The Unusual Semantic Structure of Kramer’s Film When Comment on Plot Becomes Plot, And Plot Comment – When Living and Thinking about Living Become One

The film is about kids who, tragically, didn’t get a chance to meet somebody like a pedagogue and teacher Jonathan Kozol

Management caters to a minority of well-heeled and politically well-connected agriculture interests at the expense of the broader public, who flock to Yellowstone to see these rare and iconic species in flesh. Officials poked and prodded buffalos into pens and a squeeze chute, where the animals bucked, thrashed and bellowed. They bolted between pens along a maze of alleys, goring each other and their babies in panic.
Louisa Willcox, “Blood on the Tracks: Yellowstone Buffalo Atrocities”, Counterpunch, March 25, 2016

The people for whom I feel the greatest sadness are the ones who choke on their beliefs, who never act on their ideals, who never know the state of struggle in a decent cause, and never know the thrill of even partial victories.
Jonathan Kozol

Childhood is not merely a basic training for utilitarian adulthood. It should have some claims upon our mercy, not for its future value to the economic interests of competitive societies but for its present value as a perishable piece of life itself.
Jonathan Kozol

Instead of seeing these children for the blessings that they are, we are measuring them only by the standard of whether they will be future deficits or assets for our nation’s competitive needs.
Jonathan Kozol

Adoration of technique… has opened the gate to interrupted dialogue, mismatching, jump cuts, super-imposures, split screens and the camera as primary weapon in the director’s bag. But technique covers a multitude of sins.
Jonathan Kozol

“Your gun is your bread” – from the pedagogical wisdoms proudly proclaimed by the officials of the “Summer Camp for Boys” (“send us a boy, and we’ll return him as a cowboy”)

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A poster of Kramer’s film

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Stanley Kramer is preparing a shot

BLESS THE BEASTS & CHILDREN, Barry Robins, 1971
This photo emphasizes the dream of the young heroes of the film about the unity between man and nature

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This shot introduces to the viewers one of the “pedagogues” at the summer camp for boys-future cowboys, who reminds us of NRA members or private militia activists who recently occupied (for a while) a federal building in Oregon

Bless the Beasts and Children (1971) Directed by Stanley Kramer Shown from left: Barry Robins, Bill Mumy
The two spontaneous leaders of the group of boys dreaming of the liberation of the Buffaloes and themselves – Cotton (Barry Robins, on the left) and Theft (Bill Mumy). Theft is instrumental, a practical leader, and Cotton – expressive and the inspirational one (he was “accidentally” killed by the buffalo hunters)

BLESS THE BEASTS AND CHILDREN, Bob Kramer, Marc Vahanian, Barry Robins, Miles Chapin, Billy Mumy, Darel Glaser, 1971
A group of kids are discussing their grand revolutionary project of saving nature personified for them by the buffaloes doomed to be slaughtered

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A group of adolescents moves along a dusty or asphalted roads in search for the place where they can be free from the standard and conformist living. They want to be free from machoistic or chameleonic values and ideals which their parents and teachers push on them, and from the dogmatic indifference of their camp instructors – from a living which allows only one position – adaptation to what already is because what already exists is already the best thing in the world.

The heroes of the film – boys from the summer camp rush on horses, on a mini-truck, move ahead on foot. They want to liberate the local buffalos from being slaughtered (excess of buffalos is bad for their well-being). Of course, just to let a herd of buffalos prepared for the slaughter – out of enclosure – to run to freedom would be a utopian project, but how can the moral dreams of the children be not utopian? Where are the humanistic teachers who could admire such dreams in spite of being not realistic – not balanced with adult rationality (with propaganda of flat and dogmatic rationality), and teach kids how to develop their moral imagination instead of dismissing it as absurd and immature? In a land of freedom for seductive and misleading advertisement used to sell in order to make profit, and for greedy consumption for the purpose of feeling ourselves somebodies, children search for freedom to be not rivalrous and pugnacious and hateful, but – contemplative and friendly to the world.

They will never find what they‘re looking for, what their souls need. They will not find freedom in a land of fraudoom embellished by shooting ranges, pop-music and athletic competitions. Self-sacrifice of the one of boys (“Capitan” Cotton – Barry Robins) dreaming about a meaningful life and who could only find it by sacrificing his life for the sake of saving buffalos, didn’t provide an opening to real freedom. And kids’ identification with the slaughtered buffalos – with life locked and doomed, inspired them to risky idealism and didn’t create liberation of nature from being enslaved by technological gluttony and blind consumerism of natural resources which our society inflicted with. These “misfits” became trespassers and transgressors because nobody taught them what it means to become reasonable moral fighters. They were taught only how to fight for social success and monetary rewards.

This movement ahead on endless roads which is repeated throughout the film as endless refrain – to liberate, to help life, to find how to do this, is what at first seen as a visual refrain inside the plot of “Bless the Beasts and Children“. In between the scenes of the kids’ life at the summer camp and in homes of their parents, we identify with their spiritual nomadism towards meaning of life – with scenes of their movement towards somewhere far from being home or in the summer camp. It is like refrains in relation to the verses. Only step by step we start to understand that the scenes of life preceding the camp or at the camp are not the plot at all, but rather the monotonous refrain, that kids’ physical movement towards liberation is the real plot of the film and, simultaneously a commentary about it – the existential and intellectual part of the film, the main heroes’ real moments of life and vitality and their understanding of their life. In other words, in “Bless…” the plot and comment on it both concentrated in what at first seemed to be just a refrain, while the flash-back scenes opening the content of kids’ memories and the negative experiences registered in them are just what was preparing them for their life and understanding. The fundamental structural solidity and stability of the work of art’s plot belongs in Kramer’s film to the young heroes’ constant movement to save the buffalos, not to the scenes of their life without meaning, be it life with their parents or with camp instructors. Children’s sublime desires and understandings became the basic – meaningful part of the film, contradicting the habitual representation of children and their thinking in movies, with condescending albeit compassionate feelings. Kramer identifies and makes the viewers identify rather with children’s awkward idealistic utopia, than with adult’s rotten pragmatism, with immature truth rather than with the adult world’s outworn greasy “wisdoms” tend to end in repression, manipulation and destruction.

It is not surprising that the film was met by critics either with indignant refutation, or with ambiguous reservation which even Roger Ebert, who was one of the most humanistically oriented among American film critics, couldn’t avoid behind his embarrassed self-justifications. Kramer’s film was too much even for the most democratic period in American culture.

Even many college teachers of film expecting from movies formal elegance blurring the political criticism, considered Kramer’s film “not aesthetic enough” and being “issue oriented”. They identified “Bless…” as “aesthetically crude”, in comparison with, for example, James Bond endless re-editions and multiplications.

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Stanley Kramer (1913 – 2001)

Posted on 5/14/’16 –   “Bless the Beast and Children” by Stanley Kramer (1971) by Acting-Out Politics