Film

A 1969 Film Offers Lessons in Resistance

Robert Kramer’s 1969 film Ice, about a group of revolutionaries in New York City, is part of a series of dystopian movies screening at Anthology Film Archives to coincide with Donald Trump’s inauguration.

A scene from <em>Ice</em> (1969, a film by Robert Kramer (courtesy Icarus Films)
A scene from Ice (1969), a film by Robert Kramer (courtesy Icarus Films)

Some commentators have sought solace in the notion that the content and quality of art will receive a Cheetos-toned shot in the arm as artists muster their full array of skills and ideas to protest Donald Trump. The community that finds little consolation here is equally vocal; as film critic Mark Harris recently quipped: “You can keep your silver lining if that’s the cloud that comes with it.”

No matter your stance, the anti-Trump art we can anticipate in the next four years has predecessors that will also prove valuable. The treasure trove of prior political art, music, and more can help us approach our present predicament using lessons learned from past struggles. Anthology Film Archives posits as much with its series Inauguration of the Displeasure Dome: Coping with the Election (January 20 to 24). “Now that the alternate reality of a certain strand of ‘paranoid’ political films has, to a degree few of us thought possible, come to pass,” the program description notes, “perhaps it’s time to re-watch these films from our new, disillusioned perspective.” The ramifications of Trump’s ascendance will be explored through relevant works, including Elia Kazan’s A Face in the Crowd (the tale of a populist entertainer using his spotlight to gain power in US politics), Peter Watkins’s Hunger Games-esque mockumentary Punishment Park, and a 16 millimeter print of Stan Brakhage’s rarely screened The Governor, his 1972 documentary about the two days he spent with Colorado Governor Richard D. Lamm.

A scene from <em>Ice</em> (1969, a film by Robert Kramer (courtesy Icarus Films)
A scene from Ice (1969), a film by Robert Kramer (courtesy Icarus Films)

Robert Kramer’s 1969 fiction/documentary hybrid Ice — which screens as part of the series on January 21 and 22 — provides a unique, New York City-centric take on dystopia. By blending candid scenes of revolutionaries plotting their actions with staged gunfights and other set pieces, Kramer immerses the viewer in the fictional, New York-based National Committee of Independent Revolutionary Organizations and its efforts to resist a fascist, imperialist United States government. Besides the government’s fascist tendencies and willingness to sic its military on civilians, their most discussed offense is imperialist aggression against Mexico, which is frighteningly resonant given Trump’s apparent animosity toward our southern neighbors. The rebels attempt to weaken the government via assassinations and propaganda.

A scene from Ice (1969), a film by Robert Kramer (screenshot by the author)
A scene from Ice (1969), a film by Robert Kramer (screenshot by the author)

The style Kramer employs throughout the film is just as guerrilla as the tactics of his protagonists, likely in part due to a limited budget. Aside from one ID-checking goon outside of Penn Station, government forces lack a speaking part in the film — their primary vessel for exerting control is propaganda. Kramer checks in with the National Committees’ filmmakers and shares their work throughout the film. In particular, there is a propaganda reel about the concept of false consciousness (defined as “people’s rationalization for the exploitation and oppression they experience in their daily lives”) that repeats truisms meant to squash rebellion, like “Your suffering and your patience and your pain is rewarded fully in God’s goodness.” After each declaration, still images — mostly of generic white men — flash on the screen, giving us an idea of what oppression looks like. One could just as easily imagine Trump’s face taking temporary residence on the screen after a voice suggests, “Inequality is fundamental and irrevocable.”

A later scene drives home the centrality of art as the lifeblood of revolution. It begins with a wide shot of a living room studio. The camera moves closer to a potter working at her wheel, lovingly sculpting a spout into the lip of a pot and carefully shaping its body. The artist stops her work at the wheel and moves to a giant bowl of slip. Out of this bowl, she pulls two packages and quickly begins opening them with a knife using the same careful attention she used in shaping the clay. Once the packages are open, she removes several pistols and prepares them for transport. Here Kramer creates a strong visual representation of the relationship between art and revolution. The very firearms that make revolution possible are birthed from a womb of slip, the raw material used to make ceramics. These images inextricably link art and revolution in a way that makes the sporadic appearances of the National Committees’ propaganda films more vital to their cause.

A scene from Ice (1969), a film by Robert Kramer (screenshot by the author)
A scene from Ice (1969), a film by Robert Kramer (screenshot by the author)

Ice also functions as a useful tool for showing how and why some revolutions fail. Debates and arguments over the Committees’ dogma occur in smoke-filled rooms throughout the film, laying bare the enormous effort that goes into publishing a few lines of text. One character cuts to the core of the issue when he interrupts a policy meeting to tell his comrades: “The way you’re arranged, you’re never going to know what your relationship is to anything out there. … You’re never going to understand your relationship to those people, and you’re never going to find out how to speak to their needs.”

The film’s outspoken revolutionary displays an understanding of communication that, unfortunately, Trump mastered all too well in spreading his agenda of hate and misinformation. Allowing a movement to become mired in bureaucracy and weighted by procedure alienates it from the individuals whose support it needs to survive; sure enough, the film’s revolution quickly breeds infighting that has little to do with the struggles of the people. Ice shows us this truth so that future acts of rebellion, like the resistance against Trump, can benefit and thrive.

A scene from Ice (1969, a film by Robert Kramer (courtesy Icarus Films)
A scene from Ice (1969), a film by Robert Kramer (courtesy Icarus Films)

Robert Kramer’s Ice screens at Anthology Film Archives (32 Second Avenue, East Village, Manhattan) on January 21 at 4:30pm and January 22 at 8pm. The series Inauguration of the Displeasure Dome: Coping with the Election runs January 20–24. 

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