Friday, March 18, 2011

Spotlight: The Exiles (Kent MacKensie, 1961)

The Exiles (Kent MacKensie, USA, 1961, 72 minutes)
Netflix: Director Kent MacKenzie's 1961 documentary chronicles a day in the life of a group of 20-something American Indians who left the reservations behind for a new life in Los Angeles. Interviews and candid moments reveal the hopes and struggles of Yvonne, her boyfriend, Homer, and their friends. The film paints a starkly realistic picture of the transplants' lives in the city as members of the group deal with alcoholism and impending parenthood. Netflix link.

The Exiles received a lot of attention after the 2008 release of its restoration by the UCLA Film and Television Archive that was sponsored in part by filmmaker Charles Burnett (Killer of Sheep) and author Sherman Alexie (Smoke Signals).  The film has already been selected for the National Film Registry at the Library of Congress, and on his blog J.J. Murphy suggests that the rediscovery of the film should propose a new understanding of the origins of American independent cinema.  Murphy's in-depth analysis of the film can be found here.  Indeed, the film will surprise many in how it seems to provide a bridge between social documentary filmmaking from the 1950s and the independent cinema of the 1970s and 1980s.

The Netflix user comments often bring up the problem of labeling the film a documentary, but that has more to do with our contemporary use of the term than anything to do with the film itself.  While sources say that the film was done without a formal script, it was clearly planned and staged in the manner of documentaries in the tradition of Robert Flaherty (Louisiana Story, 1948) and John Grierson (Granton Trawler, 1938). Murphy rightfully points out ways in which The Exiles resonates with independent fiction films like John Cassavetes's Shadows (1959) and Robert Frank and Alfred Leslie's Pull My Daisy (1959); the observational, seemingly improvisational spirit of all three films have had a lasting impact and influence.  Another helpful frame of reference is the work of Lionel Rogosin, whose On the Bowery (1957) and Come Back, Africa (1959) also fused the documentary tradition with more obviously planned and staged sequences.  To relate these films to the documentary tradition it is useful to recall Grierson's definition of documentary as the "creative treatment of actuality," which led some filmmakers to use a wide variety of cinematic techniques to document social reality, including the use of staged scenes.  Once advancements in lightweight technology allowed filmmakers to record fly-on-the-wall, truly observational cinema with synchronized sound, some filmmakers rejected Grierson's aesthetics and developed direct cinema and cinema verite forms in the early 1960s.  In a sense, The Exiles arrived in the middle of this transition, both in terms of technology and aesthetics. 

Perhaps the hardest obstacle for contemporary audiences to appreciate the film is the post-dubbed dialogue that is prominent throughout the film, but this is a shame because it distracts attention away from the subtle, emotionally rich visual storytelling that makes the film so interesting.  (By shame I mean that audiences cannot adjust their expectations from modern production values.)  Post-dubbing is typical of lower-budget independent films of the era (again scenes from Shadows comes to mind), but The Exiles is particularly dependent on the technique. The strongest sequences, however, depend more upon voice-over interviews with the subjects rather than attempts at synchronous dialogue.  When the voice overs are matched with the images we get a much better sense of what these experiences and environments mean to the participants.  This is particularly true for Yvonne, who is pregnant and is quietly frustrated with her life with Homer.  The shots of Yvonne walking the nighttime streets alone as she explains how she imagined herself growing up are particularly heartbreaking.

But I will also defend many of the post-dubbed sequences for their ability to capture the frustrations of the men portrayed in the film, Homer and Tommy.  Their lives have become routines, and while some audiences may become frustrated with that routine, the routine is all the more frustrating as lived experience.  And while certainly some sequences could have been edited more concisely, duration is an important formal property that is exploited for particular effects.  Again, I would encourage comparison to scenes in Shadows involving young men hanging out, picking up girls, and starting fights.  The Exiles does a much better job of conveying the shallowness of conversations (despite the post-sync obstacle) and the lack of connection between the men except for their common plight, perhaps because it doesn't try to pigeonhole those scenes into a more linear narrative; the scenes just play themselves out on their own terms.

When the film does hit the occasional lull it is brought back to life by a particularly compelling image or a scene that vividly captures a time and a place that has long since passed.  Most of these moments are quiet moments, sometimes simply observing the expressions of Yvonne, Homer, and Tommy.  Some of them are seemingly throw-away moments, such as a long shot of a cop spinning his night stick with impressive skill as it glistens in the street light; with that one quick image you realize that he has spent a lot of time with it out of its holster.  Other images pass by quickly but stay with you: seemingly effeminate men arguing in a bar; signs for cheap kosher wine in liquor store windows; men reading comic books while drinking their beers in the daytime.  The Exiles is a film of small pleasures that come to you if you allow the images to work on you, rather than try to force them to be part of some other kind of film.

It is not hard to see why later independents such as Charles Burnett would be intrigued by The Exiles.  As Burnett himself concludes in an indieWIRE interview, "It’s too bad he wasn’t known. I think it would have saved all of us a lot of experimenting."  The most obvious connection between The Exiles and later independent filmmaking is indeed Burnett's own Killer of Sheep, with its emphasis on the plight of working class African-Americans in Los Angeles.  But it doesn't take long to start thinking about other connections.  There are moments that seem like a European New Wave film, such as the long sequence in Breathless in which Michel and Patricia hang out in her bedroom without moving the narrative forward with any efficiency.  Murphy rightfully associates the film with Beat aesthetics, and the experimental cinema of Ron Rice.  Jim Jarmusch translates the aesthetic of the mundane into a more minimalist visual style in Stranger than Paradise.  And while The Exiles eventually focuses on a handful of characters, at first we seem to move from character to character as they interact with each other, not unlike the structure of Richard Linklater's Slacker.  One reason The Exiles may have been overlooked was that it in many ways was ahead of its time.

Some viewer comments on Netflix have called the film racist, in that it seems to reinforce negative stereotypes about Native Americans in regards to alcoholism and related issues.  Sherman Alexie told the New York Times, “It’s a little problematic in that it’s a white guy’s movie about us. But in learning how the film was made, I think people will discover it was truly collaborative. The filmmakers ended up in the position of witness as much as creator.” Alexie's point is most clearly supported by the voice over interviews in the film, in which the subjects' own words guide our understanding of what is happening.  But the point about collaboration between outside observer and a group subject also calls to mind various experiments by French documentarian Jean Rouch.  In response to objections to an alleged colonialist point-of-view inherent in anthropology, Rouch collaborated with his African subjects in films like Jaguar (shot in the 1950s, released in 1967) which resulted in what Documentary Educational Resources has called, "part documentary, part fiction, and part reflective commentary."  These experiments led to Rouch's cinema verite classic, Chronicle of a Summer (1960, made with Edgar Morin).  This is just another thread in cinema history that helps illuminate why The Exiles is so interesting.

So while The Exiles certainly does not transcend the racial politics of its time, it is far more complex than to simply dismiss it as a white man exploiting Native Americans for a film.  And since Native Americans are still to this day woefully underrepresented in American cinema, the fact that MacKensie did help bear witness to these lives will hopefully inspire more filmmakers to do the same.

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