Tuesday, July 22, 2008

Movies: The Exiles (1961)

This barely known, oddly written, somewhat sentimental, but stunningly photographed black and white film, shot between 1958-61 by a guy you've probably never heard of (Kent MacKenzie) follows the nighttime roustabouts of a group of 20-something American Indians who have left their reservations for downtown L.A. Theirs is a compounded existential crisis, an exacerbated detachment (that of the 20-something, that of the L.A.-dweller, that of the Pepsi Generation, and then that of the person willfully divorced from his or her culture, a culture in fact always already divorced from itself in the face of contemporary society). And so, they shuttle through betweenlands, muffling the pain and confusion with drink, sex, movies, and fast cars, as any 20-something does.

The film is, in a way, a more gritty, bitter, and tragic version of The Wanderers. The tragedy bubbles up from our expectations for—our idealization of—American Indians. MacKenzie himself is not immune to that idealization—he seems, in fact, to encourage a vision of these young people as fallen angels, fallen warriors. He opens the film with 19th century stock photographs depicting regal chiefs in full, feathered regalia, scenes of open plains crossed by three mounted horsemen, brown-faced girls with wise and trusting eyes. When the feature footage begins, these hardened, bony faces are replaced by the wide eyes and slack jaws of sweating, overweight layabouts, a girl who wonders in a cloying voiceover why her hopes and dreams have not materialized, as she fries a mound of chops for her husband and his buddies before they dump her at the movie theater alone and go out drinking.

Drinking (and smoking) are constants throughout the evening for all characters except the voiceover woman, who approaches her loneliness in a more introverted, romantic way, wandering the streets alone after the film, looking in shop windows and imagining a different life. Against her silence, the jukebox, car horns, fighting, bullshitting, screeching of her husband's friends as they drop in and out of bars, liquor stores, a poker game, a gas station, eventually ending up parked on a lookout point, where a few men in cowboy hats are drumming, chanting the old chants, and dancing a degraded, drunken version of traditional ritual movements. With sunrise, the few who remain on the now littered hilltop rub their eyes, drive home, and the film ends.

No comments: