There is a risk of seeing in Milestones just another bleat for some kind of American conviviality. Our own round table (1) is a little romantic about a film which is very fat from being that (romantic). If we can, let’s change the record.
In Milestones there are two agonizing moments, two rips in the film’s fabric – agonizing because absolutely unforeseeable. The first is when Gail, the young woman who works in an all-night café (which looks like a seedy place), is assaulted by a sexual maniac (“I want you to suck me”). Speechless with horror, she is only saved by the intervention of the blind man who has been alerted by the noise (John Douglas, the film’s co-director). The second moment is when Terry the demobbed GI, finds himself alone in the street (after a long meal, a moment of truth when he reveals his wish to join the – male – community which is very willing to accept him) and meets someone (a friend?) who asks him to take part in a ‘no risk’ break-in. The break-in goes wrong: Terry is killed, shot by a cop.
What Gail and Terry have in common is that they are at a turning point in their lives, about to enter into new associations and so eliminate a bit of their past (Gail wants to leave her job and her boss, Al, who desperately wants to keep her; Terry wants simply to live again, far from Vietnam). Had the film been this post-leftist pastoral which we’re all rather anxious to see (and what a relief it would be!), it would have included some beautiful, indelibly moving moments of mutual support and solidarity. Nothing of the kind. What Gail and Terry are going through (and the latter loses his life in the process) is more akin to a rite of passage (a difficult passing though, a passage through a void, a final examination, etc.).
A fabric doesn’t keep warm
When we discussed Milestones, we talked about a (large) family, a community, an alternative party, a people’s camp, a collective statement, etc. Reassuring words. It seems to me that the cast of characters (or rather the ‘bodies’ that speak) in Milestones creates neither a fresco, nor a chronicle, nor a document but a fabric . A fabric seen under the microscope, and seen to be held together as much by the spaces between it as by its fibres. A lacunary tapestry. Quite the opposite of a house, a warm place or maternal protection. A fabric is not made or undone just like that, at will (even goodwill); it spreads, getting progressively larger, with inevitable knock-on effects (the turning back and forth of a relentless boustrophedon (2)). The newly woven material meshes with (and is meshed into) what has already been woven. Human relationships don’t knit together with complete dependability; they are tied together over an empty space, on a wire and without a net. To fall through the meshes of the net, to pass through a void, is to die, to die from a nasty experience.
For the militants of Ice, the nasty experience was emasculation. In Milestones the nasty experience is something that is never mentioned again in the film: the reality of sexuality (Gail), the reality of death (Terry). In both cases, violence. Nothing to do with a return of the repressed; what returns here is what has been denied. We don’t wish to know anything about the violence which is the American reality and which, like the banks which enclose the river in Numero Deux, threatens and sometimes overlaps the narrow path paved by the Milestones. A return to reality, reality as a trauma.
The real: what doesn’t come twice
To continue the textile metaphor. From what material is the film woven? From long rolls of actual experience, where what one person says finds an echo in what another person hears? The sea-green naturalism of the ‘as if you were there (with them)’ kind? Quite the opposite. You only have to stop listening to the soundtrack to be confronted by what, in the images, has nothing to see.
Nothing to see (as said to a crowd to move them away from an accident: there is nothing to see) – nothing in common – nothing to look at. The heterogeneity of the images disregards suture, and off-screen space, that reserve fund of perceptions. An omnipresent camera, continuous speaking, are there for real , and from this – the pattern woven from them – there is no way out. Likewise for the collective, there is nothing to see, nothing to meet. No one sees it and it sees no one (not for nothing is there a blind man at its centre). Has it been noticed that in Milestones you can cross America without seeing anyone? Anyone from the other camp, the other America, the non-marginal, middle, contented America.
What you do come across, through a couple of moments of inattentiveness, lurking among the shots – and which the weaving, if it is too slack, lets you glimpse – are the scattered elements of a kind of improvised universe: erratic images, cruel inserts – desert sand, ripples, a waterfall, but also the flame of a burner, red-hot stones, a placenta, fish (maybe dead). The insert in Milestones is the site of passage through a void, the fixed point of the propelling force of death (a return of the inanimate, the organic – what moves but is not human). For Kramer, the insert is the site of pleasure (as with blackness in Godard); the place where the whatever of the real appears.
What might the real actually be in cinema? Not the referent or the effect of the real, but the real of which Lacan tells us (Tuché et automaton in Séminaire, book XI, p. 54) that it is ‘the encounter as it may be missed, as in essence it is the missed encounter’.
Undoubtedly, something shown to be inassimilable. Images which are presented but which will not be re-presented. There will be no time to take it in; it is not the imaginary, then. There will be no chance to lock into the writing [écriture]: it is not the symbolic, then. The real that doesn’t come twice. It is precisely what happens to Gail and Terry: they are very close to the dangerous edge (The Edge) of the loom, the point where the encounter may be fatal because if occurs (and is filmed) only once.
The tribe weaves
And the encounter is only so bad because Milestones (as Jean-Pierre Oudart rightly says in his poem!) is conceived from and within a process of segregation . As much and more than a documentary about the dissolution of the American left or an invitation to universal love, the Kramer-Douglas film is: what forms a tribe ? And how is this tribe formed from its own visual representation? A question posed by the film-makers without an ounce of humour, and a question that we tended to blur in our round-table discussion, in the name of a Marxism-Leninism that may have become exotic (American) but is still comprehensible, even if it is always purring away. Might we want to weigh up what is nevertheless the evidence: segregation is the truth of America, the shadow cast by its democratist ideology, the soil which gives us the mishmash of Milestones and the Mason gang, the Weathermen and the Jesus people? Ghettoization: the final stage of imperialism.
So it should be said that Milestones is the anti-Nashville , since the special, staggering thing about Kramer and Douglas’ film is that they know no more than their characters but out of what they do know they want to put together a defensive wall and mark out a future. Instead of which, in the name of the several light years ahead that the artist-as-witness-to-his-time Robert Altman has over his contemptible creatures, his ridiculous Southern zoo, Nashville reassures us (us: the right-thinking opinion-makers of the New York and/or Parisian left) about these ‘worthless others’, this system of worthless stars.
A tribe? If so, can we just as easily speak about ‘new social relations’? Maybe, but provided that we see what this Milestones tribe is weaving together: a kind of ethnological masquerade (will we finally realize that the truth of ideology, its very reality, is masquerade, fancy dress?), the image of primitiveness: trying out the land and denial of other tribes – the new Indians. Of course, it’s a paranoid tribe and, as Schreber (4) said, it is lop-sided: no chiefs (except for a blind guru who makes hardly any impression on the narrative); no common work, hardly any rites. Almost all of them simply find themselves in front of a huge aquarium, a metaphor both for the film’s space and for Karen’s body (the waters of birth: the waterfall after the film ends when the audience itself has already got up from their seats to leave their aquarium – the cinema). A tribe with two of three age groups eliminated: has it been noticed that we don’t meet anyone in this film who, say, fifteen or forty-five?
No telling lies
What holds the tribe together? What does it consist of? A glob of spittle, we might say. Words heaped on words. Careful, though: the lie, I mean the deliberate lie is forbidden. The film’s incurable lack of humour (which makes it, unlike the appealing Nashville , a largely troubling experience) arises out of this prohibition. And in what I’m saying – if I have any sense of humour – there is the hint of another discourse, a different one: one that is hostile, opposed, which I have to come to terms with. This other discourse is completely missing from Milestones: refused, deferred, in parentheses. What’s being said in Milestones has a quite different function: it’s the weaving itself, it’s – that most important word – the survival of the tribe. To lie would be to endanger the community. (For some Eskimos, the material conditions of survival are so perilous that speech, rarely expended, has to be truthful, a lie being for them both a luxury and a crime.)
Loss of sight
Our round-table discussion has a flaw: we scarcely mention the film’s form. Now, there is a limited number of organizing principles for the images and sounds in Milestones (as indeed in The Edge, Ice or In the Country ). If the film breaks irreparably with all forms of naturalism, it’s because it only films – in the most natural way – situations involving loss of sight. The whole film is a never-ending piece of fort-da . A lightweight camera loses sight of the person it was framing a moment ago only to find him again in a space that was only ‘off’ for the blink of an eye. Those lost from view are rediscovered. Fathers and sons, mother and daughter re-establish contact, resume, renew their relationships. And those who were in prison, the out-of-sight by definition, get out. A conversation between Peter, released from prison, and John, the blind potter: ‘How old were you when you went blind?’ – ‘What do you remember?’ In Milestones there is one and only one division of labour: those who are filmed talk about those (and about what) who are not. A rough and ready means of dispensing with off-screen space. The outside, as we have seen, is the interpolation of an insert. Everything happens inside an aquarium, in which the fish take turns to put on a bit of a performance at the edge of the mirror-glass-screen. Sole message: we exist.
But, you’ll say, this is forced labour! Yes. A tribe can’t allow itself to lose a single one of its members – even from sight!
(1) See Chapter 10 in this volume
(2) Boustrophedon: lines reading alternately from right to left and from left to right, as in some ancient inscriptions.
(3) ‘Pour Milestones’, in Cahiers 262-3
(4) Dr Paul Schreber was the subject of one of Freud’s most celebrated ‘case histories’. Daney is making a playful reference to paranoia.
Translated by Laurent Kretchsmar