Robert Kramer – Ice (1970)


A pioneering work that blurred the boundaries between fictional and documentary styles, Ice was hailed by filmmaker and Village Voice critic Jonas Mekas as “the most original and most significant American narrative film” of the late sixties. An underground revolutionary group struggles against internal strife which threatens its security and stages urban guerrilla attacks against a fictionalized fascist regime in the United States. Interspersed throughout the narrative are rhetorical sequences that explain the philosophy of radical action and serve to restrain the melodrama inherent in the “thriller” genre. (Harvard Film)

By 1970, the tensions involved in maintaining the “collective form” described above by Buck and Ross were reaching breaking point. Within a year, all but one of Newsreel’s original members would leave the group. These disturbances naturally took place in the wake of even greater transformations within the already collapsing New Left movement. The SDS had split several times over at its 1969 convention: multiple subgroups emerged, each with different sets of allegiances and levels of militancy, the most famous being the Weathermen. The splintering destabilised the Movement and weakened it irrevocably. As James O’Brien commented: “At the end of the spring, [they] had immense prestige and tens of thousands of local members; at the end of the summer it had three sets of national ‘spokesmen’ trying to inflate a punctured balloon.” The problems which transformed Newsreel were both political and pragmatic. The anarchic and collaborative power structure of the group and the diverse positions of its members meant that, as Renov writes, “Decision-making and the setting of policy were matters of some contestation.” During the most heated periods of oppposition, “specific goals (even ill-defined ones like ‘stop the war’) offered sufficient binding power to keep the wheels turning and the Movement audience served”—but this could never be sustainable, and for some, such as Norm Fruchter, the need for what Renov calls “a greater precision of shared principles and a more disciplined group dynamic” was a pressing one.

Fruchter’s 1968 statement in Film Quarterly suggest an anxiety over the movement’s unstable multiplicity from early on: There’s no revolutionary party yet, only fledgling forms of various undergrounds. No coherent strategy, no discipline to stay hewed to, so we make our politics (our films) on the hoof ; our discussions often threaten to become interminable. How to transcend this transition stage ?

The stage was transcended in ways Fruchter, Kramer and other members of their ilk may not have desired. The emergence of feminism in the New Left had encouraged a self-critical trend that pervaded the whole movement: as Nichols writes, “A moral tone was no longer reserved for evil forces ‘out there’ in a society one chooses to denounce, it had to be also applied to the evil forces, as it were, internalised within the individual, even if he declared himself a radical.” While ostensibly democratic and communitarian, Renov explains Newsreel was not without its own inequities and these began to come into focus. While the most fundamental decisions always surrounded the initial question—what films should be made a second question—how to finance a given project—often proved determinant. Films could be made if there were those within the collective who could manage to make them by whatever means might present themselves. Those with the most “means” were generally those hailing from the most privileged backgrounds; what Renov calls the “core elite”, those “college-educated white males, verbal, assertive, confident, with access to funding sources both personal and institutional,” including Fruchter, Machover and Kramer. They “were the bright and persuasive young men who could function within the world of capital, either by virtue of birthright or acquired expertise.” Paul McIsaac thought that, beyond the pretense of collectivism, these guys— possessing both the most financial sources and the most technical expertise—effectively ran the show. 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.

Later, Fruchter would admit the imbalance of this, acknowledging that participation in the group was largely dependent on having both other means of income and the luxury of free time. “There were a lot of arguments,” he says, “about the contradictions of being in, not a rich person’s organisation, but certainly an organisation which required the leisure to be full time in it.” According to Fruchter, initiatives such as income-sharing or subsidising poorer members were discussed but never followed through on. Instead, all fundraising was funneled directly into production, perpetuating “the reign of the people who had self-sufficient resources or could somehow juggle their lives or their jobs or whatever so that they could do that.”

These tensions of class seemed to be part of what led to the departure of all original members apart from Allan Siegel in 1970. McIsaac believes “Newsreel itself was transformed by these demands for equity.” But the disintegration of the New Left and the continued lack of any coherent theoretical or political basis to their work were also determinant factors. As early as April ’68, a collective statement (presumably drafted by most of those who would leave) already shows signs of exasperation on this front, and its frank assessment is worth quoting at length : When we first started we deluded ourselves into thinking that … across this country there exists a monolithic movement called … the “new Left” with hundreds of dedicated organisers … starving to death because they don’t have films to organise with. Not only doesn’t this group of organisers exist but the movement is hardly monolithic; its existence is vague and its direction is almost invisible. Given the fact that the “political” reality of the so-called movement is ambivalent, that it’s top-heavy with leadership (most of which is uninspired), we should no longer be working under the impression that we are servicing any one group or organisation. The fact is that we have little to relate to outside our own political and social realities (at this point anyway), and we have failed to do even that. Instead we have tended to work from some abstract base of understanding what is going on out there.… We must begin to spell out exactly what our objectives are, not in written terms but in the films which we make. For Kramer, the reasons also seemed to be more personal. His 1969 film Ice, depicting a syndicate of revolutionary terrorists attempting to overthrow the government in the near future, was to become the only fiction film produced by Newsreel—however the film was not approved for distribution by the collective. Kramer would say later that it “did not correspond to their ideology.” But given the group’s pluralism, what specific ideology could that have been? According to one source, the group found Ice “incomprehensible and too personal.” Yet the film’s narrative was hardly obscurantist and, though fictional, focused on revolutionary struggle and contained, like most Newsreel films, a multiplicity of opinions and points of view. Part of the problem may have been the other ways in which it broke the Newsreel mould. Over two hours in length, the film was less suited to being used as a tool in political organising and discussion compared to the predominantly short and middle-length films Newsreel mostly produced. The fictional framework, distancing it from the real life struggles other Newsreel films documented, didn’t help in this regard either. According to Paul McIsaac, who was one of the film’s lead actors, the biggest problem was its exploration of revolutionary violence. It took us all right up to the edge of violence and its implications and many of us backed 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.

McIsaac’s personal reaction to the film suggest the ambivalence within the collective that Ice seemed to pinpoint: “I was torn: as a film I liked it, but as a political document I rejected it”. Perhaps most pointedly, Ice was, despite having no credits attached, recognised very much as a Robert Kramer film. While official Newsreel statements may have talked about its members as “generalists” rather than specialists, “basically interchangeable in terms of work and responsibility,” Ice was leading critics such as Jonas Mekas to talk about Kramer as a “filmmaker of the first magnitude”. He, like many of the “core elite” seemed to have creative ambitions, and talents, that were not containable within the context of a collective. However, Newsreel survived the exodus, and, as the first wave of members evacuated, Roz Payne recalls, “Little by little the groups changed from film-maker control to worker control, to women control, to third world control.” The question of internal politics—which crystallised into a division along lines of the “haves” and the “have-nots”—defined the transformation, and by 1975 Newsreel had refashioned itself into Third World Newsreel, with a much stronger involvement of and emphasis on the struggles of women, the working class and Third World people. Third World Newsreel still operates to this day […] (Donal Foreman)

Subtitles:French, Spanish

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