29 August 2009

The Exiles (1961)

These program notes were written for the Rochester premiere of The Exiles on 21 and 22 November 2008 at the Dryden Theater at the George Eastman House. The always intrepid Milestone will be releasing a DVD of The Exiles, which will include four (!) Mackenzie short films and too many other supplements to list here, on 17 November 2009.

The Exiles
Production Credits
Director/Writer/Producer: Kent Mackenzie ● Photography: Erik Daarstad, Robert Kaufman, John Morrill ● Music: The Revels

Principal Cast
Yvonne William, Homer Nish, Tommy Reynolds

Country of Origin: USA ● Year: 1961 ● Running Time: 72 minutes

Because The Exiles has finally received its first theatrical release some forty-seven years after its completion, it is tempting to regard it as a film understood better now than then, a recovered masterpiece. Yet as an independent production from the early 1960s The Exiles is hardly an aberration. The erosion of the studio system during the 1950s had allowed talented upstarts like Stanley Kubrick and Samuel Fuller to land studio contracts after attention-grabbing low-budget successes. This was the period that saw resolutely challenging films from the likes of Stan Brakhage and Bruce Baillie and relatively more commercial incursions from John Cassavetes, Shirley Clarke, and Lionel Rogosin. The film festival circuit was growing each year and every film school student had a shot at the big time.

In this respect The Exiles achieved almost blessed success. How many student films receive a world premiere at the Venice Film Festival, go on to festival engagements in Mannheim, San Francisco, London, Chicago, and Edinburgh, and land on the cover of Film Quarterly? This for a film begun by a group of friends from the USC Cinema Program holding down workaday jobs on the margins of the industry and shot piecemeal over the course of almost three and a half years. If anything, The Exiles would serve as an inspiration to film students everywhere—indeed, the Screen Director’s Guild gave Mackenzie a $1,200 scholarship to write a master’s thesis on his theory and practice. By that time Mackenzie had already liquidated his savings to finance the film and secured donations from his brother-in-law, his barber, and countless others.

Although The Exiles is in many ways a prime exemplar of its vibrant moment it is also quite an exceptional piece. Many independent landmarks of the period were shot with lightweight, flexible 16mm cameras but Mackenzie and his cinematographers made The Exiles in 35mm with a borrowed camera. They shot some 50,000 feet of negative from unused 300-foot scraps purportedly salvaged from Desilu Studios and, on another occasion, a plane crash.

How Mackenzie and his crew procured the means of production makes a curious anecdote; what they did with it proved more interesting. The Exiles has been described as a piece of documentary fiction—and indeed Mackenzie’s free-form compositions and his unorthodox way of letting them flow together is quite unlike anything seen in Hollywood narrative films in 1961. It is not wrong to compare Mackenzie to Jean Rouch or Jean Vigo or any number of other then-influential French filmmakers whose films danced on the line separating documentary from fiction. It is not wrong but not right either. At first glance many shots in The Exiles seem like marvelous feats of guerrilla filmmaking—scenes coaxed out of any available light in a dank bar or an alley. In fact these scenes were highly choreographed and their lighting meticulously planned to give the impression of documentary naturalism. There is also the matter of the rather dense soundtrack: all the dialogue was dubbed in a studio, months or years after the scenes had been photographed. The music, seemingly all tunes overheard from the radio, is all the work of one high school band, The Revels, here accorded the illusion of zeitgeist cachet.

Mackenzie’s account of his method confounds as much as it clarifies: “No theatrical or documentary approach—in which a problem is stated and the decisions and actions of the characters proceed either to achieve or suggest a pat solution—seemed suitable for the film. The situation in which these people are involved could not be brought to a stage and reenacted. The thousands of details involved in their environment could never be duplicated …. We sought to photograph the infinite details surrounding these people, to let them speak for themselves, and to let the fragments mount up. Then, instead of supplying a resolution, we hoped that somewhere in the showing, the picture would become, to the viewer, a revelation of a condition about which he will either do something, or not — whichever his own reaction dictates.”

The Exiles oscillates between social inquiry and professional calling card: it’s a film that critiques the inadequacies of the documentary idiom while striving to emulate it. The film is not unlike a master’s thesis: it demonstrates the depth of the candidate’s research (Mackenzie boasted of his anthropological surveys and his data from civic groups, government agencies, and interested observers) and his formal sensitivity.

How much The Exiles can actually teach us about its ostensible subjects—American Indians, life off the reservation, working class struggles at midcentury, or a Bunker Hill soon made unrecognizable by urban renewal—is up for debate. (For his part, Mackenzie maintained the Indians did not regard him as an outsider or an opportunist. “It was more important that we’d promised them a party,” he said.) The political reaction on the festival circuit was mixed: an award in Venice and skepticism elsewhere, with reports that audiences found the Indians “unpleasant” and “distasteful,” the portrayal of their plight “unsympathetic.” The U. S. State Department was no fan either.

Mackenzie continued to work on The Exiles for some years; in a bid for distribution he chopped the film from 77 to 72 minutes and added a (heavy-handed) prologue about the Indian in America illustrated with some Edward S. Curtis photographs. In 1964 The Exiles received a slot in the inaugural New York Film Festival line-up, but the distributors remained largely indifferent; Pathe Contemporary made 16mm prints available to the classroom market but did not entertain a theatrical run.

Thus while The Exiles has always been with us in a subterranean way (similar, in fact, to the fate of Killer of Sheep) it was not widely seen or remarked upon. Thom Andersen’s approving citation of the film in his 2003 video essay Los Angeles Play Itself sparked renewed interest in Mackenzie’s work. The original 35mm elements were found in a USC archive and brought to UCLA Film & Television Archive, whom we have to thank for the present sparkling restoration. Today, ironically, The Exiles’ value as a not-quite-documentary record of a vanished lifestyle substantially outweighs the limitations of its affectations.

For Further Reading
Hunter, Benjamin, “Film Review” [The Exiles]. Film Quarterly, Spring 1962, Vol. 15, No. 3, pp. 59-62

26 August 2009

Woman is the Future of Man: El Sexo Fuerte (1946)

I suspect that we do not have the critical vocabulary or temperament to adequately understand this unaccountable Mexican film. It is too ridiculous to be confused with art and too colored by legitimate social feelings to be dismissed as camp.

That some political message was built into El Sexo Fuerte (The Strong Sex, which screened last week at UCLA) and then tugged and slapped to within an inch of its life is apparent. Two men from modern day Mexico wash up in the Kingdom of Eden, a futuristic art deco fiefdom ruled by sexless harpies who nevertheless maintain harems made up of no less than seven bearded codgers old and harmless enough to be their grandfathers. The clean-shaven hombres are sold at auction (with one fetching an all-time high of 2,000 cows)—only to be “nationalized” and made to serve as royal manicurist and waiter. But a revolution is afoot: the Party of Authoritarian Masculinity stalks the underground and plots a patriarchal restoration. The queen’s cabinet falls prey to animal instincts and the whole kingdom is swept up in a mango epidemic (!) that can only be cured by locking lips. Soon the Masculinists have achieved their coup and embarked on a re-education campaign that emphasizes proper Mexican courting rituals and domestic duties.

The final scene goes further still. Patriarchy has been restored and the first couple enacts a typical domestic scene. The woman breathlessly renounces self-determination at every turn but henpecks her husband into kinky submission. Ceding the political sphere but retaining an entirely different (and, it is suggested, more important) will to power, this woman embodies the stealthy power of hearth and home.

This quite abbreviated summary lends perhaps too conventional a sense of structure to El Sexo Fuerte. It smoothes out the abrupt and incoherent ideological ruptures. It begins as a satiric spectacle of the contrafactual; visions of men crocheting and meekly conspiring towards civil rights are too absurd to be interpreted as anything but a critique of the ruling order. The cognitive dissonance cannot help but radicalize even the most conservative viewer.  But before long it becomes an apparently reactionary tribune of nationalist machismo, a cozy affirmation of the very things it has already indicted. Women can trounce around like statesmen and soldiers and carry cardboard ray guns but men can never be feminized.

More than a polemic, El Sexo Fuerte exceeds the value of any pure tract—it is an unconscious catalogue of free-floating sentimental resentments, imagined anxieties, repressed acknowledgments, half-truths and projections. It is more than a document of contradictory attitudes. It’s closer to sincere self-critique on an industrial scale—a national monument to feelings that cannot be uttered aloud. For a film that fails to stake out any ideological position for more than ten minutes, it nevertheless manages to put forward gender as performance, sex as the currency of political economy, entertainment as the apparatus for indoctrinating femininity, and half a dozen other subterranean avant-la-lettre feminist critiques.

There is no mise en scene to speak of. The same five or six sets are recycled and pilloried for every incident. The actors suppress so many internal contradictions to make up for the muted external dynamism. At its best El Sexo Fuerte comes across as a sporadically committed fusion of a Flash Gordon serial and Female, the infamous Warner pre-Coder that finds mankilling auto titan Ruth Chatterton unexpectedly renouncing corporate largesse for romance. It is as much about sexual politics as it is about the erotic thrill of caressing polystyrene shoulder pads. Its world is modernity’s deranged imagination of itself, with gears and gurneys and industrial film junk irrationally re-appropriated for interior design. Model cars whiz along the miniature highway. The costumes permit a leering gaze at purportedly post-sexual women. A line of sombrero-clad mariachi chorines emerges as the ultimate image of reconciliation.

The director of record is Emilio G√≥mez Muriel, either a major unrecognized talent or the most damning refutation of the auteur theory yet unearthed. 

Aaron Greenberg—who likes the film as much as, if not more than, I do—adds the following thoughts:

Women in power upset the natural order.  No sex, no romance; just emotionless and powerful.  But the movie also recognizes the arbitrariness of the situation – who counts as powerful and weak, man and woman, depends not on essential biology, but political contest.

To my mind the film’s most radical conceit comes in its exaggeration of gender inequalities, which also makes its later sanctioning of it so interesting.  The women constantly remind the frightened, monkish men that their situation is natural and (therefore?) attractive – something that men in power don’t even need to do!

So, on the one hand, the movie recognizes that gender and power are mobile and move together.  But everyone suffers with women in power; they’re ice queens and prudes who deny sexual and romantic life – which makes you wonder why they have so many men around at all, especially given that there’s no fucking or birthing going on.  [It is asserted at one point that the women order babies from Paris, just like any luxe commodity. – K.A.W.] But with men in power, natural (or familiar?) romance and sexuality are restored: women get want they want, men get what they need. 

The ideological acrobatics are amazing: the film both ironizes the “naturalness” of different power arrangements, but still resolves to patriarchy.  Gender might be performance or convention, but (anatomical?) men are men and (anatomical?) women are women. 

The film both yields moments of radical recognition and remains very interested in getting the audience off.   In yet another register, it participates in exactly the attitudes it seems to be calling into question.

The women probably haven’t had sex since the revolution, and they hardly have to impress their cuckolded husbands, but they still run around in mini-skirts and high-heels to titillate the male audience.  But this makes so much sense given the film’s strange logic: genders are mobile but (anatomical) women still need manicures and perms. 

The ending puts women in their place, out of political power, but in possession of their natural powers of persuasion.  Even when men rule, women still have power because men are stuck needing them, wanting them, and hating them all at once.  The film mistakes men’s affective attitudes towards women for women’s real, structural power.  

22 August 2009

LACMA and the Crisis of Repertory Cinema Advocacy

The Los Angeles County Museum of Art (LACMA) has aroused considerable and well-deserved controversy in the wake of its 28 July announcement that it would be shuttering its film program after 41 years. Senior matinees may remain and a nebulous thing called “artist-created films” might return at a later date.

The program’s financial loss--$100,000 annually (though some well-connected sources peg this closer to $70,000) and $1 million over the last decade—is cited by Museum Director Michael Govan as the reason for dismantling the one-man Film Department. Having run a repertory cinema that screened a different film every night, those figures strike me as frankly trumped up for a program that runs a few nights a week and often offsets rental and shipping costs of international material through third party sponsorship. Might they also include building maintenance costs dropped onto the Film Department’s balance sheet? Is programmer Ian Birnie’s salary counted as a loss?

This raises other questions, of course: would curators of painting, sculpture, or even photography face similar pressures? Would their departments be shuttered on the basis of low foot traffic? Would a six-figure shortfall in those instances be called a loss or the cost of doing business? Calling it the former is already something of an ideological concession. Operating expenses are precisely that—the cost of an institution fulfilling its mission, in this case “[t]o serve the public through the collection, conservation, exhibition, and interpretation of significant works of art from a broad range of cultures and historical periods.” Which the film program does.

But let’s return for a minute to the matter of money. Institutions around the country that rely in large part on donations and endowments for their operating budgets—universities, art museums, and the like—are certainly in dire straits in the current economy. Donations have dramatically decreased and many endowments have lost a large portion of their value or have become frozen, meaning that their interest cannot be tapped to cover budget shortfalls. Layoffs are common in the non-profit sector these days.

For all that, $100,000 is still a comparatively small sum for a museum. Insurance policies for so-called blockbuster exhibitions exceed it many times over.  But even assuming that $100,000 is the correct figure, it still constitutes less than two-tenths of one percent of the Museum’s $74 million annual operating budget. Without being too crude about it, LACMA does not feel that film screenings constitute even two-tenths of one percent of its mission.

Which is to say that LACMA does not feel that film belongs at its museum. No major component of a museum would be sacrificed in a time of fiscal difficulty if it were not valued in the first place.

Ignore for a moment Govan’s lavish salary ($6 million over five years, plus benefits) and focus instead on the language found in the recent Los Angeles Times article that disclosed this salary:

"The reputation of LACMA was not a good one," said Bobby Kotick, a trustee who heads the company Activision Blizzard, maker of the video game Guitar Hero. "There was definitely skepticism whether L.A. was committed to building a cultural institution that would be on par with the Met and MOMA. . . . Compensation was one way to overcome that."

Indeed. And it follows that another way of overcoming this reputation was axing an extraordinarily cheap program that obviously does not have the approval of the trustees. Such an action demonstrates exactly where the Museum’s priorities lie and cannot be interpreted otherwise.

As repertory cinemas go, LACMA was quite successful, recently hosting four sold-out screenings of Carlos Reygadas’s austere but beautiful masterpiece Silent Light, the only thing resembling a ‘run’ that that film received in Los Angeles.

Govan has spoken of finding a donor to underwrite the film program. Resentful letter writers and blog commenters have advanced the idea that Hollywood studio heads or rascals like Martin Scorsese should pony up instead of being typical showbiz hypocrites. (In the case of Scorsese, this is quite a charge; his Film Foundation dispersed over $1.4 million for film preservation in 2008 alone.) These sentiments and overtures are disingenuous. 

In 2008 LACMA reported over $129 million in gifts, including over $6.5 million in unrestricted gifts. (These are the donations that are mercifully, as the name implies, unrestricted and can be used to meet general operating expenses without the stipulations placed on the great majority of donations.) Doubtless LACMA has already found urgent needs to which these unrestricted funds may happily be applied. Even in this economy, though, $100,000 funneled to the film program is a drop in the bucket. But the point remains and by now defies credulity:

The future of the film program at LACMA is not at the mercy of individual donors and their heroic deeds. The dismantling of the film program, which requires a truly miniscule portion of the Museum’s operating budget, is not an unfortunate accident but instead an ideological prerogative.

What can be done about this?

In the short term, there is a petition online that presently has close to 2,500 signatures.

The effort is sponsored by a blog, savefilmatlacma.blogspot.com. It has an affiliated facebook group and twitter feed.

Given LACMA’s obvious mistrust of film, however, I fear that these efforts might not be sufficient. This is not a slight towards the petition, nor the blog, but rather a call for something larger.

As demonstrated by the national (and indeed, international) rebukes of this move, the implications of the dismantling of LACMA’s film program are wider than Los Angeles County or the L.A. repertory scene. Articles forecasting the demise of repertory cinema are not uncommon. The venues concerned are often left to fend for themselves, proclaiming that movies are better on a big screen or with a crowd than they are at home on video. These aspects are important and surely the most easily-voiced refutations of that “Why can’t you just get it on DVD and shut up?” canard.

Far fewer column inches are given over to a more complicated but better argument, one that entails an understanding of repertory film infrastructure. Simply stated, no studio is getting rich from circulating 35mm prints to LACMA and its cohorts. There is obviously some value in preserving corporate assets for posterity and future revenue and all the major studios have acceded to this reality. DVD, BluRay, satellite, and download are significant revenue streams. But modern telecine units—the machines responsible for digitizing film material—are calibrated to get the best results from pre-print material: camera originals or restored internegatives or low-contrast master positives. Which is a roundabout way of saying that a film can be preserved and readied for digital distribution channels without the luxury of making a release print for nominal circulation at a relative handful of theaters. Some studios have essentially turned a blind eye to this market altogether, proceeding with expensive digital restorations without bothering to return a single circulating film print to the repertory market.

We are today able to go to venues like the Gene Siskel Film Center or Film Forum or CineFamily (and maybe LACMA) because most studios still possess at least one individual who believes in supporting a library of titles in 35mm. This is a particular and perilous thing and in no way a given.

The situation for foreign films is even worse. American rights to screen films like this are often renewed on a seven-year basis; at the end of that term, it’s often stipulated that a distributor not renewing the rights must destroy all prints of a given title. The implications of mounting attrition are obvious—and hence many foreign classics are also invisible on film screens, unless a print is imported at heavy cost by a wealthy venue, as sometimes happens. (To pick a particularly egregious example, Antonioni’s L’Avventura, La Notte, and L’Eclisse do not circulate in 35mm in this country. Nor do any Mikio Naruse films. Nor Ordet, nor Stalker, nor Le Plaisir. The list goes on. It’s not the fault of American stalwarts like Janus or Kino, who must wrangle with the impossible demands of foreign rightsholders and the virtual disappearance of the specialty laboratory.) 

Literally every venue capable of screening archival prints with professional standards is essential to the whole delicate infrastructure of repertory cinema. These should be the terms of the argument. We cannot rely solely on appeals based on “the big screen,” “real movie theater butter,” “the communal experience”—ultimately there are ways to circumvent those. After all, these pleas could easily be addressed by showing projected DVDs in a public space, which does rather less to support the kind of infrastructure I’m talking about.

Simply stated, the whole history of cinema is not available on DVD. It cannot be studied adequately in the comforts of one’s home. And that home repertory is no substitute for a curated program that responds to and is influenced by local sensibilities and tempers. It has a character distinct from the nation’s Netflix queue.

This is a hard message but perhaps not so hard. It is broadly analogous to ‘Buy Local,’ a slogan of informed consumerism that is easily understood and practiced by a substantial portion of our population. It is implicitly understood that a purchase represents not only an exchange of money for goods but an affirmative vote for a certain way of living and all of the productive infrastructure that will sustain it.

In the same way, repertory film-goers cannot be motivated by nostalgia alone. They must be made to recognize that they are stakeholders sustaining a wider movement greater than any individual institution. Museums, of course, could not mount lavish exhibitions or comprehensive retrospectives without collective action—touring programs, collaborations with peer institutions, and the like. It’s the same story for film.

Returning to the matter of LACMA, this argument is already being made to a degree. Critics have noted that it is particularly cruel to strip Los Angeles, the film capital of the world, of one of its major film venues. It is a matter of civic pride. It is a local outrage with national repercussions.