Thursday, January 22, 2009

Kent MacKenzie's THE EXILES

The Walker's Expanding the Frame series started with Bruce McClure's strobing multi-media industrial drone performance, but the more traditional film fun began with a short run of Kent MacKenzie's 1961 slice-of-life masterpiece. Expanding the Frame is a literal grab bag of films that span from an experimental 1933 Bruce Connor film to Terence Davies' 2008 homage to Liverpool. The diverse nature of these films (and performances) all share a common thread of unconventionality. The Exiles falls right smack in the middle of that timeline and also somewhere in between being a narrative and non-narrative feature. Part fact and part fiction, the film is freewheeling and rudderless, much like the film's characters.

The Exiles examines three Native Americans from dusk to dawn in the Bunker Hill neighborhood of Los Angeles. The film's simplicity is part of its grace, but it is also the careful planning of MacKenzie himself who spent over three years on the project. He made a short documentary about Bunker Hill in 1956 which sowed the seeds for The Exiles. Employing his friends, classmates, non-professional actors and borrowed equiptment, MacKenzie no doubt considered The Exiles a labor of love.

Yvonne, Homer and Tommy are individuals of the same community. Although all three are from reservations in the southwest, they all have different reasons for moving to LA. Yvonne is pregnant is Homer's child, yet they have a disconnected and apathetic relationship. Yvonne lives for he baby, and longs to stay in LA to raise her child. Homer lives to go out at night and have fun, but misses his parents and longs to return home. Tommy is carefree and lives moment to moment, drinking and chasing women. The film begins as Yvonne is returning home and Homer, Tommy and their friends are preparing to go out. In turn we get to eavesdrop on each of their thoughts—Yvonne reveals her hope, Homer reveals his anger, and Tommy reveals his imprudence.

It's really hard to know when the actors star being characters, and when the characters stop being actors. Much of the voice-overs sound like testimonials rather than exposes. Yvonne gets dropped off at a movie, knowing full well that she will not be picked up. Homer, unsatisfied with simply sitting around drinking, heads to a card game. He ducks out before he loses all his money and then heads out to raise some hell. Tommy successfully gets drunk and finds a girl, but is unable to muscle his way with the girl is his sorry state. The rabble rousers end up on Hill X in the wee hours of the morning, away from the cops as an isolated party community that includes drums, fights, singing and debauchery.

The Exiles is also a postcard picture of something that doesn't exist anymore. Bunker Hill has been razed for high rises and Hill X is now the home of Dodgers Stadium. There is an air of nostalgia for the way things were, even if it is bittersweet.

Shot in beautiful black and white, The Exiles excels for its formal beauty. The LA streets at night glow with life, but also conceal so much in the inky corners and alleys. It is truly a film of photographs that has been careful restored from non-existence. The film originally screened at the 1961 Venice Festival and then the New York Film Festival, but never got a commercial release. It all but disappeared until clips were featured in Thom Anderson's Los Angeles Plays Itself. Thankfully, Milestone Films (the good people responsible for restoring and re-releasing The Killer of Sheep) took on the project. The results are pretty fantastic.

The official website for The Exiles.

Expanding the Frame continues with Terence Davies Of Time and the City this weekend and Jia Zhangke's 24 City next weekend. Check out the entire upcoming schedule.

6 comments:

Dan said...

Among my "most wanted" titles; I hope they will release it in DVD someday...

Kathie Smith said...

I think we will see it on DVD sometime this year, possibly with extras - The Killer of Sheep was full of worthy extras and I'm sure The Exiles will be handled in a similar way if possible.

dan said...

This year????? It would be fantastic.

Kathie Smith said...

Dan, I made a general inquiry about the DVD. I'll let you know what I find out.

Kathie Smith said...

Dan, a "deluxe DVD release" will be out this summer!

Dan said...

You're God! Thanks for this news.