July 11, 2008

New Yorkers on The Exiles

I gather The Exiles, the 1961 docu-drama about LA's urban Indians, is hitting the screens in New York and elsewhere. We've seen a writeup and a trailer and now some reviews:

First, a glowing tribute:

The Exiles:  Soul and the City

The 1961 'lost' classic gets its long overdue theatrical debutBy the standards of The Incredible Hulk or Wanted—buzzing CG pixel storms in which lives, locations, and bodies exist in perpetual zero gravity—The Exiles may not seem that exciting. An account of 14 dusk-to-dawn hours in a community of scuffling Native Americans—the once-prosperous Bunker Hill—it unfolds without artificial urgency or hyped-up climaxes; it's acted with unpolished conviction by neighborhood residents that the British-born director met in the mid-'50s while researching a documentary. But Mackenzie (who died in 1980 at age 50 after making just one other feature) had an ear for the poetry of ritualized interaction, and an eye for the glint of hard light on city streets. The movie walks a nightworld so crackling with unfocused energy—so alive with threat, promise, and raw honking rock 'n' roll, yet so limited in any sense of a future—that to enter it is to feel your blood surge.

The most immediately striking thing about The Exiles, shot through with humor and nerve and keyed to the throb of Anthony Hilder and the Revels' thrillingly seedy garage rock, is its look. The black-and-white camerawork (by Erik Daarstad, Robert Kaufman, and John Morrill) is so starkly high-contrast that the outdoor shots have the muscular definition of a graphic novel. The black has surprising depth, catching hard edges within shadows; the white burns a halo around every liquor-store sign or streetlight.
Next, a Minority Report:The film also belongs to an exceptionally creative moment in American independent-film history. Viewed today, The Exiles, despite the anomaly of its refined cinematography, has much in common with independent films made during the period—Robert Frank’s Pull My Daisy and John Cassavetes’s Shadows (both 1959) in particular, as well as films by Shirley Clarke, Jonas Mekas, Sidney Meyers, Lionel Rogosin, and Morris Engel. These filmmakers were staking out the terrain of an American neorealism, using nonprofessionals or fledgling actors who played characters very like themselves. The blend of fictional and documentary elements applied to every aspect of production. The shoestring-budget films were often shot documentary-style, with handheld cameras; their scripts were written or improvised in collaboration with the actors.But:I have no doubt that Mackenzie was committed to honestly documenting a ghettoized, desperately impoverished minority that a wealthy city chose to ignore, as well as to finding moments of wild poetry in the experience of people with whom he empathized. Still, I could not help but notice that what was on the screen was in fact a bunch of drunken Indians—not Indians acting drunk and pawing at women but, well, the real thing, aided and abetted by the film’s director. I didn’t need to read in the production notes that “8% of the budget went for alcohol” to understand what I was seeing. At the time of its original release, The Exiles was treated with great respect by critics and cinephiles. (Pauline Kael wrote that 1961 was likely to be remembered in film history as the year of The Exiles.) The veneration of the rerelease has been even more over-the-top. I can only look at the screen and wonder, What’s wrong with this picture?Comment:  Uh, 1961 was the year of Judgment at Nuremberg and West Side Story (not to mention Disney's The Parent Trap). If and when I see The Exiles, I'll let you know if it's better than these movies.

For more on the subject, see Native Documentaries and News.

1 comment:

writerfella said...

Writerfella here --
writerfella's actor uncle called today and proposed a collaboration: he and writerfella should write a Bunker Hill screenplay together. T. Dan Hopkins lived in that area off and on for years, and he even appears in the film THE EXILES. As such, he is an invaluable resource for the verities of that period. Problem is, THE EXILES may take a while to be available on DVD, as fly-over America (read: Oklahoma) is no willing host to art house film releases. Still, writerfella's 1971 teleplay for THE SIXTH SENSE, "I Have Looked Into The Whirlwind," would be a pretty fair starting point. We shall see...
All Best
Russ Bates