Sunday, July 27, 2008

A Pair of Political Documentaries

My latest reviews for Slant Magazine cover CSNY: Déja Vu and Stealing America: Vote by Vote, two politically oriented documentaries. CSNY is currently playing in New York and Stealing America opens on Friday. Please follow the links to access the reviews.

Sunday, July 13, 2008

The Exiles

Kent MacKenzie's The Exiles grafts a thin narrative framework onto its largely documentary footage, but it's chiefly the film's non-fiction elements - along with the stunning camerawork - that account for its continued interest. Marketed as the re-discovery of 2008 (as Killer of Sheep was for last year and Army of Shadows for 2006), MacKenzie's 1961 film, detailing the rough-and-tumble existence of a group of Native Americans living in Los Angeles' Bunker Hill neighborhood, is currently enjoying its first theatrical release at New York's IFC Center in a newly restored print before making its way around the country and eventually finding (we hope) a home on DVD.

MacKenzie's film focuses on three young Natives who more or less play themselves, his camera framing them against the neon-lit nocturnal city as they thread their way through a vanished Los Angeles in search of - what exactly? kicks, money, just a way to pass the time? - over the course of twelve hours. The characters move from the neighborhood's main strip - shot as a mass of swirling lights pitched against the night's total darkness (in astonishing grainy, high-contrast black and white) and littered with bars and movie houses - to the hill ("Hill X") overlooking the city where the Natives can congregate for drinking, fighting and the singing of tribal songs. The peregrinations of the three characters - though rarely intertwining - are given thematic unity through the repetition of several visual motifs. Chief among these is a tunnel that leads away from the neighborhood and that all three characters traverse in the course of the film - one in a sad, solitary stroll, another whizzing by in a joyriding convertible - and which grants a shared sense of aimlessness to their separate wanderings.

As his characters move through the city streets, MacKenzie seems as interested in documenting the locations and the stray individuals his camera picks up as in focusing on the chief players themselves and, given the fact that the world of the movie no longer exists, swallowed up shortly after filming in urban redevelopment, one of the chief virtues of The Exiles is in capturing this unique subcultural milieu. But, MacKenzie elevates his film above its obvious archival/visual merits by introducing another documentary element, a series of voice overs spoken by each of the three characters, presumambly representing the actors' viewpoints on daily existence. Often touching on the past of the Native peoples - which, evoked by MacKenzie in one or two reservation sequences, provides obvious contrast to the diminished present - these monologues add some philosophical heft to what would otherwise be a series of rather formless tableaux. So Yvonne (Yvonne Williams) laments the course her life has taken but holds out hope that her soon to born baby will effect some sort of positive change, while the womanizing Tommy (Tommy Reynolds) reflects more stoically on the essential aimlessness of life, and both individuals, true to their philosophies, continue in their same old patterns as the film's endless night wears on.

Several critics, from Amy Taubin to Nick Schager, have questioned the film's responsibility in portraying Indian life as a perpetual round of drunken debauchery. In her review, Taubin noted that 8 % of the production's budget went to alchohol and MacKenzie, himself a non-Native, clearly primed his subjects with booze to get the results he wanted. While such claims certainly need to be addressed, and the perpetuation of a negative stereotype of any group of people is always cause for lament, I find little to object to in MacKenzie's methods. He set out to document a very specific subculture, found subjects that were presumably typical of that subculture's population and structured their daily lives into something resembling narrative. He generously gives voice to the men and women of his film, allowing them to come to terms with their lives in their own words and even if he has to manipulate the circumstances a little bit, which non-fiction filmmaker has not. Yes, it's regrettable that alcohol played such a large part in Native American life, but that doesn't mean it shouldn't be documented and it doesn't mean that a filmmaker shouldn't draw on all his available resources to achieve this documentation. Clearly a little perspective is needed.

Tuesday, July 8, 2008

A Very British Gangster

Awash in swirling overhead shots, stilted wide-angle framings and seemingly arbitrary switches to black-and-white stock and buoyed by a wall-to-wall Brit-pop soundtrack, Donal McIntyre's A Very British Gangster takes great pains to tart up its mildly intriguing subject matter, but its aesthetic overload finally proves more exhausting than illuminating. A portrait of charismatic Manchester gangster Dominic Noonan, McIntyre's film is at its best when it simply lets its subject speak, and even if his diction is mostly flat (no colorful gangsterspeak here), his delivery—marked by an appealing earnestness cut with occasional hints of violence—proves surprisingly endearing.

To read the rest of the review, please continue to Slant Magazine.