curated film programs at the George Eastman Museum, Interference Archive, and the Film-makers’ Cooperative.