The Exiles, then Turtles Can Fly

ExilesWalking in LA: the morning after for Kent Mackenzie’s Native Americans in The Exiles. (Milestone Films)

The best films are the most difficult to write about, and Kent Mackenzie’s exceptional The Exiles is no exception. I caught this high-contrast black and white film on the next to last night of its one-week run at Northwest Film Forum. The late writer-director and his three cinematographers Erik Daarstad, Robert Kaufman, and John Merril clearly loved the textural possibilities of the medium, and color, too, which might seem odd to say of a movie in black and white, yet Mackenzie responds to the dark hues present in daylight as well as to tints of light within darkness. He arranges them so expressively on-screen that after I walked out of the theatre, even so unprepossessing a corner as 12th Avenue and Pike Street seemed vibrant; in 72 minutes, Mackenzie altered how I perceive night. Through his images of oncoming headlights and stirred-up dust within a dark blanket of night sky, or a pan across a hilltop vista of city lights that distantly illumine the metropolis below, he made me more aware of what I’m seeing, walking, living in. Turning the corner, a little wave hit me: the sadness that his brilliant career was so short.

This independent feature about Native Americans in their 20s who have traded bucolic reservations for life in the big city—Los Angeles—was completed in 1961. A decade later, Mackenzie made his second film, which would be his last; he died in 1980.

Yvonne Williams shopping at Bunker Hill's famed market in Los Angeles in Kent Mackenzie's THE EXILES (1961).
Yvonne Williams shopping at Bunker Hill's famed market in Los Angeles in Kent Mackenzie's THE EXILES (1961).

Jonathan Rosenbaum’s oft-quoted comparison of The Exiles to John Cassavetes’ Shadows isn’t entirely apt. Both movies were made around the same time, and both use cinema-veritè techniques in narratives of minorities assimilating (or not) into white culture. There similarities end. Mackenzie was vastly more sophisticated technologically, much more confident and sure of his way, with more interesting and varied camera work, and in his sense of pacing, than Cassavetes. Mackenzie clearly took pride in craft, whereas Cassavetes was content to make messes (which isn’t to say that some of his messes aren’t also masterpieces). Mackenzie’s chief model/influence appears to my eye to be early Fellini, especially the 1953 film I Vitelloni. In the expansive textures of the photography and in some of the themes, there are echoes of Fellini’s youthful work, though with none of the Italian director’s garishness. As in I Vitelloni, the young people of The Exiles spend much of their time screwing up, cheerfully or sadly, in aimless drifts from one party or night of revels to the next. Get drunk, sober up, repeat cycle as so desired.

Mackenzie’s compositions are stunning. He finds gaudy neon signs irresistible, yet captures with equal mastery the way sunlight hits buildings or falls into the spaces between them. There’s one flashback scene of life on the reservation: a horseback rider, initially in the foreground, gallops across the high plains, becoming smaller and smaller against the mountain range on the far horizon, and Mackenzie splendidly dissolves from this country idyll into the urban squalor of a liquor store, the horse and rider still visible as an overweight alcoholic named Homer stands before a window display of bourbon bottles. The image asks what Homer and his uprooted friends dare not: what have they given up in order to be what and where they think they ought to be?

Later, the men in this urban tribe—it is very much a male tribe—ascend to a place above the city called Hill X. They chant, they drum the tom-toms, they reclaim a bit of the cultural identity lost to them in Los Angeles, they drink, they fight, their fast convertibles serve as surrogate steeds, and the women are left out of these hypnotically hedonistic rituals.

The conversations between drinking buddies and their girls rarely rise above, “What’s happening, man!” It’s in the interior monologues that the writer’s characters flower to wilted life. Homer speaks of joining the military as if the discipline would rehabilitate him; just as inescapably lonely, Yvonne, who wanders through the film in isolation, voices her hope that leaving the reservation for LA would “make me feel different and happier.”

Throughout, Mackenzie makes excellent use of music, from traditional Native American chants to the jukebox pop of the era. The Exiles so thoroughly immerses us in the Indians’ milieu that when, well into the film, a white male with blond hair appears, in the person of a butch filling station attendant who waits on two of the dark-complexioned men and their dates, he might as well as have come from another galaxy. They’re the norm, and he’s the outsider.

The movie, over the decades, has become a document of a Los Angeles that exists no longer. Among the lost architecture, fewer sights are more transfixing than “Angel’s Flight,” a trolley car on elevated tracks adjacent to the Third Street Tunnel. Mackenzie returns so often to (fantastic) shots of the trolley ascending and descending the ramp, the passenger car becomes a character in its own right.

TcfBefore dispensing with Turtles Can Fly, a film shot in Iraqi Kurdistan by the Iranian writer-director Bahman Ghobadi, let me state my position clearly: it isn’t the movie’s choice of subject I find offensive, it’s the filmmaker’s ineptitude that’s distasteful. Ghobadi exploits images of children in danger in order to heighten—or rather to milk—a scenario that requires neither the sugarcoating (in the form of unfunny comic relief) nor the theatrical flourishes he applies as if splashing cheap paint everywhere.

There’s no point in writing about Turtles Can Fly without giving away the show. Although promoted as a film about Iraqi children living, bonding together during wartime—to be precise on the eve of American troops’ preemptive invasion—the real source of Ghobadi’s fascination is this: a suicidal-homicidal victim of war (a girl who appears to be around age 12—she sports witch-like spirals of dark hair complete with matching black outfit, visual cues so that we’ll know she’s damaged goods) as she tries to off herself in various ways, but not before several attempts and ultimate success at murdering an adorable, tousle-haired toddler who looks to be no more than three years old. And so we watch the terribly cute and cuddly toddler dodge death at (nearly) every turn—incongruously surviving an explosion in a minefield, for one—before finally being drowned in a lake. This little cutie pie’s helpless wails assault our ears so frequently that I sensed the director deriving pleasure from it—or deriving pleasure from his arrogant, mistaken presumption that the sights and sounds of a defenseless creature are sufficient to work up an audience. Or ought I to say work over? At one juncture, the girl tethers the little boy to a tree branch. As she walks off, he cries out for her—knowing no better, he calls her “Mommy.”

Ghobadi murkily plants the (unconvincing) suggestion that the two are mother and child. In a flashback, we watch the girl traumatized by soldiers. If in fact she was raped, and the filmmaker obscures this point, and if she became pregnant and mothered the child that she’s intent on killing, why did she wait until he grew past infancy? And what was going through the filmmaker’s mind when he devised a sequence of the girl wandering out to the middle of a lake, dousing herself with kerosene, lighting a match to an oil rag, and then deciding to swim for shore once the sweet toddler ambles into view? Does this image of him, you might rationally suppose, give her something to live for? No, once back in the tent they share with her physically maimed brother, she slaps the child in the face repeatedly, bloodying his nose while, of course, he cries in anguish. Ghobadi could have found other means to portray war’s toil on children’s psyches; what he’s depicted isn’t drama—it’s a primer for child abuse.

Disturbing though the images are, they lack the wonder and the horror—that elusive quality in finding the beautiful in the unbeautiful, something that was done so very well in The Battle of Algiers—to rise above exploitative trash. What should’ve been the visual/psychological centerpiece of Turtles Can Fly—the nightmare sequence in which a boy with no arms swims underwater, the nubs below his shoulders outstretched (as it were) in a futile gesture to save the child he regarded as a brother or a son—loses much of its impact in Ghobadi’s dismissal of moods and tones in favor of shamelessness.

The film romanticizes the American invasion of Iraq. When U.S. choppers descend from the skies, littering the landscape with white leaflets that proclaim that old canard, “We are the best in the world,” violins sway on the soundtrack. – NPT

April 12-14, 2005