The Exiles, Kent Mackenzie. [A-] july 14th 2008.
You're almost obligated to mention a few certain points about this movie when you talk about it, so I'll get them out of the way:
• The Exiles is a lost film - largely forgotten since its completion in 1961, it never played theatrically until this year and only went to a few festivals otherwise.
• Thom Andersen and his great documentary Los Angeles Plays Itself spawned a resurgence of interest in the film through his incorporation of clips from it into his own.
• It was filmed in Bunker Hill, a neighborhood which no longer exists.
• It stars a Native American cast, a group of people not generally depicted on the screen.
To be fair, the stuff that's generally mentioned about this film is the stuff that got me initially intrigued by it as well. I'm being cute by bullet-pointing it, I guess, but these little tidbits are so ubiquitous at this point that they threaten to overshadow the experience of the film itself if you let them get driven so far into your head that they become the focus of your viewing. I'll try to address other stuff instead.
I want to lead with the photography, although I guess people talk a lot about the film's striking imagery as well - this is in no small part due to the amazing restoration that those geniuses over at UCLA have put together, but it's also got a lot to do with the fact that the photography itself is almost uniformly gorgeous. It's shot in a verité style, but it's a very heavily man-handled reality that's in the film, and Mackenzie's got a really strong eye for powerful, sort of graphic framing. There's no synch sound, so all the dialogue is dubbed and the soundtrack is constructed. In more dialogue heavy segments this can be a bit distracting, but it also makes me think that all the imagery was cut together before Mackenzie even started thinking about dialogue and sound.
I wonder if some of the better moments in the film would even exist in the form that they do had this not been the case. There's a really beautiful, delirious segment in a tunnel that perfectly captures the sensation of drunkenness, of the sort of camaraderie and adventure that can only come from communal recklessness, and the way it's put together feels uniquely tied to the rhythms of silent, moving imagery, assembled with complete disregard to sound. This sequence alone makes the movie worth seeing.
The soundtrack, meanwhile, is also quite lovely. A sound collage of period songs and various field-recordings, it never entirely feels real, which is something that stands in stark contrast with the documentary style imagery. The soundtrack is occasionally punctuated with that kind of awkwardly naturalistic voiceover that's become a staple of many an arthouse darling over the years, although this film precedes a great many of them.
The believability of The Exiles is what makes it so powerful, but it's also what makes it so sad. The plot itself is almost not there, it's just some people going about their night, but the environment and circumstances shown are disheartening at times, although the vast majority of the characters are seemingly absent of despair in the face of their lives, having already decided to instead move on to self-destructive ambivalence. Ruts are tough to get out of, though, and thankfully the movie is governed by empathy enough to acknowledge that and not pass judgment upon or to condemn any of these characters. A true slice of life, the film begins somewhere in time and ends somewhere else, a group of people you've just met disappearing into a doorway down the street, their lives still moving forward even as you sit there, looking at the empty street, wondering if it's the end or not. Then the lights come up and you go out your own door.
An update: I've been living in Brooklyn since January. I work as an assistant for a director whose work I enjoy quite a bit and it's been pretty solid thus far. I'm not gonna name him, just cause it's the internet and I'd rather not, but it's a good thing. Stuff's been fine, although I've been being a real lazy guy when it comes to things like writing in this here blog, or anywhere else, really, and I've actually even gotten sloppy enough to stop maintaining the film log that so many of my earlier entries were based upon. I've since rectified that situation and I'm looking to do a little more updating, too, so keep your eyes peeled.