Friday, July 25, 2008

The Exiles: IFC Center, Now Playing

Kent MacKenzie's 1961 The Exiles, a semifictional account of the lives of American Indians in the rundown Bunker Hill neighborhood of Los Angeles in the late 50s, is a beautiful film, and its beauty is not merely a matter of MacKenzie's admirable compositions or his meticulous documentation of a legendary locale that has been destroyed. The beauty of The Exiles is the product of the artist's sensibility, which values the wholeness of observation over the demands of spectacle or drama. It takes a dedicated artist to show both the tribal singing of the exiled Indians, with its appeal to nostalgia and our sense of community, and the drunken violence that is intrinsic to this group's communal gathering, and neither to oppose nor to align our responses to the two elements. Note also how MacKenzie keeps watch over the tough girl who is nearly raped by one of the protagonists, even after her dramatic utility is expended: the care with which he shows her readjusting her clothing in solitude, accepting a wrap from a suddenly sympathetic onlooker, huddling in an open-topped car to wait out the all-night event from which she has excluded herself.

One regrets the film's neglect of natural sound, but the independent filmmaking culture of the time did not place a high value on aural integrity; and at any rate MacKenzie could have only simulated this integrity, as his equipment and circumstances no doubt mitigated against good sync-sound recording. I was not as predisposed to forgive the equally unreal soundtrack of Shirley Clarke's The Cool World, a superficially similar project which I recently caught up with – but Clarke seems to me to labor after the clich├ęs of conventional acting and dramaturgy that MacKenzie instinctively avoids.

The Exiles is now reduced to afternoon screenings at the IFC Center, but it will play again at BAM on Saturday, September 13 at 4:30 and 9:15 pm.

Thursday, July 24, 2008

Stellet Licht: Quad, July 25 and 27, 2008

Unless you're more alert than me, you have no idea that the Quad is hosting a Hola Mexico Film Festival, and that Carlos Reygadas's remarkable Stellet Licht (Silent Light) is screening there on Friday, July 25 at 3 pm and Sunday, July 27 at 1 pm. Here are my unusually fragmentary observations on the film, from my Senses of Cinema 2007 Toronto wrapup:

"Mexican director Carlos Reygadas’ Stellet licht (Silent Light) is one of the acclaimed Cannes titles that has already received extensive coverage – and yet commentators have had difficulty finding a conceptual framework to integrate such hot-button aspects as its conspicuous borrowings from Dreyer's Ordet (1955), not to mention the seemingly self-sufficient virtuoso tableaux that begin and end the film. It's becoming increasingly clear that Reygadas skews more postmodernist than modernist, and perhaps his suggestions of a unified aesthetic enterprise (like the clock that is stopped early in the film and started again after the climax) are red herrings. The extraordinary physicality of his camera style, and his fascination with large-scale systems (natural, organic and mechanical), serve largely to defamiliarise the world; and his visuals can be seen as an attempt to remove camera movements and compositions from their traditional interpretive role, and to invest them with a weight and a physics that renders them autonomous."

Four from Robert Hamer: BAM, July 28 through 31, 2008

Robert Hamer needs to be rescued from relative obscurity and recognized as a major director. His career trails off into a series of half-realized works in the 50s, but even these later films are worth exploring; and in the postwar 40s he was one of the finest filmmakers in the world. BAM is hosting a four-film Hamer retrospective on July 28 through 31 – the best films in it are not that rare, and the rare films in it are perhaps not Hamer's best, but it's nice to see Hamer get any theater space. Beginners should start with the celebrated 1949 black comedy Kind Hearts and Coronets on Tuesday, July 29, and the 1947 sociological drama It Always Rains on Sunday (which I wrote about earlier this year) on Thursday, July 31. The 1954 comedy-thriller Father Brown (aka The Detective), screening on Wednesday, July 30, is to my mind the best of Hamer's 50s films, a bit silly in conception but touched by that stoical gravity that Hamer comes by so naturally – and it manages to use the priest-as-detective format without making a travesty of religious principles. BAM necessarily skewed its programming to capitalize on Alec Guinness's stardom – perhaps someday soon we'll have the opportunity to see the rest of Hamer's work, including the 1949 masterpiece The Spider and the Fly.

Monday, July 21, 2008

The River and The Pilgrim (Borzage)

A very good PAL DVD of Frank Borzage's The River, or as much of it as exists, has been released by Edition Filmmuseum. My article on the film is up at the Auteurs' Notebook.

In the article, I allude to the 1916 two-reeler The Pilgrim, which is one of three early Borzage shorts included as extras on the DVD. I've seen only a handful of Borzage's 1910's films (and I presume that most are lost): until now, I would have said that the 1917 Until They Get Me was the pick of the bunch. But The Pilgrim, little seen and with no reputation that I know of, strikes me as an important work: it gives the impression that Borzage had to move away from the melodrama of the early silents (cf. the 1915 short The Pitch 'O Chance, also on the DVD) before he could later reclaim melodrama on his own terms. Instead, The Pilgrim focuses on expressions, on using cinema to stop time and ponder the feelings that people can only half communicate - one senses here that Griffith was Borzage's first master. The film features the first great moment in Borzage's career, in which the Eastern heroine (Anna Little), momentarily awakened by the good/bad protagonist (Borzage), ponders in closeup the phantasmagoria of life-and-death drama and budding love into which she has stumbled, then drifts back into sleep.