To call Robert Kramer "independent" doesn't quite do him justice. A seminal, though now largely forgotten, underground director of politically charged, rambling, no-budget films, he was the kind of outside-the-system iconoclast who made John Cassavetes look like Cecil B. DeMille. A Stanford grad who worked as a community organizer in New Jersey and then a journalist in Latin America, reporting on guerilla movements, Kramer returned to the U.S. and began chronicling the anti-war movement. Never a mere objective observer, Kramer mixed documentary style and revolutionary ideology to make the incendiary, complicated and fascinating Ice in 1969. It screens one time only, 7 p.m. Thursday, July 18, on 16mm at Third Man Records' monthly Light and Sound Machine series.
Shot in gritty black-and-white 16mm, Ice starts off with a series of dense texts that set the stage, announcing that the U.S. is a dystopian police state and that a vast network of diverse revolutionary factions — led by one umbrella group, the National Committee of Independent Revolutionary Organizations — is mobilizing a major offensive to bring down the evil American empire once and for all. (With all that opening text, one wonders if the young George Lucas saw this film.)
But before that happens, a lot of planning and talking and educating and arguing has to happen — often revealing the cross purposes at which these wannabe revolutionaries and bureaucrats are working. The film focuses on a collective of New York-based activists as they prepare, stockpiling weaponry or making educational movies, even as the authorities edge ever closer to them. Ice is sympathetic to the cause of revolution, even as it charts its bloody disintegration. Kramer's gaze is one of mournful admiration: Within these characters' idealism, he suggests, lie the seeds of their own destruction.
Thanks in part to its budget, and also to Kramer's chosen no-nonsense aesthetic, Ice could be called an "ugly" film. But it's an honest kind of ugliness — you sense that there's no filter between Kramer and the audience. While it lurches toward a plot, the film has the raw, uninterrupted quality of seeing life unfold before your eyes — so much so that one can't even call it science fiction, despite its ostensible setting. Ice does belong, loosely, alongside the dystopian films made in the 1960s and '70s utilizing extant locations to make a point about contemporary society: Godard's Alphaville, Peter Watkins' Punishment Park, or even A Clockwork Orange come to mind. But the immediacy of these other films was implicit — Alphaville's sensuous, otherworldly textures, for example, served as a distancing device.
Kramer, on the other hand, rubs our faces in his film's contemporary relevance — to the extent that something this matter-of-fact and austere can be said to rub our faces in anything. Real apartment buildings and real streets constitute the film's landscape, and its characters look like average people you might have seen in 1969. But the result is anything but drab; rather, it's startlingly direct. And given all that has come in the intervening years — everything from the Patriot Act to the DIY filmmaking revolution — Ice makes for a surprising paradox. It feels simultaneously like a clear-eyed act of prophecy and a transmission from a distant planet.