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
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
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.
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..."
THE THIRD REVOLUTION Vol.
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.
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.
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,
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.
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.
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
FILM QUARTERLY, Winter 1968-69.
is touching all of our lives. Tens of thousands have learned that
protest and marches don't do it. Revolutionary violence is the only
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?
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
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.
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.
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
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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!
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
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.
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.