The Exiles (1961) -Who Speaks For You?

Before I start this review, I would like to make it clear that I believe in the importance of social history. Even setting aside present-day issues surrounding access to the media and who gets to tell their stories in public, I think there is real value in having people talk about their experiences before the worlds that spawned those experiences disappear for ever. Social history is a cornerstone of revolutionary praxis; by keeping a record of the past, we remind ourselves not only that the present might have been different but also that the future is not yet written. I believe in the absolute necessity of social history and yet I recognise that the process of collection and presentation can be intensely problematic.

Frank MacKenzie’s The Exiles is one of those films whose chequered commercial history winds up shining a rather unflattering light on the difference between a film finding an audience and a film disappearing without ever being shown in public. While production on the film may have ended in 1958, the film was first shown to the public in 1961 as part of the Venice film festival. Though relatively well-received at the time, the film seems to have generated little buzz and so The Exiles was never picked up for cinematic distribution and effectively sank without a trace. However, this changed in 2003 when Thom Andersen released Los Angeles Plays Itself, a feature-length critical essay about the history of Los Angeles in American film.

Though sadly not available in the UK, Los Angeles Plays Itself has been a hugely influential piece of criticism. The essay’s most notable success was the re-discovery of Charles Burnett’s Killer of Sheep, a magnificently dream-like film about the plight of African Americans who left the South for California after World War II only to wind up living short and desperate lives in areas like Watts. Aside from being a fantastic film in its own right, Killer of Sheep is also an important piece of cultural history in so far as it is a film by an African American about what it was like growing up in a particular community at a particular time. While the film’s re-release predates stuff like Black Lives Matter, the brilliance of the work and the importance of the subject matter were enough to turn Killer of Sheep into something of an art house hit. Nearly a decade later, I don’t think it’s possible to talk seriously about the recent history of American film without mentioning the name Charles Burnett.

The decision to re-release The Exiles in 2008 can only be understood in terms of the influence of Los Angeles Plays Itself and the success of Killer of Sheep. Indeed, while Killer of Sheep provided us with an insight into what it was like to be a poor, black resident of Watts in the 1970s, The Exiles can be seen as an attempt to understand what it was like to be a poor, Native American resident of Bunker Hill in the late 1950s. I can totally see why people wanted to release The Exiles and why they might have thought it was another Killer of Sheep but while Killer of Sheep is beautiful, insightful, and created by a member of the marginalised group the film purports to be about, The Exiles is tedious, lacking in insight and made by a bloke from Hampstead. The Exiles is not just problematic, it’s also a real wasted opportunity and a reminder that diversity must exist at the level of production not just subject matter. Blokes from Hampstead should not be speaking for people whose parents would have grown up with memories of events like Wounded Knee.

 

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REVIEW – Beyond the Valley of the Dolls (1970)

FilmJuice have my review of Arrow’s re-release of Russ Meyer’s Beyond the Valley of the Dolls. The film revolves around a group of female rock musicians who decide to leave home and try their luck on the LA music scene. What they find is a scene replete with sex and drugs where fame is just as likely an outcome as death. Initially wowed by the glamour and raw sexuality of their new friends and hangers on, the band lose sight of the music and each other before re-discovering themselves and asserting their basic moral character. In other words… it’s the cinematic version of Josie and the Pussycats only without the tunes and satirical edge:

The problem with Russ Meyer’s Beyond the Valley of the Dolls is that while Meyer had been working in Hollywood for a few years, neither he nor his screen-writer the film critic Roger Ebert had any idea as to what LA’s sinister underbelly was actually like. Meyer was 48 when Beyond the Valley of the Dolls was released and so the image of Hollywood he wound up ‘satirising’ was one with little or no basis in reality. Beyond the Valley of the Dolls is not so much humorous as embarrassing in that characters wander around spouting 60s-inspired gibberish like “don’t bogart that joint” and “I’d love to strap you on”. It’s funny enough the first few times but the well is shallow and Ebert’s script keeps digging long after the audience is being served refreshing glasses of dirt. Moving beyond the thin attempts at satire are juvenile attempts at transgression that usually boil down to footage of enormous bouncing breasts and moments of gay panic.

Some critics describe Beyond the Valley of the Dolls as a satire of the LA scene but the satire rarely rises above the level achieved by Rowan and Martin’s Laugh In, which I assume provided the bulk of Ebert and Meyer’s ‘research’ into 60s counter-culture.

Meyer is a director who reminds me a lot of Roger Corman in so far as his fame seems to be a reflection of financial realities rather than genuine authorial vision. Both directors arrived on the scene after the collapse of the studio system and TV’s wholesale annexation of cinema audiences. Corman and Meyer made money and brought in younger audiences by filling cinema screens with sex and violence and so have come to be hailed as pioneers but the directors of the American New Wave did much the same and yet produced art rather than the grubby, stupid and lacklustre nonsense that we have come to associate with Corman and Meyer. As I say in my review, Meyer deserves credit for developing a vision that was uniquely his own but there really are much better Meyer films than Beyond the Valley of the Dolls. This film is unfunny, unsexy, unexciting and egregiously reactionary. Ugh.

 

The Decline of Western Civilization (1981-1998) – Ancestor Worship

I grew up within gobbing distance of the Kings Road and can still remember teenaged punks charging tourists for photos and shitting in doorways opposite what is now an enormous McDonalds. I remember when postcards of London still featured punks and I remember when rising property prices finally rid Chelsea of its art school pretensions and replaced them with the cosmopolitan brutality of a first class airport lounge. I remember the aftermath of the British punk scene but I was too young to appreciate it… all I have to go on is what history has taught me.

Anyone who grew up in Britain during the 1990s will be familiar with the broad narrative beats of British punk history as laid down by the Sex Pistol–Media–Industrial-Complex: From the poorly attended gig at the Manchester Lesser Free Trade Hall to their expletive-laden appearance on the Bill Grundy Show and on to mocking the Queen’s silver jubilee from the top of a chartered boat. We are familiar with these narratives because they are the origin stories of people who would later become very popular and very successful. The truth about the British punk scene might have endured the deliberate revisionism of Julien Temple’s The Great Rock n’ Roll Swindle but it was never going to survive Alan fucking Partridge:

 

 

Narratives are easy to steal, history is easy to re-write and the truth will always be closer to the unformed opinions of people who were there than the polished anecdotes of those exact same people twenty years down the line. The truth about British punk may lie buried in interviews and half-forgotten fanzines but part of the truth about one corner of the LA music scene recently returned to DVD in the form of a swanky box set.

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Only Lovers Left Alive (2013) – Deathless Capital

Jim Jarmusch is one of those directors who attract a lot of critical attention despite few critics being fans of their work. You can always identify these directors from the way that reviews of their work often include sentences like ‘a return to form’ or ‘his best film since x’ where x stands for some previously well-received but not necessarily successful film.

Exemplified by the likes of Woody Allen, Tim Burton, and Spike Lee, this type of director invariably has a strong and immediately identifiable vision that seldom seems to translate into great films. We all know what we think of when we talk about the films of Woody Allen and Tim Burton but pointing to a really good Woody Allen or Tim Burton film is quite a lot harder than you’d think given the way that these directors have been allowed to pursue and perfect their cinematic visions. Critics like the idea of this type of director as perfecting a vision is what directors are supposed to do and yet the ability to articulate and explore a personal vision is no guarantee that you will produce interesting films. Some people just have boring visions.

Jarmusch’s vision is as singular as it is identifiable in that many of his films feel like attempts to produce American genre film using the themes and techniques of European art house. For example, 1995’s Dead Man is an ironic deconstruction of the western that dwells on feelings of cultural isolation while the more recent The Limits of Control strips the espionage thriller down to its component parts resulting in a film about beautifully-dressed people wandering around exotic locations in response to some inarticulate conspiracy. Only Lovers Left Alive is neither as minimalist as Limits of Control nor as tongue-in-cheek as Dead Man but it is excellent and precisely what you would expect from a Jim Jarmusch vampire movie.

 

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Far From Heaven (2002) – Melodrama, Irony, and What Lies Beneath

By the end of the 1950s, British cultural production had fallen out of step with the realities of British life. Still in thrall to the drawing room comedies of Noel Coward and the well-made plays of Terrence Rattigan, British theatre was about to undergo a paradigm shift that would banish romanticism and replace it with a commitment to unflinching social realism. Though usually associated with the establishment of the National Theatre, the rise of Kenneth Tynan, and the emergence of the so-called Angry Young Men, Britain’s realist turn was also evident in cinemas as producers fell over themselves to turn realist plays and novels into films that held a mirror up to the realities of life in modern Britain.

Films like The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner, Saturday Night and Sunday Morning, This Sporting Life and A Taste of Honey took inspiration from Robert Hamer’s It Always Rains on Sundays and focused their attentions on the hardships and tragedies of working class life. Confrontational and unapologetically left-wing, they critiqued a society in which the poor were left to rot while the rich enjoyed all the benefits of economic renewal. While this vogue for social realism manifestly did very little to slow the rising tide of social inequality, the belief that drama should project us into the world rather than help us escape it endured for generations. Even once the revolutionary energy began to drain from the British film industry, a commitment to ‘kitchen sink’ realism survived in TV strands such as Armchair Theatre, the Wednesday Play and Play for Today. Traces of it can even be detected in that very British tendency to produce dramas and soap operas about the lives of the working class rather than the upper-middle class families favoured by American TV dramas.

Hollywood has never shared Britain’s interest in chronicling the lives of the poor and desperate. Up until the Second World War, the studios made it their business to provide audiences with glimpses of lives more glamorous than their own. In fact, the 1930s actress Kay Francis was explicitly marketed as the best-dressed woman in the world and many of her films feel like little more than excuses for her to change into a series of expensive-looking outfits. However, while the studios may have been reluctant to shine a light on the lives of America’s dispossessed, they did regularly produce films that were critical of the status quo… you just needed to look beyond the big houses and glamorous wardrobes.

From the silent era all the way till the 1960s, Hollywood produced films with female audiences in mind. Usually built around a bankable female star, these so-called women’s films focused on the emotional realities of women’s lives including love-triangles, affairs, spousal estrangement, parenting problems and mental illness. For example films like Curtis Bernhardt’s Possessed and Otto Preminger’s Whirlpool feature women who are driven insane by uncaring husbands and manipulative lovers. Many of these films are now quite difficult to find as the term ‘women’s film’ is itself somewhat problematic. Though still in use until the 1960s, many critics consider the genre to be little more than an expression of institutionalised sexism as saying that certain films are ‘for women’ seems to imply that men are the cinema’s natural audience. As a result of these problems, many women’s films are today referred to as melodramas.

Melodramas are often criticised for their political conservatism in that they introduce us to people whose lives are literally torn apart by the injustices of American society only for said people to either die or return to the roles allotted to them by virtue of their gender and social class. For example, George Stevens’ A Place in the Sun features a working class Montgomery Clift who falls in love with wealthy society girl Elizabeth Taylor only to have his shot at social mobility destroyed by a combination of jealousy and unwanted pregnancy. Viewed in a certain light, the film is all about a man being brought down by his own hubris but, seen in a different light, it is also about social class and the difficulty of finding happiness in a capitalist society. Though ostensibly conservative, many melodramas and women’s films can be read as subtle critiques of an American society that would rather kill, immiserate and drive people insane than allow them to find happiness on their own terms.

While many great directors made films in the melodramatic style, the idea of the melodrama as subtle social criticism is most closely associated with the films of Douglas Sirk. Born in Germany in the late 19th Century, Sirk abandoned a successful theatrical and cinematic career in 1937 when his political convictions and Jewish wife forced him to leave Germany. Initially dismissed as a purveyor of commercially successful fluff who made films that were unimportant, dull and ludicrously over-stylised, Sirk is now understood to have been a fiercely principled intellectual who moved to America with a plan to make films that hid their social criticism beneath a veil of irony. The re-discovery of Sirk is said to have begun in the late 1950s when the fiercely leftist Cahiers du Cinema began defending his work but the use of irony in films like All That Heaven Allows and Imitation of Life continue to pose something of a critical challenge. As the late Roger Ebert once put it:

To appreciate a film likeWritten on the Wind probably takes more sophistication than to understand one of Ingmar Bergman’s masterpieces, because Bergman’s themes are visible and underlined, while with Sirk the style conceals the message.

Todd Haynes’ Far from Heaven is a loving tribute to the films of Douglas Sirk. Shot in a style similar to Sirk’s using similar colour schemes, similar camera angles, similar compositions and similar sound-recording techniques that litter the soundtrack with echoing footsteps and rustling crinoline, Far from Heaven is a traditional Hollywood melodrama, right down to its brutal critique of American culture.

 

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Nightcrawler (2014) – We All Get the Media We Deserve

I am still not entirely clear how Nightcrawler managed to get seen, let alone made… Yes, it had a relatively slim $8.5 Million budget and yes, it appears to have received some money from a Californian tax credit scheme but how did a viciously left-wing film about a profoundly unsympathetic character manage to pick its way through the gears of a Hollywood machine that has grown disinterested in anything other than Summer money and Winter respectability? This film neither provides multinational corporations with a means of advertising to children nor aging sex symbols a chance to relaunch their careers by playing someone ugly, disabled, or mad.

I can imagine this film being made by Fritz Lang in the 1940s or Martin Scorsese in the 1970s but from a first time writer/director in the same year that the Academy nominated American Sniper for Best Picture? No. Not now. Never.

Nightcrawler is a film that is completely out of step with the cowardice, mendacity and incompetence of contemporary Hollywood. It is the cinematic equivalent of a black panther spotted diving into an English hedgerow or an enormous footprint discovered in the forests of the Pacific Northwest. It is a cryptid, evidence of a cinematic Golden Age that exists nowhere other than our desire for something bigger, better and different to what we actually have.

Described as a “neo-noir crime thriller”, Nightcrawler is best understood as a film that critiques American cultural values in a way that echoes the visual panache of Nicolas Winding-Refn’s Drive albeit with none of that film’s faith in the retributive powers of heteronormative masculinity.

 

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REVIEW — Colors (1988)

FilmJuice have my review of Dennis Hopper’s decidedly uneven crime drama Colors, starring Sean Penn and Robert Duvall.

Colors is one of those films that I never got round to seeing, despite remembering its release and the fact that it was a really big deal at the time. You can sort of see why the film was such a big deal back in the 1980s… Dennis Hopper had left his compound, sobered up and returned to the director’s chair a new man. His first film back in charge was a hard-hitting crime drama starring a Hollywood veteran in the form of Duvall and an up-and-comer in the form of Penn. Colors was taken seriously at the time of its release as it was one of the first mainstream Hollywood films to engage with gang-culture in a somewhat nuanced fashion. Since then, the film has dipped from view because a) it’s not actually very good and b) the early 1990s saw a number of African American directors (including John Singleton and Mario Van Peebles) rising to prominence and making much better and more ‘authentic’ films about the exact same themes and subject matter.

The frustrating thing about Colors is that it clearly contains some very interesting ideas. For example, rather than having the two cops face off against a whole gang and bring them to justice, the film does recognise that two white cops aren’t going to make much of a difference and so it has the police nibble ineffectually at what is quite obviously a much larger social problem. Indeed, while the film does follow a particular Crip set, you never get the impression that killing any member of the set or bringing the set to justice would make a blind bit of difference. The leader of the set is played by a very young Don Cheadle who rarely says a word and so gives the impression that he’s simply a vehicle for much larger social forces. Kill him and another guy would rise up to lead the set. Bring down the set and another would rise up to take its place. The problem is that while Colors does this type of stuff really well, it also wants to hit the beats of a traditional Hollywood genre film and so you need goodies, baddies, pathos and action scenes. A braver director would have seen these elements in the script and downplayed them but this was Hopper’s first mainstream directorial gig in a long time and he was clearly desperate not to deliver a sprawling art movie:

This is why we have a film with a non-linear plot structure that feeds unconvincingly into a moment of pathos that would have been better served by a traditional three act structure, a film about the horrors of gang violence that includes a number of ridiculously over-the-top action sequences, and a socially conscious message film that side-lines its own message in order to focus on the poorly developed man-pain of two White cops. The Dennis Hopper of Easy Rider might have been able to turn this sprawling mess into something coherent but the Hopper of the late 1980s was simply not up to the task and the films that followed in the wake of Colors were similarly uninspired and unimpressive.

Colors is being re-released on Blu-ray alongside State of Grace as part of an informal Sean Penn double-bill. Neither film is really that good but they do serve as a reminder of the types of films that used to be Hollywood’s mainstay before the beginning of the perpetual summer in which we all currently roast.