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

1 comment:

online movies said...

Its not a good one. I have heard it from my uncle. Though your review is making me crazy about this movie. Its a very old movie still I will try to find it.