Executive Order Enhancing Security in the Interior of the United States
Daniel Witkin on Ice
A fascist administration has come to power in the United States. Its ideology remains murky, but its commitment to Empire is unquestionable and it’s evidently willing to go to great lengths to maintain global hegemony. This aggression prevails at home as well: domestic enemies are coolly identified and attacked with the full force of state power. No comprehensive narrative of this transformation has been pieced together; and even if one were to be made available, it would inevitably be senseless, unsatisfying, and largely useless. In the cosmopolitan centers, anxiety is in ascension. People feel that they are being kept at a distance from something—from the centers of power, from the country’s heartland, where things presumably look very different, and from the far off places where in all likelihood depraved acts are being carried out in their names. Small pockets of urban radicals have begun to emerge and organize, but what are they to do? The struggle is global, the stakes towering, and they are uncertain and so, so nervous.
Such is the world of Robert Kramer’s Ice (1970). As life goes about its imitation of art, it’s become common to attribute a degree of prescience to the latter, especially in its more dystopian incarnations. This is of course entirely dubious. What’s most striking about Ice is its immediacy, the degree to which its concerns are plainly that of its own time, and pitched directly at a group of potential viewers loosely identifiable as the filmmaker’s peers, which is to say radicals, generally young, disproportionally urban, and struggling mightily with that timeless question: What is to be done? Robert Kramer was a founder of Newsreel, a collective that combined film and activism throughout the sixties, notably producing such films as The People’s War (1970), a take on the Vietnam War from the perspective of the North Vietnamese. He had already experimented with fiction filmmaking on 1967’s In the Country and 1968’s The Edge, both of which dealt with the internal trials of subversives. With Ice, Kramer and his collaborators set out to envision how the counterculture—i.e. themselves—might react to the dawning of an honest-to-goodness fascist state in the USA. If the result holds psychological resonance for contemporary audiences, this may be less attributable to the film’s speculative premise than to the possibility that the essential splits and schisms of American society, as well as the condition of its dissidents, have remained largely consistent since the Vietnam era.
On November 9, 2016, millions of Americans awoke from the living horror of Trump’s election to find themselves members of something called the resistance. It was unclear what exactly the resistance was or what it was supposed to do. If there was a face of the movement, it would have to be the preening, hate-swollen mug of Trump himself, which prolifically generated the reflexive disgust that alone was capable of bringing together its disparate elements. Yet while the politics of Trump’s opponents were wide-ranging and at points contradictory or even irreconcilable, they shared in a palpable grief. Even those most cynical about American democracy were given to shock and self-recrimination. No one likes to be caught unawares. It’s no fun to be under attack.
Shortly after his inauguration, Trump signed an executive order entitled “Enhancing Security in the Interior of the United States,” which outlined the president’s plans to defund Sanctuary Cities. The actual text of this document is muddled in the extreme, so much so that it caused The Atlantic to name-check the Simpson family’s mountebank lawyer Lionel Hutz. What is clear, however, is that Trump’s order is clearly intended as a threat, promising to withhold vital resources from areas that refuse to go along with his administration’s draconian immigration doctrine. As much as any of Trump’s other policy maneuvers, it demonstrates the new administration’s gleeful antagonism of the country’s urban communities. After all, “sanctuary city” makes for an uncanny synonym of “safe space,” that great object of right-wing disgust. After the order was frozen by a California judge, the White House doubled down on its underlying aggression, putting out a press statement saying “These cities are engaged in the dangerous and unlawful nullification of Federal law in an attempt to erase our borders.” The message throughout was aimed primarily at immigrants but extended more broadly to their wider communities: You have nowhere to hide. What are you going to do now? How is one to, well, resist?
Ice belongs to a small group of films that one might refer to generically as the revolutionary procedural, encompassing such works as Herbert Biberman’s Salt of the Earth (1954) and Sergei Eisenstein’s Strike (1924), which concern themselves with the practical side of resistance. In addition to drawing a natural drama from the innate tensions of political struggle, these films also carry out a kind of educational function, teaching their audiences a thing or two about organization and tactics. One of Ice’s most powerful scenes, for example, depicts women sculpting clay pots, the camera lingering on their work, momentarily savoring the sensuality of hands on clay, before one of the sculptors nonchalantly fills them with illicit firearms. It’s a concise representation of what the filmmakers are after: art as a dangerous sort of container, the artist as smuggler.
Yet Ice is far from a straightforward political manual. For starters, the film blurs the lines between fiction and reality, with the would-be revolutionaries portrayed by the filmmaker’s real-life comrades. Kramer’s narration is jagged and elliptical, becoming only more frayed as it goes along. Scenes begin and end in media res, which gives the film a decidedly nervy rhythm while heightening its documentary feel. As the characters debate their strategies and plans of action or, tellingly, discuss the constructions of their propaganda films, one gets the sense of listening in on conversations carried out and developed over dozens of iterations, as if the filmmakers had simply lifted a curtain on their own lives. Accordingly, the focus of the film becomes less the process of political resistance than the experience of it. For this reason, it’s likely to gain in relevance, particularly for those dissidents willing to settle in for the long haul.
In this way, the villainous regime remains largely—but not entirely—out of frame, making its most meaningful appearance relatively early in the film, in a scene where an anonymous young revolutionary is disappeared. Without exposition or warning, the young man in question is jumped by four assailants who force him into a nondescript Manhattan building. Kramer then cuts from the sunlit street to a jarringly gloomy basement room, where the man, beaten and bloodied on the concrete floor, is unceremoniously mutilated. Far from the seductive, almost Faustian fascists of pop lore, this is authoritarian power as it has historically been inclined to operate—all raw force and inculcated fear. All the more jarring for its brevity, this moment casts a long shadow across the rest of the film, adding an extra dimension to its subjects’ jumpiness. They know what they’re in for if busted.
For the most part though, Kramer maintains a focus on how the revolution lives. The film takes an elliptical approach that offers little in the way of traditional character arcs; we don’t learn much about the backstories of individual characters, the experiences or beliefs that led them here. Instead, we get an associative progression of scenes, following a handful of peripatetic characters through a vision of New York that is simultaneously in relentless motion and highly claustrophobic. The playbook for this kind of world building—modeling the future by curating the spaces of the present—is out of Godard’s Alphaville; but the city’s inky black expanses, partially a result of cheap film stock and limited lighting, are spiritually akin to those of Val Lewton and Jacques Tourneur. The anonymous, labyrinthine city harbors the threats that fuel the paranoia of its denizens. For their part, the characters inhabit eclectically disheveled apartments that have a sort of bohemian-chic charm, but also an undeniable provisional quality. These are the living spaces of people who must be able to pack up and leave at a moment’s notice, and have little time for tidying up.
The fragmentation extends beyond physical space. We rarely get a sense of what exactly it is that the film’s resistance is putting together. There’s talk of a spring offensive, presumably some relief from the purgatorial urban winter, but little idea of what it will entail or even what exactly it’s intended to achieve. Indeed, we’re locked into the perspective of only a portion of a small group of partisans, exclusively white, though according to a handy title card at the film’s beginning, acting in alliance with organizations identified as the Mexican Revolutionary Front and the Black People’s Army, members of which pop in sporadically. At a recent screening at Anthology Film Archives, actor and longtime Kramer collaborator Paul McIsaac explained that this is accurate to the atmosphere of the late ’60s, in which the various revolutionary groups preferred to operate autonomously, out of step with the spirit of our more intersectional present. That said, the group’s focus on anticolonial struggle is refreshing, especially in contrast to the latter-day resistance’s lack of clarity on international issues, or at least those taking place outside the Kremlin walls.
The group itself is so spread out—with the exception of a few couples, it’s difficult to identify anyone’s relationship is to anyone else—that one begins to wonder whether or not anyone has an eye to some grander picture, or if this would even be possible. In one brief scene, the revolutionaries follow up a group dinner by making music as an ensemble, using folk instruments and various percussive objects to create a sort of makeshift gamelan of questionable competency. The music they produce is oddly revealing: anticipating punk in its anti-technical self-sufficiency, out-of-tune and childlike, somewhat hypnotic, and largely lacking in the way of organization or development. It’s clear that they’re performing for an audience of themselves.
As the film enters its third act, the group’s fissures become progressively clearer, then undeniable. Its members’ isolation, both from the outside society and from each other, threatens to overwhelm them. One character, a translator played by Kramer himself, berates a female colleague in rather sexist terms. Later, he finds himself holed up in a bare, windowless office, shooting heroin and waving a shotgun at the door. He’s become an atomized middle manager, no less cut off from the world than the state and corporate functionaries he hopes to depose. His best move is to take out a few of the G-men who eventually assassinate him. Another character loses control and threatens to kill his sympathetic bourgeois parents when they demand that he remove a wounded comrade from their home. Characteristically, Kramer cuts away from the scene as it reaches its climax, leaving the man’s outburst pitched between menace, desperation, and regression to adolescence, never to be resolved.
If Ice has anything to show us, I think that it has to do with the relationship between activists and the societies they wish to transform. Despite their excesses, the film’s subjects tend to be likeably idealistic, intelligent, and attractive, and yet they manage to communicate with outside society only at gunpoint. As the film progresses, it’s these inner struggles—between transformative desires and the sordid reality, between revolutionary values and the timeworn habits of American life—that emerge as the film’s central conflict. A film-within-the film catalogs examples of false consciousness (“There are many examples of people’s blindness to their lack of freedom and of their despair, which we call cynicism”). Shortly after a key character is assassinated by the state, Kramer shows his betrayer, a former lover and dropout from the group, lolling about blissfully in a public pool. Conventionally, this would play as pure rebuke, but Kramer places it within an associative montage that abstracts both the man’s murder and the dissolution of the group, making her treachery less a question of one person’s malfeasance and more the manifestation of tensions that have been festering throughout the film.
In the previous scene, we watch as the character Howard, who has spent most of the film in the isolation of a front bookstore, bursts in upon a female revolutionary named Leslie in a desperate and wholly misbegotten attempt to make himself heard. Kramer runs the scene in one take, following the characters in circular patterns around the room as Howard deliriously wavers between monstrous egoism and pathetic despair. He tries to get her to play along with the idea that he is akin to a visitor from the future, out of place in this backwards, insensate world. “The kinds of things that you only vaguely dream about, we’ve already accomplished,” he admonishes. “We are these things … I pity you so.” It’s the point where the inner struggle becomes unmoored from the outer. Howard posits his personal enlightenment as sufficient; it is society that’s let him down, even betrayed him. It can be seen as the beginning of a more individualistically minded counterculture, which Kramer would chronicle to novelistic effect in 1975’s Milestones, though the grotesquerie of Howard’s theatrics makes clear the filmmaker’s stance toward his claims.
That said, one should be slightly hesitant in drawing a too clear lesson from Ice. Kramer and his collaborators earnestly grapple with the fact that they were ill prepared to do battle with the full apparatus of far right power—as, to be clear, we are now—but that doesn’t mean that they were prepared to give up the fight entirely. Although the marginalization of these social movements after the sixties makes it tempting to see Ice as a sort of valedictory effort, by the end of the film its revolutionaries have yet to be vanquished, their spring offensive may yet be a success. It is only in retrospect that we can assume that it was not.