Wednesday, July 16, 2008

The Exiles

I’ve written before about Charles Burnett’s Killer of Sheep, a beautiful black-and-white film from the 1970’s that was released in theaters last year. Milestone, the same admirable company that brought Killer of Sheep back, has now, with the help of Burnett and American Indian author Sherman Alexie, released The Exiles. I saw it last weekend at the IFC Center in New York, and Burnett was on hand to introduce it.

Kent MacKenzie wrote and directed the movie, a fictitious story with a documentary tone. It was originally shown at the 1961 Venice Film Festival and never officially released after that. Just 72 minutes long (it still took three years to finish, due to monetary problems and several members of the crew being drafted), The Exiles follows a group of American Indian friends for a single night in Los Angeles.

The stunning composition of the movie is its most enduring achievement. The Village Voice review put it well:
The black-and-white camerawork (by Erik Daarstad, Robert Kaufman, and John Morrill) is so starkly high-contrast that the outdoor shots have the muscular definition of a graphic novel. The black has surprising depth, catching hard edges within shadows; the white burns a halo around every liquor-store sign or streetlight.
The amateur actors were found while MacKenzie was researching a nonfiction project, and their performances are raw but powerful. They spend the night drinking, gambling, getting into bar fights, drinking some more, and finally dancing, chanting, and fighting with fellow American Indians at the top of a hill as night turns to morning. All in all, The Exiles feels like Swingers might have if it were written and shot by Dorothea Lange.

Because the cameras used were so noisy, much of the dialogue was redone post-production. This gives it a somewhat distracting Godzilla feel, but luckily there are extensive (and mostly affecting) voice-overs that don’t suffer from the technical glitches.

I wondered how the portrayal of American Indians by a guy named MacKenzie would come off, but as Alexie recently said:
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.
This absolutely comes through as you watch it.

The Exiles evidently caught someone’s eye when it was mentioned in the documentary Los Angeles Plays Itself. That movie, a nearly three-hour look at the history of the city in cinema, sounds terrific, but I think difficulty in obtaining all the necessary rights for clips has kept it from being released on DVD. I’m now kicking myself even harder for missing it when it briefly played in theaters here a few years back.


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