04 September 2008
At the movies: The Exiles.
Kent Johnson’s 1961 film The Exiles is finally receiving a proper theatrical release, and it’s thanks to filmmakers Sherman Alexie (Smoke Signals) and Charles Burnett (Killer of Sheep) that it’s happening. A jazzy (music by The Revels) and mournful trek through twelve hours in the lives a dozen Natives-turned-Angelenos, the film is steeped in vital, kinetic slices of life and pieces of interior monologue, and the disconnect between ideal and actuality is a sharp and serrated gulf. The visual sensibility on display here is astonishing, using high-contrast black-and-white photography to make the streets and sidewalks of Los Angeles into Caravaggio paintings, chiaroscuro portals into absolute darkness next to glittering prizes and ‘open all night’ signs.
The film is a time capsule twice over, documenting both the stories of countless Natives (though that aimless alienation that comes from living in the big city can be quite universal) and providing a visual history of a part of Los Angeles that simply doesn’t exist anymore. As the first, the film can’t help but suffer for its attention to the anomie and alcoholic cycle which most of its characters are stuck in; happy stories don’t normally drive insightful film. But as the latter, The Exiles is a marvel. There is a rawness, a swinging and suppurating energy to its scenes that threaten to break out of the screen, and in its way, Los Angeles itself is as much a character as any of the Native principals.
The Exiles doesn’t claim to offer any solutions to the travails that Native Americans face, nor should it be required to. But there’s a question floating in the ether, one that has been there since the film was made and which has not become any less relevant in the near fifty years since; what can be done? There’s a film coming out next week called Frozen River that also tells some Native American stories, stories of human trafficking, casinos, and crippling poverty. Both films are going to be difficult sells, because most people don’t like to think about Native American issues.
Maybe it’s unresolved guilt, or, as most usually say, the desire for escapism and entertainment at the movies that feed this impulse. But The Exiles is not a lecture. It is an experience, one that resonates long after the film has unrolled and the lights come up. And its ultimate sequence, as sunrise finds a group of young Natives leaving the hillside site of a drunken gathering/dance/council/brawl, echoes that perspective. The cars drive away, the participants creep home, and other than some debris, a little blood, a lot of cigarette butts, and a few tears, there’s nothing left to mark the land. But they were there, and for a little while, at least, it was theirs.