(This is a draft for an as yet unfinsihed book. No permission is given for reproduction.)


CREATING DOC
Paul McIsaac
1/7/98

 

 

"I fought in the old revolution...
Of course I was very young and
I thought we were winning."
Leonard Cohen

 

  I worked with Robert Kramer on three of his major films; ICE (1969), DOC'S KINGDOM (1986), ROUTE 1-USA (1987/88). In our collaboration over these thirty years we often ignored the usual distinctions between writer, actor, camera operator and director. Drawing on our own lives and others of our generation we created the character of Doc and placed him in the real world. It was a dialectical process...Doc is a synthesis, one expression of our generation and of the creative tension between two very different people.

Thirty years ago when Robert and I first met, we were radicals, we were young, arrogant and it was a glorious time to be alive. Today, in these reactionary times, 60's revisionists' from the right and the left are building careers picking over the mistakes of that era or apologizing for our excesses. It's true, we were crazy enough to try to change the world . . . and we did, sometimes even for the better. To understand our work together, you have to start with that past.

We were comrades back then. But we were also competitive, watching each other with both respect and suspicion. People sometimes ask if we are brothers and have mistaken us for each other. Back then, in our late twenties, I was mostly aware of our class differences.

2.

Raised in New York's Greenwich Village after WWII with all the breeding and education a liberal Jewish professional family could provide, Robert, the anointed son, was destined to be a leader. But after college he rebelled, he avoided the draft and became a community organizer, a radical filmmaker, a founder of Newsreel and a key figure in the New Left. Robert did have the skills and confidence to lead but what he wanted to help lead was a revolution that would completely turn the "world of his father" upside down.

On the other hand I'm from the Protestant lower class of America. My father was a house painter, illegally here from Scotland. My mother a factory worker from Georgia. I spent most of my early life in institutions, children's homes, juvenile lockups and the Army. Instead of college I found my way into theater and film, acting and directing. We came from opposite ends of the social strata and met at an insurrectionary moment.

"Revolution is created not by a nondescript body of people called "the masses" . . . the fuel that stoked fires into blazes was a minority of militants who came from the suppressed strata.. And very significantly, a radical intelligentsia . . . a footloose network of writers, artists, poets, and professional of all sorts, even actors..."

Murray Bookchin
THE THIRD REVOLUTION Vol. I.(Cassell-1996)

Though we came from very different worlds Robert and I were both part of what was called, the Movement. Made up of different political tendencies, exacerbated by race and class differences and intensified by American individualism, the Movement was home for all kinds of rebellions. It was rooted in the struggle for Black Civil Rights, the artists of the Beat Generation, the liberal middle class and the remnants of the traditional Left, suppressed during the Cold War. Its ranks were filled with dedicated revolutionaries and others, looking to avoid the draft and get on with their careers.

3.

We were Red Diaper Babies, Pacifists and members of the antiwar movement, students and former students of the New Left, Marxists and Anarchists, (of many varieties), racial and cultural Nationalists, emerging activists of the Womens, Gay/Lesbian and Ecology movements. We were radicalized workers and war veterans, liberal reformers, street kids, agent provocateurs, spoiled brats, crazy fools, spiritual explorers, drugged-out hustlers and a few real heros. In the late 60's Robert was a leading figure in the New Left, but he was also making independent, auture films, exploring ideas years before they emerged in the Left in the US or in Europe.

During that same time I was living in Europe connected to the AnarcoArtists network inspired by Antonin Artaud, the Living Theater, psychedelics and anarchism. We wanted to transform social and political events, demonstrations, concerts and daily life into...Art. I arrived in Paris in May of '68 and joined the "theater of insurrection" on the streets. One night during a lull in the action a young woman, filled with "l' esprit revolutionnaire" told me the history of Revolution in Paris. Holding a cobble stone in her hand, she said these were the same stones her ancestors had dug up to fight the army and the police all the way back in the French Revolution. . . it was intoxicating.

When I arrived back in the States, it was the summer of 1968, in the middle of a year that was more like a decade. I hooked up with the Yippies! and helped stage the Festival of Life at the Democratic Convention in Chicago that fall. I quickly became aware of splits in the Movement, particularly the one between the Political and the Cultural Radicals--the Marxist "politicos" and the "counterculture" anarchists.

Running with Newsreel people on the streets of Chicago, I was impressed with the way they melted in and out of the demonstrators with their cameras; always apart and yet not apart of the action.

4.

This was THE radical film group in America. Newsreel made and distributed films about the Black Panthers, the student rebellion, civil rights, the Womens Movement and the worldwide struggle against Colonialism, Imperialism and Capitalism. The films they made and the way the used film as an organizing tool was inspiring and incendiary. I imagined this group could bring together the two tendencies on the left, the cultural and the political.

I saw Robert in action at my first Newsreel meeting in the early winter of 1968. There were maybe fifty people meeting in this barren creaky old loft near New York City's garment district. These were strong and talented men and women...but finally the group was controlled by a small group of "heavies" and Robert was definitely one. In the old days someone like Robert and one or two other (male) leaders would have taken charge and run the group directly. But this was the New Left and we were a "collective". So they ran the group, indirectly.

By the force of their ideas and arguments they would educate and convince others and sometime build a genuine consensus. But always at work were their charms, their intelligence and their male self confidence and sexy charisma. Lurking in the back ground was also their access to money, information, power and just a hint of violence and intimidation. I admired and resented this small group of men. I had (or thought I had) so many of their abilities--but little of their power.

Robert was the most dynamic of the group. His Karate discipline gave him an easy and strong physical presence, while his anger threatened to boil over at any moment. Moving in and out of the shadows on the edge of the meeting, whispering to this one, flirting with that one, stepping into the light to make a point or dismiss someone's ideas with his body language...he was an attractive and threatening force. He had long thick dark hair, Zapata mustache, worn leather jacket and heavy boots...and you knew he might have a knife. Armed with his class and skin privileges, now in service of "the people," Robert worked hard on his image as the urban guerrilla leader.

5.

In the NEWSREEL film, "Summer 68", you see Robert with Tom Hayden and the other New Left leaders addressing the crowds in Chicago. It's easy to see in their attitude that if a true revolutionary situation had emerged they were ready to lead.

Late one night back then, in a quiet moment, I asked Robert what he was looking for. In that solid, clear way of the revolutionary leader he said..."I'm looking for the Army." We're not talking here about some rag tag rock throwing mob, but a real army. I'm sure he saw himself as a commandanta. Of course that was not on- at the time though it seemed that anything was possible. Robert responded to this "revolutionary" moment by creating a fiction film which expressed the dreams, nightmares and aspirations of the Movement. It was prophetic, disturbing and is an important document of that era . . . it's called ICE.

"Our films remind some people of battle footage: grainy, camera weaving around trying to get the material and still not get beaten/trapped. Well, we and many others, are at war . . . (We) want to make films that unnerve, that shake assumptions, that threaten, that . . . explode like grenades in peoples' faces, or open minds up like a good can opener."

Robert Kramer,
FILM QUARTERLY, Winter 1968-69.

"Revolution is touching all of our lives. Tens of thousands have learned that protest and marches don't do it. Revolutionary violence is the only way."

A Declaration Of A State Of War Communique #1.
Weatherman Underground - May 21, 1970

Even by the last months of 1968 many of us felt that both revolutionary change and serious repression were imminent. What should we do? Our government was waging war abroad and in the ghettos and barrios at home... Do we peacefully protest or join the armed resistance? What is the "correct" role of violence? Do we support the VietCong (NLF) or do we just demonstrate to get the US out of South East Asia?

6.

We struggled with these kinds of questions at endless Newsreel meetings. What films do we make and distribute? These frustrating and extraordinary sessions had the life and death atmosphere of a revolutionary war council. We believed that our films and actions made a real difference. We were sure that every decision we made would affect the course of history--and we were intent on making those decisions as collectively as possible.

Yet when Robert announced that he had the funding to make ICE, our commitment to collective action seemed to fade away. ICE was never really subjected to the group process. It had an unspoken, tacit approval, perhaps because nearly all of us were playing a part, either on or off screen, in the film or because it was being made by Newsreel "heavies." ICE was made in six weeks in January and February 1969 and released in 1970. The film has no credits but the film was written and directed by Robert Kramer, shot and edited by Robert Machover and produced by David Stone with a $15,600 grant from American Film Institute. AFI expected a "science fiction short." What they got was a 16-mm B&W feature film that imagined an armed revolution in modern America.

It is set in the "near future", the United States had become more repressive at home and was fighting "one, two, many Vietnams" abroad including a counter revolutionary war in Mexico. The film follows a fictional group called the National Committee of Independent Revolutionary Organizations as they carry out an armed offensive in New York City in preparation for a "national offensive" meant to spark a "general uprising of the whole people." This armed clandestine group was in turn hunted down, tortured and killed by paramilitary death squads.

I played one of the central roles in ICE and it seemed to make since, moment by moment. But like everyone else I had no idea what the finished film would be or how it would play. After seeing it edited I was torn, as a film I liked it, but as a political document I rejected it. It was raw and gritty and expressed many of my feelings and beleifs and yet I agreed with those that did not want it to be distributed by Newsreel.

7.

People had many reasons...It was just Robert's personal trip!..It was "infantile adventurism". Finally I think ICE took us all right up to the edege of violance and it's imlications and many of us back away. As a group to "officially" release the film would mean an endorsement of the emerging armed clandestine underground movement in the States and many never supported that strategy. Newsreel got a film it refused to distribute.

Recently I asked two old friends what they thought about ICE back then. One said " ICE was great! We said right on! That's what we need to do," and he did...as member of an armed revolutionary group he spent time underground and a decade in jail. The other friend, a pacifist artist who loves many of Kramer's other films said, "When I saw ICE in Paris in the early '70's, I stood up in the middle of it and yelled..BULLSHIT, this is BULLSHIT!"

Today I see ICE differently... It's a cautionary tale a "science fiction" film that projects fears and paranoia about violence and revolution into the future..."to see what could happen." Back then it worked as a kind of psychodrama forcing the viewer to take sides. "You're either part of the solution or you're part of the problem"! It was a time of absolutes. Some people in ICE did join or became supporters of that desperate, violent vision carried to its logical conclusion, by factions of the Weather Underground, the Black Liberation Army in the States, the Red Brigades, the Bider Menehoff Group and other urban guerilla movements in Japan and in Europe.

These debates about violance and armed struggled in Newsreel were focused on ICE, but the same questions faced others in the broader Movement. Additionally, there were enormous pressures on us all, from the outside, from the government and from within. The police, the FBI and National Security forces were unleashed in a very effective campaign code named COINTELPRO. It worked, they succeeded in infiltrating and destroying the Movement. Militants, particularly Blacks, were targeted and "neutralized." Finally there was a rebellion inside the rebellion.

8.

Women, Blacks and other "minorities" rebelled, split or threw out the white male leadership. Newsreel itself was transformed by these demands for equity. It later became Third World Newsreel, which it is today.

"Good bye. goodbye forever, counterfeit Left, counter-left, male-dominated cracked-glass-mirror reflection of the Amerikan nightmare. Women are the real Left." Robin Morgan, February 9, 1970

I left Newsreel not long after ICE was released. Frustrated with how money and resources were delegated by the leadership of the group, I went back to nonviolent direct action on the street, organizing amongst workers and prisoners.About the same time a contingent of original Newsreelers, (some would say led by Robert after the rejection of ICE), left New York City and went into live and organize in Vermont. They saw this move "back to the land" not as an escape, but the first step in a Garvarist guerilla warfare model of "bringing the war home." Others in the group, often the women, opposed the war machine but were more focused on day to day issues. They wanted to start building a new society, now "...in the shell of the old."

I encountered Robert once during this period. It was at Roz Payne's rambling old house in northern Vermont. Roz, who appears in several of Robert's films and other former Newsreel veterans like filmmaker John Douglas were creating a state wide network called, "FREE VERMONT." Her house was one of the a nerve centers supporting wars of liberation abroad and people in the underground here...including draft evaders slipping into Canada. Influenced by the counter culture they started communes, food coops and community child care, health and woman centers. While some continued their weapons practice secreatly back in the woods..

Consciousness was on the rise...male domination was being confronted, kids were being born, marriages ended and new couples formed and reformed. Some of our friends did pick up the gun and go underground. Many women and gays were "coming out," often becoming more culturally radical.

9.

I remember Robert, John and us other "guys'" sitting on Roz's front porch one evening, being confronted with our sexism. While sewing patches on our jeans, we were also busy "mending our ways." These confrontations were inevitable and not easy...there was a period there when I felt that I was like prisoner in a "political reeducation camp" for privileged white males. Robert worked with John Douglas documenting this period in his 1972 feature film MILESTONES..for me the positive, erotic twin of ICE.

As the counter revolution gained force in the mid-'70s and the Movement declined many people drifted back onto a career path and the mainstream. Robert, still looking for the revolution, went to Portugal where he made SCENE FROM THE CLASS STRUGGLE IN PORTUGAL (1975-76) and then onto Angola to make a photo-book, PEOPLE WITH FREEDOM IN THEIR EYES. After more that a year in California, working as a truck driver and writing screen plays, he went to France in 1979. There he was able to make the films he wanted, outside the huge corporate film industry.

I spent the late '70's and '80's working in non-commercial radio. I covered strikes, social movements, wars and revolutions. In creating these radio documentaries I tried to avoid experts, always looking for those people who were living the "story."

From a distance Robert's reputation grew. He was, "Kramer, the exe-patriot radical filmmaker appreciated by the French, yes, but not at home." He and his films were becoming increasingly mythical, mainly, I think, because we never got to see any of his work in the States.

For nearly fifteen years Robert and I had no contact. Then in the summer of 1984 Roz Payne and others organized a reunion of the FREE VERMONT Movement. Dozens of people came from all over to a youth camp on Lake Champlain near the Canadian-Vermont border. It was at once awkward and sweet to see so many old friends. I tried to talk to everyone, I was producing a radio documentary for National Public Radio, I called it the Reunion of Radicals. The children of these '60's radicals were the highlight of my program.

10.

Conversations with Robert were different than with the others at this reunion...very little chit chat or reminiscing. We connected at a much deeper level than had ever been possible in our days in Newsreel. That suspicion and competitiveness we had as young men seemed to have just dissolved. We started the thinking and talking that led to the creation of the character of Doc... not long after we were in Portugal shooting 'DOC'S KINGDOM."

The film crew Robert assembled in Lisbon included Robert Machover who had shot and helped edit ICE twenty years before and members of his French film family, cinematographer Richard Copans and soundman Olivia Swab.

The character of Doc grew out of both of our lives and the lives of friends, some of whom were now dead, in jail or just "missing in action." Without forcing the myth we saw that like Odysseus, Doc has been on a long journey home from the wars. Doc was a radical that would not surrender--he was brave, idealistic and he barely survived.

During the shoot the script changed daily and I was free to improvise as I "became" Doc. I have acted in many other films and on the stage, but I never had this kind of freedom. I found a way of working that was natural and engaged, like playing jazz. Up to that point Robert tended to avoid working with professional actors, but I think he saw that this was a kind of acting closer to how he works on films.

We learn a lot about Doc in "DOC'S KINGDOM." We see his little house on the river Tage, watch him trudge to his job at a tired old Lisbon hospital. There he is with death a lot. He has some disease...a virus, alcohol, isolation? In his delirium he tells us about his jail time as a youth and how he broke with the armed movement and had to choose between the gun and medicine. Unlike Che, he chooses healing. He went on to live in a self-imposed exile serving independence movements in Africa. That's over now, he's hit bottom, hanging onto the edge of Europe.

11.

Into this "kingdom" of his, comes his son, (Vincent Gallo). A son he has never met. Doc longs to see the mother Rozie, (Roz Payne). But learns from the son that she has died. The abandoned son and absent father try to find some way to be with each other. There is finally only a fragile connection. As the film ends, Doc wants to go back to the States after these years of exile--and so does Robert. Even as he is editing DOC'S KINGDOM, plans are underway for Robert's return.

The original idea Robert had for ROUTE ONE was for him a film crew to go back to the States, travel down US #1 from the Canadian border along the eastern seaboard, though the old colonies, Boston, New York, Washington, D.C. and finally into the South and all the way down to Key West in Florida. After more than a decade in "exile...in Europe making movies" what would Robert find going back home to America? Robert called and asked me to help find interesting places and people he could include on his film trip. I agreed and started making calls. At first Doc was never mentioned. But as we began working together planning Robert's trip, Doc "insisted" on making the trip. It was just like everything else in this project... the idea to follow Doc just emerged from the process of our working together.

Our team took six months, shooting nearly every day, to make the trip. Every day the same motel rooms and dinners seemed to move with us down the road. But the people and places out there on the road were always different and compelling. This time Robert was behind the camera himself. Richard Copans produced, did the cinematography and lighting. Olivia Swab recorded the sound. Jordan Stone and Christine LaGoff were production assistants. We were never more than a crew of five in two cars following Doc down the road.

12.

We were not tourists, but more like pilgrims or adventurers. Other than getting to the end of Route #1 we had no real goal or plotted trip in mind. Typically we'd pull into a town with some people or ideas to check out; a witch, a bag pipe playing lobsterman, an illegal immigrant.

Other days we'd follow Doc to Thoreau's cabin on Walden Pond or a community aids center...and then just see what would happen. Sometimes everything stopped while I tried to figure out how Doc would get into some scene. Other times I remember Robert sitting with the camera in his lap meditating on how to shoot a moment. Finally we'd discover what was right for Doc and how Robert would shoot it. We really made it up as we went along.

On the road the new people we met were completely at ease with the notion that I was playing a doctor coming home after many years. They knew they were "playing" themselves. At other times Robert took the camera and went off to explore other realities without Doc, some very personal to his own history. The complexity grows when Doc starts addressing himself directly to the camera. Not talking to the viewers-but talking to his friend the filmmaker, Robert. By the time we got to Georgia things got even more complex. In the South we were building Doc's history by using people and places out of my, Paul's, past. My friends got into the swing of it, they called me Doc, but interacted with me based on our shared histories. Doc got stronger as his past and his reality grew. As a result something completely unpredictable and strange happened. This fictional person, Doc turned to the camera and the filmmaker and changed the course of the film. Doc was having his hair cut when he turned to Robert and said that he had enjoyed going down the road, but that it was time for him to get back to doctoring. Robert said he would miss Doc, but that he understood!

13.

So while Robert and the crew continued down Route One from Georgia down the length of Florida, Doc flew to Miami to see if he could find a life for himself there. Weeks later when Robert arrived he documented this new life. Doc had found a place to live, he had a new woman friend and a job in public health working with AIDS patients. After documenting Doc's "new life", Doc and Robert said goodbye again and Robert continued down to Key West, immersed in images.

For once the subject/the actor talked directly to the all powerful observer/the filmmaker, with some equity and shared control. Then, as always when the shooting is done, the collaboration is over, Robert returns to the solitude of the editing room. He will be generous with our creativity--but in the end it is his vision, he must make something coherent out of all that messy life we lived.

The finished film is a complex layering of different Points of View and ways of seeing. Some viewers say they are confused watching it. After screenings people have come up to ask me if I was still doctoring. Others want to know ..."Where is Doc now", and not all are being ironic. People have very different feelings about this shifting between fictional and non-fictional realities. For me this is one of the most interesting and subversive aspects of Route One. This process is all very risky. The common wisdom is that the fictional character, once created must be controlled and lead by the script. If not, a weak character will fizzle and go flat. A strong self possessed charactor like Doc can run amuck, like some blob of ink that jumps out of the cartoonist ink bottle and takes over, running around changing shapes and defying the rational laws of the screen. It's much too anarchic, and if the subject is "serious," it's hard for the viewer to sit back and just be entertained. ROUTE ONE does have a story, a narrative and "characters" ...but the perspective is always shifting between the objective and subjective. We were striving for poetry not journalism or entertainment.

14.

Over the last decade people ask, (we ask), if we'll bring Doc back. We are both working on our own different projects, but we do wonder if there is some new adventure for us with Doc? We have talked about pain and death and that Doc would be a good companion on a journey into that dark place.

How would we do that? We'd walk and talk. Robert would write, we'd talk some more, he'd rewrite. We'd share books, films and audio tapes and tales and secrets from the past. We open to each other's paranoia and dreams. We'd drink, get high, share long meals. Doc and his relationship to certain ideas and places would begin to emerge. The process of discovering could begin again.

  END

 

 

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