Milestones in others’ words

by Bill Horrigan

from Jump Cut, no. 10-11, 1976, pp. 9-10
copyright Jump Cut: A Review of Contemporary Media, 1976, 2004

Judging from the comparatively scant attention paid to MILESTONES in this country, one might be surprised to learn of the extensive coverage it received in France following its Cannes showing last year. Those so inclined could argue this is simply the latest installment in a long series if discredited U.S. phenomena being rescued from neglect and rehabilitated by the French (Jerry Lewis being a notorious example). But in this instance, to leave it at that would be to ignore the particular inhering irony—an irony deriving from the fact that MILESTONES is at least an attempted meditation on, and engagement with, an historically specific culture that is distinctly U.S..

MILESTONES has failed to redound to much consequence in its native land. One can interpret this as evidence of the United States’ mistreating its artists as usual, or as evidence of the film’s generally inept political analysis, or indeed as any type of evidence, depending on one’s sympathies. The readings it has received in France—I am here referring especially but not exclusively to the lengthy discussion of it in Cahiers du Cinéma, nos. 258-59—have been ones that begin by noting that the radical movement, its traces and its ruins, dealt with in the film has no previse equivalent in Western Europe. Yet MILESTONES’ status as exemplary political film is to a large extent based on an unquestioned faith in the documentary veracity of what Kramer and Douglas have presented.

While such cultural relativism may not necessarily be an absolute liability (after all, the auteur theory, virtues and limits aside, emerged from a comparable misunderstanding of actual Hollywood procedure), with MILESTONES one can argue that it is, in fact, of some consequence. The film pretends to nonfiction about a political environment that claims a unique legacy and practice. While a U.S. audience expresses ideological dissatisfaction based on the distance between Kramer and Douglas’ rendering of the “truth,” the French audience evidently feels no such impulse, having, precisely, no assurance that things are otherwise than as given in the film.

It is one thing to acknowledge that a sizeable portion of the global population believed the United States to be exactly as Hollywood had self interestedly fabricated it. But one operates in a different register with MILESTONES, since its achievement is assumed to reside not simply in its depictions, but in the exemplary nature of what is depicted. What is scarcely acknowledged in most of the French criticism is the nature of the reference. This criticism focuses instead on artistic mediation principally on the level of narrative structure, with minimum doubt expressed as to the accuracy of the scenes from political lives sketched by Kramer and Douglas.

Nearly every French film journal that reviewed the film did so in favorable terms, though characteristically praise is offered up with only the most cursory comments on the political line maintained by the film. In describing what is, if it is nothing else, a self-styled political film, this amounts to a rather serious omission.

Positif, nos. 171-72, for example, traditionally sympathetic to Hollywood cinema, could be talking about any favored auteur’s latest masterpiece:

“No other extreme-left radical movement, in any other country, has produced an equivalent of this film, at once exemplary and inimitable. Kramer’s latest work confirms his place in the front ranks of those searching for a new language with which to articulate their humane and political points... In a sense the most exemplary metaphor (and in all of Kramer’s work) is that of the clay the potter fashions... MILESTONES does not surprise those who already know Kramer’s work.”

The film itself is thus absorbed into a discussion of its position and significance in the context of the directors’ careers.

Generally, both Positif and Écran 75, no. 42, are trading in abstractions, and the reviews fail to recognize the points at which the film becomes problematic both cinematically and politically. It is less surprising when, to choose two less than random examples, Le Monde and Le Nouvel Observateur fail likewise. The following quotation, undifferentiating and romantic, could have been taken equally from either of the film magazines instead of La Monde, its actual source:

“It grows like a cell, expanding with its own vital intensity.... It flows like a great river swollen by storms. It documents with meticulous precision the whole of a movement in U.S. thought. It is also a film about friendship and hope. There is a light at the end of the tunnel, an oasis in the desert.”

Following a series of expansive claims made for the film, Écran 75 asks,

“Can one imagine a similar film as devoid of intellectualism made in Europe? It is inconceivable.”

Out of this a theme emerges, dominantly in this instance, elsewhere disguised, invariably determining: the United States as secular mystique. Durand Echeverria traces this syndrome’s initial historical articulations from the Enlightenment in his Mirage in the West. Here he argues that the vision of the United States held by anxious French liberals was formed equally out of their own aspirations and ideals and of frequently unreliable accounts of what the New World was actually about. The ideal has proven remarkably persistent, up to as late as Godard, with his characteristic “last romantic couple” critically aware of the inadquacy—and potency—of the inherited vision of the United States.

Given the vision’s shortcomings, Écran 75 nevertheless betrays holding it in a restricted and peculiarly retrograde fashion:

“One finds here, as though anthologized, everything that gives originality and vitality to a certain American cinema: the voyage towards the West... the sense of nature (one of the children is named “Leaf,” perhaps in homage to Walt Whitman), but also the intimate undercurrent of violence...”


“Sociologically and culturally it is specifically American, being a melange of trust in man and love of nature, a mixture of naivete and good will, which is profoundly rooted in the history of this people.”

The instances in which Écran 75 tentatively instigates a political analysis result mostly in the review’s facile normalization, e.g., Écran properly notes that most of the characters are white bourgeoisie but settles this, as a critical issue, by saying, “but they refuse their privileges.” This seems either willful misreading or surrender to the articulated theme (articulated by the film and by the reviews) of the United States as a betrayed but recuperable Walden.

The film speaks a silence on the economic privilege of its characters, but it is not the French audience that hears this silence as disturbing. A comparable misreading prevails in the French assertion that the film is exemplary because no character emerges who is, analagously, of heroine/hero stature. Simply in terms of screen time, at least two central characters do emerge: One woman is exceptional (heroic) by virtue of being pregnant and giving birth. And the film follows a man released from prison on his literal voyage of self-discovery, in a portrait of the ____ as a young man. It follows logically that since this is not recognized, neither is the explicit and sentimental sexism of the destinies assigned.

Cahiers printed the transcript of their editorial colloquium following a lengthy text by Kramer and Douglas. Here, though the discussants characteristically resort to the higher wisdom of the filmmakers, they manage to confront a number of crucial issues in the process. This long and in some ways dense discussion can pretend to neither systematic nor exhaustive analysis. And, as previously suggested, it suppresses questions ideologically unsettling to a U.S. audience. But other questions manage to be raised as they are raised in none of the other critiques, and it is in the posing of these questions—as separate from the answers given—that represents the Cahiers achievement.

A partial gloss, then:

  • the behavioral conjunction in the film of speaking and doing, regarded as the central dramatic distinction; the difference implicitly posed between “the state” and “the nation”; the extent to which the spectator’s efforts to maintain a hold on the narrative’s threads are meaningful and productive; the problematic (apparent absence of fiction and of individual dramatic problems; the representation of the family and of the military; the dramatic displacement of black and native Americans;
  • and the possibility and expense of living as docile subversive.

Still, the surface of the collective Marxist identity out of which these questions emerge is occasionally pierced in surprising ways by older Cahiers values. One is momentarily taken aback, especially if one is less than sympathetic to the film’s meandering progression, to learn that the film’s real precedents are found in Mizoguchi and Dreyer (“its narrative economy”), both pantheon figures of a different, more innocent time. It is similarly jarring, though rather more suggestive, to hear that Hollywood cinema was essentially an historic one, obsessively concerned with the founding of the state/nation. Minimal attempt is made to bolster this insight. One might, on the contrary, see as a hallmark of Hollywood cinema its nearly programmatic suppression of any actual historical, or even temporal, sense.

Comparably, neither is there support given for the assertion that MILESTONES is “cinema of montage.” Lacking textual analysis/proof, this is next to useless information, as is the assessment of the film as containing “a minimum of connotation.” The critics deploy the term here in an apparently private system to which they offer no access. The by-now inevitable assimilation of Kramer and Douglas to Straub and Huillet is performed at some length. Here the argument is well put and convincing, hinging as it does on the notion of exile and the problem of speaking out of that state, of knowing to whom one is speaking.

A subsequent Cahiers article in no. 264 by Serge Daney seems in one or two instances to critique the roundtable discussion in which he participated (e.g., saying the discussion was “a bit idyllic about a film that is a big idyllic”). However, he continues in his article, titled “The Aquarium,” to cast the film in wholly effusive abstractions—“idyllic” ones at that, depending on strained metaphors from animal and vegetable terminology. For example, MILESTONES becomes “anti-NASHVILLE,” whose characters are dismissed as Altman’s “contemptible fauna, his derisory Southern zoo.”

Still, the initial Cahiers discussion in no. 258-59 attains considerable value simply because it illustrates an awareness of what some of the relevant issues might look like in the face of such a film. U.S. audiences judging its politics as anywhere from enraging to totally alien will not, however, be put at ease. Asking proper questions is a talent, but for answers one needs first of all a reliable witness. In this instance, the minimum requirement is to have gone through the 60s in this country and to see how today we connect to all that.