The Los Angeles Film Festival’s annual “Films That Got Away” sidebar, co-presented by the Los Angeles Film Critics Association and the UCLA Film & Television Archive, this year features two directors who outwardly could not seem less alike: Robert Kramer, the radical socialist-activist and filmmaker who died in 1999; and Jerry Schatzberg, the 80-year-old former jet-set fashion photographer who directed The Panic in Needle Park and Scarecrow. Kramer, to use Edward Upward’s phrase, knew “no home but the struggle.” He co-founded New York’s Newsreel Collective in 1966, where he was involved in some 60 polemical documentaries, including its 1969 portrait of besieged Hanoi, The People’s War. In his first narrative feature, Ice, Kramer offers a speculative fiction that unfolds in an enhanced, Orwellian version of New York City, circa 1969, where a group of urban revolutionaries go about their daily round of arms-smuggling, alliance-building, political assassinations, lovemaking, honing dogma and eluding the secret police of a fascist state that has clamped down on dissent. Despite its doggedness of tone, especially in the characters’ political rhetoric (you can bet that the Red Army Faction, Weather Underground and SLA all bought tickets), Ice remains surprisingly personal and beautifully somber. Its high-contrast, natural-light cinematography is breathtaking, part of the rich, lost tradition of 16 mm black-and-white image-making seen in the work of Frederick Wiseman, Robert Frank and Charles Burnett. Under Kramer’s gaze, the familiar, run-down, Lindsay-era New York becomes as alien, melancholy and minatory as the Paris of Godard’s Alphaville. Also showing, in a new restoration, is Kramer’s sorrowful, almost despairing 1975 epic, Milestones, a three-hour, 50-character threnody for the revolutionary ideals of the late ’60s, sung over their rubble, as Kramer searches for signs of renewal.
Produced in France, Schatzberg’s Reunion barely surfaced in the U.S., a great pity, since its script is one of Harold Pinter’s most elegant and complex. In 1932 Stuttgart, two schoolboys — an Aryan aristocrat descended from the knights of Charlemagne and the son of an assimilated Jewish doctor — become best friends, as history swirls around them, while in 1987, the survivor (Jason Robards) returns from New York to learn the other’s fate. Using the shuffled chronology familiar from Pinter’s script for The Go-Between and his never-filmed Proust screenplay (plus a dash of Hiroshima Mon Amour), Reunion depicts the oncoming nightmare of Nazism with nearly sickening power, despite showing almost no violence. Not quite a masterpiece — much of the acting is hesitant, or possibly dubbed — it nonetheless compels and horrifies from beginning to end.
All screenings in the “Films That Got Away” program take place at the Billy Wilder Theater at the Hammer Museum: Ice, Fri., June 20, 3:30 p.m.; Reunion, Sat., June 28, 4 p.m.; Milestones, Sat., June 28, 8 p.m.