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 clichés 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.


Anonymous said...

Thanks for a thoughtful commentary on one of my favorite documentaries (the designation somehow seems a little inadequate, doesn't it?) ever. It is really nice to see THE EXILES come into its own at this late date. It has always been around, and I've seen it several times since it was first completed in the early 60s but it's never had any kind of wide release. It will be playing here in L.A. soon as well, with a number of screenings--UCLA I believe though don't have that calendar in front of me.

Wherever you are, if it comes around, I too recommend that people see it. The subject of Indians is one that deservedly can arouse intense feelings--MacKenzie knows this but eloquently observes without any preaching. He always takes the high road, and the tragic and existential aspects of this come over better because of it.

Anonymous said...

I don't know whether "The Exiles" is a documentary of a fictionaalized reconstruction, I find it in any case very moving, and a great film which is shameful to ignore. Can anyone tell me whatever happened to Kent MacKenzie? It's the sort of film that is such a revelation that one wants to see more by such a talented filmmaker.
Miguel Marías

Dan Sallitt said...

Blake - The Exiles will screen at the Billy Wilder Theatre August 15 through 23.

Miguel - all I know about MacKenzie is that he made one more feature, Saturday Morning, and died at age 50. Here's a biography.

Anonymous said...

Thanks, Dan. A sad thing, to get belatedly to know someone so promising, then learn he's been dead for 28 years. Anyone saw "Saturday Morning" or know where to search for it?
Miguel Marías