Some of my best moviegoing experiences have been had in some of the most unhygienic theaters. The places that seem to take movies most seriously often have grubby floors, ticky-tacky construction, and undernourished ticket-tearers, and I happen to have no problem with filth (or famine) in the name of cinephilia, so I happily suffer. You might not be so inclined.
But let’s agree on this: Where we see a movie inevitably shapes our experience of that film. And when a movie plays in the Walker Art Center Cinema, it comes with helpful baggage that the lovable, fleabag arthouse cinema is increasingly unwilling or unable to provide. Beyond superior technical presentation, unobstructed sightlines, and spitspot floors, what you’re really getting is assurance that the film has a place in the cinematic canon or at least something very interesting (and periodically aggravating) to say. With a glut of good films competing for theater space and your dollars, the Walker imprint provides a critical sieve.
It’s good to keep this in mind as you approach Expanding the Frame, a two-month series of films and film-based performances that make The Reader look like an episode of Full House . Expanding the Frame opened last Thursday at the Walker with the uncatagorizable Bruce McClure doing some crazy, noisy performance art with film projectors and it continues this week with Terence Davies’s Of Time and the City, a bitchy-nostalgic film essay about the filmmaker’s native Liverpool.
This weekend was The Exiles , one those potentially hard-to-love films that benefits enormously from the Walker endorsement and a little context. At first pass, The Exiles plays simply like a boozy night-in-the-life story. A group of friends drink and brawl (and drive) and we go along for the ride. They occasionally reflect on the places they came from and the marginalized corners in which they’ve landed, but mostly we watch their apparent self-destruction.
The characters doing all this drinking and fighting are Native Americans, which may or may not complicate your feelings about what you’re seeing. Matters become more complicated when you learn that the filmmaker is white and the actors he directed were people from the neighborhood he befriended and from whose lives he based his story. The solemn opening voiceover tells us that the film is an “authentic account” of their lives and “reflects a life that is not true of all Indians today but typical of many,” but that sounds so naïve you can’t help but be on alert for evidence of just the opposite.
It turns out though that The Exiles is much more than any of these first impressions would suggest. It was shot on-and-off for several years in the late fifties and early sixties by a remarkably unprolific young USC film grad named Kent Mackenzie. His real-life set was the Bunker Hill area of Los Angeles, an area immortalized in the writings of John Fante
but then bulldozed in the sixties to eventually make way for the Frank Gehry-designed Walt Disney Concert Hall. Mackenzie’s film retains remarkable images of the grand old Victorians and bars that populated the area and part of the film’s cache is this historical record.
The other is the film’s own amazing resurrection from the dead. Aside from sporadic festival showings, it has hardly been seen until now, nearly fifty years after it was made. The UCLA Film & Television Archive has restored pristine 35mm black-and-white prints and Milestone Films (helped by writer Sherman Alexie and director Charles Burnett) has jumped in to give the film its first shot at widespread distribution.
For Native Americans, The Exiles is a record of another sort, that rare movie from those times (or any) in which they are the central characters. A Bureau of Indian Affairs program at the time was relocating large numbers of Native Americans from reservations to cities in the name of assimilation. This is never mentioned in the film but it casts its pall even as Mackenzie’s camera captures some unexpected moments of levity: women dancing to peppy boogie woogie and guys with V-neck sweaters and pomade-lacquered hair driving top-down convertibles like a Happy Days cast gone wild.
The Exiles has a complicated relationship with the verite-style objectivity it seems to espouse, but part of the challenge for the audience is untangling what Mackenzie was attempting to do, whether he succeeded, and whether he was the one to do it. There was a time when a difficult film like this would have played in a dingy old theater, but with Oak Street Cinema in the death throes and a certain local arthouse theater chain increasingly booked with Kate Winslet movies, those days are probably over. The hardcore will lament this, but they shouldn’t. Many of the films in the Expanding the Frame series are preoccupied with the nature of time and place, but what these next few weeks of films really reinforce is the value of having a place to see movies worthy of debate.
Expanding the Frame continues through Feb. 28 at the Walker.