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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Last Year at Marienbad (1961) –Submitting to Another’s Interpretation

As I remarked in the introduction to my recent piece about Hiroshima Mon Amour, Last Year at Marienbad is one of a handful of works comprising the peak of the sensibility or movement known as European art house film. Great works may have followed in its wake, some may even continue to be made, but few films have managed to equal (let alone outstrip) Marienbad when it comes to sheer inventive panache. This was a film that did not so much bend the rules of cinematic story-telling as shatter them into a thousand beautiful pieces.

There are many critical paths into Marienbad, but the one I would like to focus on today involves the colliding sensibilities of the film’s writer and director:

The film’s director – Alain Resnais – may have begun his cinematic career as an actor but his reputation was built on the back of a documentary exploring the extent of France’s collaboration with the German war machine during World War II. Night and Fog served to confront the myth that the French people had spent the entirety of World War II actively resisting the German occupation. Far from spending their evenings blowing up ammunition dumps, many French people welcomed German occupation and their welcome even extended as far as helping the Nazis to exterminate France’s Jewish population. The myth of the citizen-resistance fighter was not only put about by French political elites eager to evade answering questions about their own wartime activities, it was also embraced by a French population wracked by feelings of guilt and shame. While themes of remembrance and forgetting may have gone on to dominate the rest of Resnais’ cinematic career, that career began with an examination of how memories can be manipulated by those with a vested interest in particular truths.

The film’s writer – Alain Robbe-Grillet – differed from most writers in so far as he trained as an agronomist with a particular interest in diseases of the banana. As someone whose perhaps more scientific than humanistic, Robbe-Grillet’s writing was famously devoid of humanity. Even when his work did feature conventional characters and narratives, the prose would invariably be affectless and profoundly wedded to the surface of objects. For example, consider the opening to his classic experimental short story “The Secret Room”:

 

The first thing to be seen is a red stain, of a deep, dark, shiny red, with almost black shadows. It is in the form of an irregular rosette, sharply outlined, extending in several directions in wide outflows of unequal length, dividing and dwindling afterward into single sinuous streaks. The whole stands out against a smooth, pale surface, round in shape, at once dull and pearly, a hemisphere joined by gentle curves to an expanse of the same pale color—white darkened by the shadowy quality of the place: a dungeon, a sunken room, or a cathedral—glowing with a diffused brilliance in the semidarkness.

 

There are two further things to say about this quotation: The first is that, despite appearing to be written in an objective or photo-realistic style, neither the room nor its contents ever existed. The room is a complete fiction that has been introduced into your head by the simple act of reading the above passage. The second thing to say about this quotation is that the red stain is blood dripping from the breast of a woman who has been murdered. Indeed, while Robbe-Grillet never killed or maimed anyone, his fantasy life is said to have revolved around the torture of young women. These fantasies would often inspire real actions undertaken as part of a long-term sadomasochistic relationship with another consenting adult. I mention this not to posthumously kink-shame Robbe-Grillet, but rather to position him as someone who would have been quite comfortable distinguishing between non-consensual sex and the performance of non-consent as part of an activity to which everyone involved would have willingly consented.

Last Year at Marienbad is a film about memory but also about consent and the extent to which our memories and actions can be shaped by other people.

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