Robert Kramer and Jean-Luc Godard


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“For me,” Robert Kramer wrote in 1997, “Newsreel was from the fall of ’67 until 1970.” (1) In a career that spanned 35 years from 1965 until his death in 1999, 3 years may seem relatively insignificant—but there are two reasons why Kramer’s Newsreel years deserve an emphasis disproportionate to their length. The first is the decisive impact they had on Kramer’s development as a filmmaker, coinciding as they did with an intense period of political engagement and the fall and rise of the New Left movement of which Kramer was part. Brief as the experience may have been, it coloured the rest of his life; several of his later films would revisit aspects of his experiences during that time, and he would write about it and discuss it frequently in the final years of his life. The second reason is that Newsreel is not just relevant as a formative stage in Kramer’s career; in fact, the group has now outlived both Kramer and any other collective from the period, either in the US or France. It has become, as Sherry Millner wrote, “the oldest independent political filmmaking organization in the country.”(2)

However, when newspapers wrote Kramer’s obituary in 1999, the Kramer film from that period that received the most attention was Ice (1969)—a film that, although made with Newsreel members, was refused distribution by the collective upon completion. Like the New Left movement, Kramer’s involvement with Newsreel had barely begun before it began to disintegrate.



In the mid ‘60s, Kramer, a philosophy and history graduate from a well-to-do New York Jewish family, was working as a community activist in the poor, black ghettos of Newark, New Jersey. Years later, he would recall one incident from that time which had stuck with him:

One night we were in our apartment there. No one could get to sleep because of the way J.C. was hassling the girls. I said something like, "I thought we wanted to live in a world where nobody is treated like a slave." …. Nothing happened that night, but the next day I heard that J.C. said I'd called him a nigger and a slave and he was going to kill me for it. (3)

A few days later Kramer ran into J.C.. Nothing happened; they just stared at each other. But Kramer would later describe this experience as a defining one in his relationship to his white, middle-class American identity; an experience which contained “everything”.

There was me and my package, and there were black people, and there was all of American history, and there were things no one can name because of the ways they have been coded into our being. … [It was] a knot, a dark knot that I could not undo. (4)

This “dark knot” was Kramer’s own personal experience, but it was one he shared with millions of other dissenting young people that made up the New Left movement (or, as those involved tended to call it, simply “the Movement”) which defined late ‘60s America. This knot was the result not just of a sense of complicity in the oppression of blacks, but also in even more widespread economic inequalities throughout the States and the effect of American imperialism abroad. According to film scholar Bill Nichols, members of the New Left were often radicalised by such sudden revelations: “by the sudden recognition of cruelty beneath banality, of violence beneath stability, of racism beneath benevolence.” Nichols suggests that such visceral forms of radicalisation were inevitable for a post-war generation “from which the working-class, political activism of the previous generation in the Thirties and early Forties was systematically excluded.”(5) Moreover, they resulted in a particularly impassioned politics that was not always fully articulated. “The tone was marked,” according to James O’Brien:

on the one hand by a distinct caution about political judgments, and on the other by a sense of a need to make a personal moral witness against things which seemed so far out of line with our ideals as to be unambiguously evil.(6)

The Movement’s name was appropriately broad and all-encompassing: despite the internal dominance of certain factions, such as Students for a Democratic Society (SDS), of which Kramer was a part, it was unified more by a negative consensus of what should be opposed rather than what should be put in its place.  As one of Kramer’s collaborators Paul McIsaac says, it was a confluence “of different political tendencies, exacerbated by race and class differences and intensified by American individualism.”(7) Nichols explains that catalysts for radicalisation ranged from “exposure to the Vietnam War, to the Civil Rights struggle and later the idea of Black power,” as well as “the youth or counter-culture” and “the oppressive alienation of middle-class life in America.”(8) According to McIsaac, “Its ranks were filled with dedicated revolutionaries” as well as those just “looking to avoid the draft and get on with their careers.”(9)



In October 1967, 50,000 Americans marched on the Pentagon building in Washington to protest against the Vietnam War. The protest was a defining moment for the New Left, but it would also be the catalyst for the establishment of The Newsreel, a New York based filmmaking collective, whose members, ideas, films and subjects were deeply embedded in the New Left movement—to the extent that Nichols, the author of the only book on the collective, would describe them as an effective barometer of the New Left’s development and transformations. Among the protesters at the Pentagon were three groups of filmmakers, including one centred around Blue Van Films, a production company founded by Kramer, Norm Fruchter, Robert Machover and Peter Gessner a year earlier. A member of one of the other groups, Allan Siegel, recalls that critic and exhibitor Jonas Mekas and filmmaker Melvin Margolis organised a meeting of the different groups at Anthology Film Archives several weeks after the protest.  Although these three groups were “the nuclei”, according to Siegel, up to 60 filmmakers attended the meeting.

There was still that sense of euphoria and solidarity coming off of the Pentagon demonstration and no one had any difficulty (in theory) with the proposal to pool all our Pentagon footage and make one film (quickly as it were) rather than struggling individually to make many. (10)

It was agreed that a group should be formed to co-ordinate this production and, after a series of mass meetings, New York Newsreel was officially formed in December 1967. The initial involvement of Jonas Mekas (much more engaged in the avant-garde work of the New American Cinema than the New Left) should give an indication of the diversity of interests vested in Newsreel at its conception. Michael Renov describes early Newsreel as “a convergence of disparate impulses and constituencies.” (11)

Yet, like the New Left movement itself, this oppositional “negative unity”, as Paul Buhle described it, was, for the time being, enough to hold them together—and was even a source of some of the excitement and energy that pervaded Newsreel’s early years. Fruchter was “more of a Marxist…than a lot of people in Newsreel” and remembers being “sceptical about whether we were going to hold together”—but he also admitted, “The energy was awesome.”(12) Kramer was less ambivalently in favour of the group’s diversity: in a personal email many years later he would argue that the

variety of the filmmaking in the early days distinguishes the experience absolutely from ALL historical examples of ‘revolutionary’ or ‘propaganda’ filmmaking: nobody [before Newsreel, had] ever let 100 flowers bloom from the start, and saw ‘political line’ as the evolution of the internal debate inside the organization as manifest in its films. (13)

Within the next two years, Newsreel had produced and distributed over sixty films, set up satellite groups in several cities across America, and quickly gained recognition, in Nichol’s words, as “the Movement filmmaking group”. (14)



Though the collective’s inception came out of a convenient pooling of resources to complete one particular project (what would become the first Newsreel film, No Game [1968]), its continued existence and prolific output belied deeper causes. While there was no “party line” when it came to broader questions of political organisation, “we can discern,” as Michael Renov writes, “certain frequently unstated premises of the organisation.”(15) In 1968, the American film journal Film Quarterly ran a special feature on Newsreel, accompanying an analysis of the group’s output with an essay of interweaved statements from different Newsreel members, a snapshot of views that gives a vivid impression of some of those premises.

In a joint statement, Marilyn Buck and Karen Ross, two members of San Francisco Newsreel (set up soon after NY Newsreel in 1968), suggested the degree to which the collective filled a desire for many in the New Left to combine political and cultural activity. On the one hand, there were political activists who had developed “a disappointment and frustration with the forms of the left” in which “creative action was lacking.” For them, Newsreel “offered a definite medium in which to work; a weapon to destroy the established forms of control and power over people”. On the other hand were filmmakers and artists searching for a way to engage politically. For them, Newsreel was “an outlet for real political expression in a medium familiar to them”.(16)

As well as this, the belief in the importance of providing an alternative media and alternative sources of visual information was almost unanimous among Newsreel members. According to Siegel, the experience of the Pentagon protest and its subsequent portrayal in the media, had been a catalyst for this.

The enormity of the event - politically, visually and emotionally -  propelled a schism between the experience of events, local and distant, and their representation in the mass media. The reality of the experience …  contrasted so completely with what was seen on the nightly news or reported in the press.

As Siegel says, news media of the late ‘60s was extremely limited, consisting of “white paper” public affairs specials or  “reporting that was sandwiched into the nightly news.” Moreover,

The discursive parameters of this arena were predetermined by time-slots, the rigidity of formulas and finally an ideological perspective in which definitions of free speech, freedom of the press and the other journalistic precepts of liberalism delimited conditions of dialogue and conceptualisations of social reality. (17)

The essential problems with the mainstream media were the limited selection of perspectives and information it presented, but also, more pivotally, the formal limits that encompassed these. “The traditional avenues of representation,” says Siegel, “were encoded with a language that was inadequate and disconnected.”(18) Kramer argued that

Within the formats now popularised by the television documentary, you can lodge almost any material, no matter how implicitly explosive, with the confidence that it will neither haunt the subject population, nor push them to move—in the streets, in their communities, in their heads. (19)

Anybody with anything radical to say was inevitably absorbed and neutralised by this format, creating an “illusion of real dissent” and “commitment to analyse”. This pretense, this safe compact with the viewer, is exactly what Newsreel wanted to counter. Their films would cover many activities of the New Left, and of revolutionary struggles abroad (including Kramer, Douglas and Fruchter’s People’s War [1969], one of the first independent films about Vietnam)—events that the mainstream media would not cover, or would not cover in detail and from multiple perspectives. But they would also attempt to do so in a way that would challenge the traditionally passive relationship of viewers to media. Newsreel’s impact was likened to that of witnessing a Black Panther demonstration or the Columbia University revolt rather “than listening to what some reporter tells us about what these people might have said, and how we can understand ‘rebellion’ psychologically.” (20)

On this point, Kramer’s statements were the most stark and assertive, and have since become the most quoted in articulating the Newsreel position.

[We] want to make films that unnerve, that shake assumptions, that threaten, that do not soft-sell, but hopefully (an impossible ideal) explode like grenades in peoples’ faces, or open minds like a good can opener. (21)

For Kramer, Newsreel films must necessarily be assaultive because

Changing minds, altering consciousness, seems to us to come through confrontations, not out of sweet/reasonable conversations that are one of the society’s modes of absorbing and disarming dissent and movement, of giving that illusion that indeed we are dealing with “the issues.”(22)



Given the essentially oppositional nature of Newsreel, it’s appropriate to begin a description of its style of filmmaking by emphasising what it isn’t. In the same year Newsreel was established, the “official” Universal Newsreel, commonly screened before Hollywood films, folded. One of its last subjects was also New York Newsreel’s first: the march on the Pentagon. Anti-War Demonstrators Storm Pentagon (1967)(23) could be taken as the epitomy of what Newsreel was seeking to counter. Its brief, three minute running time is narrated from beginning to end by the straight, authoritative “studio” voice of Ed Herlihy; protesters are depicted for the most part en masse (mostly from behind the police barricade); no-one is interviewed, no ideas or positions are outlined, the film’s focus instead being the military police’s efforts to control the disruptive crowd. The film concludes that the “two days protest end with over 600 arrested and the widespread opinion that the demonstration made everyone a loser.”

While Newsreel films (with one or two significant exceptions, all documentaries) could rarely claim impartiality, the independent and collective nature of its output—films were often shot by several different groups, then edited by another, and directorial credit was never assumed—and the “conceptual pluralism”(24), as Renov called it, of those involved, tended to guarantee plurality of perspectives as well. One of Newsreel’s frequently used techniques was to fill the soundtrack with a panoply of different voices giving their take on the event or issue in question (films were often shot without sync sound). Newsreel also had the distinction of filming within the crowd. While Universal filmed from a safe distance, Newsreel’s camera was very much part of the action. In Columbia Revolt (1968)(25), which followed the student occupation of Columbia University in that year, they had a film crew in every building.

Technically, the films were characterised by an abrasive roughness opposed to the straightforward documentary style of the traditional newsreel; according to John Hess, the house style was “unsteady hand-held shots, poor focus, grainy and cloudy images, sloppy framing, unconventional and often confusing editing, and indistinct soundtracks.”(26) Budgetary restrictions and a limitation of professional experience were undoubtedly partly behind this (as well as pressures of time; Newsreel aimed to shoot and complete at least two films a month). But there was also a consciously defiant intent to it. Kramer saw it as arguing

a different hierarchy of values. Not traditional canons of “what is professional,” what is “comprehensive and intelligent reportage,” what is “acceptable quality and range of material.” (27)

According to Hess, “Newsreel (and the New Left generally) had a strong desire to shock bourgeois notions of taste.”(28) In 1968, Leo Braudy wrote in Film Quarterly that “the assumption of these films seems to be that a TV-conditioned desire for pleasant sound and sync dialogue is related to a desire for easy and unabrasive answers to distant problems.”(29)

Tied in with this was an emphasis on an immediacy of action and, some have argued, a disregard for structured argument and analysis. “Newsreel,” said Hess, “wanted more of an emotional than an intellectual response. They didn't care whether you saw or heard every detail as long as you got excited and involved.” As we will see in the next chapter, this was antithetical to Godard’s approach and he openly opposed them for this reason:

They show nothing but the standard CBS stuff—cops beating up students, the students retaliating. Just like a network series. Not even with Jerry Rubin’s sense of humour. But a revolutionary filmmaker doesn’t merely show a strike. He explains what’s behind it. (30)

Bill Nichols would criticise this too, commenting that Newsreel, in common with most Movement-related filmmakers, “still tends to plunge into the most immediate and pressing problems with only a brief glance back over their shoulders at what has gone before.” (31) James Roy McBean favoured Godard’s own Dziga Vertov Group over Newsreel because, unusually for radical filmmakers, they rejected “the ‘reflection of reality’ notion of the cinema” and the “‘go out and get footage’ approach,” emphasising instead “a thorough analysis of the causes, effects, relations and contradictions of events.” (32)

Newsreel did have aspirations to analyse—Ross and Buck declared their intention to “shake … viewers back into radical action and analysis” –but they were also aware of their limitations in this respect. As early as April, 1968, Newsreel issued a collective statement expressing concerns about their weaknesses:

For the most part we have relied on coverage and presentation as our basic format. In extending ourselves we have gone into those areas dominated by the “media”; our imaginations have failed to probe what would be considered new ground; this applies to our film technique as well as our politics (whatever the fuck that is) …. It is no great accomplishment to be able to cover a peace march or a demonstration … (33)

Echoing Godard’s criticism, the statement speculates “we might only be imitating the coverage of the networks which is exactly what we don’t want.” Renov put in less uncertain terms: “The very effects that broadcast television had traditionally celebrated as its claim to journalistic superiority over the print media—immediacy, emotional impact, and accessibility—were to be recycled, in unreconstructed form, to serve radical aims.”(34)

Nevertheless the major tendency of the group precluded any hard analysis taking precedence, as indicated by the group’s decision not to distribute Norm Fruchter and John Douglas’s Summer ’68 (1969), a reflective survey of the New Left movement which Renov says “was judged ‘too cerebral’ by the Newsreel majority in the summer of 1969”(35). On the other hand, one of the collective’s most popular films, Columbia Revolt, was marked by its visceral impact and inspiring vision of resistance. As Renov wrote, “The analysis contained in Columbia Revolt is muted in comparison to the spectacle of solidarity and community it offers.” Renov argues that “for all the sober talk of the films as tools for analysis,” what Newsreel offered above all were “forays into revolutionary imagination.”(36)

In part, this seems to be a product of the accelerating levels and passion of dissent in the late ‘60s: radical politics were at their peak, with protests and riots erupting across the nation, and emotions were running high. Earlier films by those involved in Newsreel were able to be more measured. John Hess suggests that whereas pre-Newsreel films such as Troublemakers (1966), directed by Machover and Fruchter, were more inclined to explore the “contradictions inherent in grass-roots political activism”, the Newsreel film was “likely to stress action and elicit engaged (if not educated) response.”(37)

If one accepts Nichols’ assertion of Newsreel’s barometric relationship to the New Left, this was inevitable. As Renov writes, they “could only reproduce the soft boundaries and conceptual dissonance”(38) of the movement of which they were part.



Commentators often joke about the over-the-top militancy inherent in some of Newsreel’s statements; Kramer was far from the only Newsreel member to talk about using films as weapons, and even the collective’s logo that appeared at the start of each film was memorably accompanied by the sound of a rapid-fire machine gun. Yet while talk about films being weapons “to destroy the established forms of control and power over people”(39) may seem naïve, it’s worth noting that Newsreel members were even more inclined to talk about films as tools; and the two words seem to be used in much the same context.(40) Judging from the individual and collective statements Newsreel issued in their first few years, it seems clear that there was no expectation that the inherent power of their films would radicalise the masses of America (a realist outlook also shared by Godard and the Dziga Vertov Group, as we will see in the next chapter).

Firstly, they were aware that the strongest demand for an alternative media coverage was within the New Left itself. In their words, they were conscious of “initially directing our work toward those in the society who have already begun their redefinition.”(41) As well as providing a base audience, the groups and networks of the New Left provided a frame for alternative distribution. The SDS, the Underground Press, and looser affiliations of anti-war groups and community projects were all used as starting points “to find various groups around the country (and abroad) who can use the films effectively, can show them frequently.”(42)

The notion of using them effectively is a key one. According to Nichols, some argued against ever screening the films without a Newsreel member present to lead the discussion, and most agreed “that discussion in some form should occur whenever a Newsreel film was shown.” Failing to insist upon this was considered “a liberal lapse, trusting aesthetic power to do what only political organizing could actually achieve.”(43)

They were not satisfied with the films simply preaching to the converted, but believed that the films could only have a radicalised impact as part of a wider political programme and discourse. While hoping that “their relevance will attract audiences who are not usually reached”, they believed such audiences will only be reached “if [the films] are brought to them by people who understand what it is to organise, and how to use such films to increase and activate social and political awareness.”(44)

Various methods were taken to try to reach those “who are not usually reached”, including screening films outside of traditional viewing contexts. Films were projected onto buildings and vehicles on the streets of New York in an effort to confront, and converse with, the wider public.

Newsreel has forced itself into their consciousness. They have been confronted. The decision to watch, to register disgust or interest is now theirs. We have the opportunity to talk with them about their reactions, between films. To those inquisitive, we explain more. To those objecting, we can try to break their arguments. We have our confrontation as people, Newsreel has its confrontation through film. (45)

In Kramer’s formulation, they wanted a cinema that

polarises, angers, excites, for the purpose of discussion—a way of getting at people, not by making concessions to where they are, but by showing them where you are then forcing them to deal with that, bringing out all their assumptions, their prejudices, their imperfect perceptions. (46)

The decision to create alternative distribution and exhibition forms and structures was essential to this, and the belief in the necessity of opting out of the mainstream avenues of media was emphasised by Newsreel’s one and only TV appearance in late 1968, in which Newsreel was invited to appear on a live news chat show on local New York TV. Resolving that espousing their ideas “within the confines of a format that was contrary to all we were about was to belie our own identity or sense of purpose”, they instead “occupied” the studio and staged a disruption of the programme. (47)

Films were part of a larger project. They were tools, but the context in which they were used was everything. Siegel saw the films as “the vehicles, the pivot point around which discourse and mobilisation evolved.” Newsreel’s first public statement, in December 1967, would say, “For most of us filmmaking has been inseparable from social activity of one form or another.”(48) Robert Kramer, reflecting on his Newsreel days in 1997, wrote: “I was led to believe that it was less interesting to tell someone something, than to create a space where the experience of it could be shared.”(49)



[T]here are problems in developing and maintaining this collective form. These lie in the question of assimilation. Assimilation of the individual into the collective. In making films together which reflect a collective, a movement of ideas and actions rather than individuality of the artist, we must develop new values, forms, new criteria for individual interaction. Differences in techniques and analysis of content must be worked out collectively. The body must endorse the resulting film or it cannot be distributed by Newsreel. (50)

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.”(51)

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.(52)

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? (53)

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.”(54) 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. (55)

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.”(56) 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. …(57)

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.”(58)

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.”(59)  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. (60)

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.”(61) 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.”(62) 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. (63)

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,”(64) Ice was leading critics such as Jonas Mekas to talk about Kramer as a “filmmaker of the first magnitude”(65). 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.”(66) 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.



While the Newsreel years tends to feature large in most retrospective accounts of Kramer’s life, 26 of his 31 works as director would be made in the years after his departure, and it’s only from the ‘70s onwards that Kramer’s distinction as an auteur became fully manifest. His first post-Newsreel work was Milestones (1975), co-directed with fellow Newsreel veteran John Douglas. Continuing the decentralised, ensemble style of Ice, the film depicts several former New Left radicals as they try to make sense of their lives after the Movement’s disintegration. The film (made after a four year hiatus where Kramer, and several other ex-Newsreelers, moved out of the city and formed a commune in rural Vermont) was a way for Kramer and Douglas to collect their thoughts, reflect on their past and consider what to do next. In an interview at the time, Kramer discussed his own understanding of the end of the original Newsreel:

We came to a dead end, and it seemed as though we couldn't continue to be militant in that same way. … We didn't have the stamina. We didn't have even a perspective that could carry us through. What certainly began for us was a period of time which represented a falling away from day-to-day political work as we had defined it before. (67)

The experience of making films outside of Newsreel’s collective structure became part of the film’s subject. As G. Roy Levin put it to the directors:

When you made films for Newsreel, you made films within a political structure … Now you have no political structure, and you're making films simply as private persons who have to make personal decisions as to the film. Isn’t the problem in making the film in effect one of the problems presented in the film? (68)

For some still engaged in political activity, this approach was condemned as bourgeois solipsism. In a joint article in the radical left film journal Jump Cut, Michelle Citron, Chuck Kleinhans and Julia Lesage attacked the film for its lack of political context and analysis and its almost exclusive focus on characters from a privileged white middle-class background. In a familiar comparison, they criticised the film for lacking the “radical political reflection on the cinematic experience itself” contained in films such as Godard and Gorin’s Tout Va Bien (1974).(69)

From Kramer and Douglas’ point of view, the film was simply a logical extension of that old Newsreel assertion, filmmaking as “inseparable from social activity of one form or another.” Kramer asserted that “The scope of the film is the scope of our concerns. It’s not like a product. We mine what we're living through.”(70) The concerns may have changed somewhat, but this is exactly the same ethos espoused in Newsreel in ’68: it’s not about “making concessions to where they are, but by showing them where you are then forcing them to deal with that.” One of those new concerns was, according to Kramer, “the claiming of our personal histories in terms of our families,” something “that militant politics back then had rejected.”(71)

The narrow demographic scope of characters was intrinsic to this reflection as well. Kramer acknowledged “the particular class of the people involved: basically déclassé middle class people” but described it as “a choice to say that we're going to make a film about the reality that we know.” He didn’t consider the film a political statement for this reason: “If we claimed [it was]… then we'd be in a lot of trouble, because we haven't filled out the whole spectrum.”(72) The filmmakers wouldn’t even assert the film as political in any definitive way “because the space that it grew out of was the space in which that was the basic question—what is the political significance of our lives?” and a way to open up “some of the real and deeper problems of our lives.”(73)

While shot on a low budget on 16mm, the film nevertheless had a formal and aesthetic precision that distinguished it from early Newsreel. While far from slick or professional, the film wasn’t assaultive in the way of the earlier films—it was lyrical, beautiful and contemplative. Kramer, in a significant shift from the Newsreel view, asserted that

It’s the responsibility of revolutionaries to claim all the good things in the world, in the revolution, not to make lives that rule it out, not to say, you can't have beautiful films, for example. You can have beautiful films and be a revolutionary. It was an error of Newsreel to believe that to proletarianize was to uglify. (74)

This expansion beyond the political dimension was bound to frustrate those looking for the kinds of political media Newsreel had defined as their aim at the outset: news, educational and tactical movies.(75) Personal, poetic and reflective were not on the menu and could not be used as tools or weapons in the same way. The question (vis-à-vis McIsaac) of a film as a film or a political document was at stake.

Kramer, implicitly, picked film as film.

Though he would remain politically engaged, Milestones would be his last fully collaborative and ensemble effort. In 1980, he moved to France, where he would live and work until his death in 1999. The concern for reflection on and links to the past would become dominant in his work, and epitomised in Starting Place (1994), in which he returned to Vietnam almost thirty years after People’s War.

While Newsreel had decided to facilitate minorities, Kramer came to embrace his own path as an auteur. His art was part of his life, his way of acting in the world. In one essay, he defined the two key meanings of filmmaking for him, meanings for which it’s clear Newsreel could only be one of many stages.

They are a way to go out there into that new geography each time, they are a means to leave, to break off, to escape, to change the air…. Movies are the means by which one packs one's bag and walks away from everything that the room and habit and society and family represent. …

 [They] are also like signposts, markers, milestones. They indicate that a life passed by there, that this is the sense that could be made of the experience, that the movie is a measure of the profitability of the experience, its intrinsic usefulness, and that in principle there is something here that is worth sharing together. (76)

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1. Kramer, 1998,

2. Millner, 1982,

3. Kramer, 1997,

4. Ibid.

5. Nichols, 1980, p21

6. O’Brien, quoted in Nichols, 1980, p21

7. McIsaac, 1998,

8. Nichols, 1980, p22-23

9. McIsaac, 1998,

10. Siegel, 2003,

11. Renov, 1999, p272.

12. Fruchter quoted in Renov, 1999, p277.

13. Kramer, 1998,

14. Nichols, 1980, p260.

15. Renov, 1999, p273.

16. Buck and Ross, 1968/69, p44.

17. Siegel, 2003,

18. Siegel, 2003,

19. Kramer, 1968/69, p45.

20. Kramer, 1968/69, p46.

21. Ibid.

22. Ibid.

24. Renov, 1999, p277.

26. Hess, 1979,

27. Kramer, 1968/69, p45.

28. Hess, 1979,

29. Braudy, 1968/69, p49.

30. Godard quoted in Sarris, 1970/1998

31. Nichols, 1980, p141.

32. McBean quoted in Nichols, 1980, p142.

33. Newsreel, 1968/1970, p387.

34. Renov, 1998, p111

35. Ibid.

36. Renov, 1998, p111

37. Hess, 1979,

38. Renov, 1999, p273.

39. Buck and Ross, 1968/69, p44.

40. Although, occcasionally, the cameras actually were used as weapons. Roz Payne recalls that during the filming of Columbia Revolt, “Our cameras were used as weapons as well as recording the events. Melvin [Margolis] had a W.W.II cast iron steel Bell and Howell camera that could take the shock of breaking plate glass windows.” (Roz Payne, 2002,

41. Buck and Ross, 1968/69, p46.

42. Newsreel, 1967/1970, p387.

43. Nichols, 1978,

44. Newsreel, 1967, p387.

45. Buck and Ross, 1968/69, p46.

46. Kramer, 1968/69, p46.

47. Siegel, 2003, According to Siegel, “The occupation unfolded in a frenzy of cross-discussions and muted on-the-air celebrations until the station pulled the plug and called the police. Nine members were arrested (The Newsreel Nine) and the headline next morning in the Daily News was HIPPIES TURN THE AIRWAVES BLUE.”

48. Newsreel, 1967/1970, p387.

49. Kramer, 1997,

50. Buck and Ross, 1968/69, p44.

51. O’Brien quoted in Nichols, 1980, p24.

52. Renov, 1999, p275.

53. Fruchter, 1968/69, p45.

54. Nichols, 1980, p23.

55. Renov, 1999, p275.

56. Renov, 1999, p276.

57. McIsaac, 1998,

58. Fruchter quoted in Renov, 1999, p277.

59. McIsaac, 1998,

60. Newsreel, 1968/1970, p389.

61. Kramer, 1998,

62. Anonymous bio,

63. McIsaac, 1998,

64. Newsreel, 1968/1970, p388.

66. Payne, 2002,

67. Kramer, 1977,

68. Levin, 1977,

69. Citron, Kleinhans and Lesage, 1976,

70. Kramer, 1977,

71. Kramer, 1977,

72. Ibid.

73. Ibid.

74. Ibid.

75. Newsreel, 1967/1970, p387.

76. Kramer, 1997,

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