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Robert Kramer, who died last November, made his mark in the 1960s as an independent American filmmaker who skirted the boundaries between documentary and fiction. He moved to Paris in 1979, and shot most of his later films in Europe. His body of work will be on view in the next couple of months, with the early films currently at MOMA and the later ones in March at the new Pioneer cinema.
The museum’s series comprises seven films made from 1965 to 1977; its key movies, Ice (1969) and Milestones (1975), are both lengthy and ambitious. A committed leftist, Kramer was a founding member of the Newsreel movement. He made his first two features, In the Country (1966) and The Edge (1967), and achieved widespread critical acclaim with his third. Ice remains his strongest film, a revolutionary primer set in the near future, when America has become a fascistic police state. Shot in a gritty and austere cinema verité, the film uses New York somewhat the way Godard used Paris in Alphaville. This bleakly atmospheric picture concentrates on the “native resistance” movement, a group of largely young, white, and privileged middle-class radicals who stage attacks against the regime. On the whole, they’re cold, dogmatic, babbly, and often irritating characters. A few are poignant in their depressed alienation, but you wouldn’t want the good life to be defined for you by this bunch. Milestones, coscripted and directed by Kramer with John Douglas, offers a vast panoramic vision of several dozen baffled and melancholy survivors of America’s radical left of the 1960s. A zeitgeisty monument of sorts, its politics are fuzzy, its platitudinous dialogue amateurishly recited. The integrity and sincerity of the filmmakers are incontestable, but at 195 minutes their unjelled epic makes for a punishing experience.