Ali and I went to the Dryden Theater at George Eastman House (900 East Ave.) to see The Exiles. The description given in the Eastman House calendar was tantalizing, as the film has almost never been screened for 50 years, and it documents Native Americans living in Los Angeles in the 1960's. Sprinkle in phrases like, "seamlessly mixes documentary and narrative techniques" and "deeply emotional and personal achievement", and I'm sold.
Our reaction to the film, however, was one of grand disappointment. It's an arduous film to watch full of interchangeably unlikeable, apathetic characters. In addition, the dialog was dubbed in the studio and loses all of its emotional expression in the process — in fact, according to the program notes authored by K. A. Westphal, the entire soundtrack was meticulously recreated long after shooting was completed [definitely read it for some unbelievable trivia]. In total, though, the film completely neglects the audience and instead slowly stews in its own world.
As such, the film is considered a masterpiece — in part because it deliberately rejects a serviceable narrative, and simply documents the lives of people who are essentially unremarkable jerks. As other reviewers noted, this undesirability of the characters seems to work against the cause of helping Native Americans. However, I took away the point that it was far too late — even in the 1960's — for the Native American cause. The people depicted on screen are the walking dead of a lost civilization. They drift from heartbeat to heartbeat, resigned to a purposeless fate: their entire culture having been wiped from the earth in what amounts to a mass genocide.
So in a way, I agree that it is a masterpiece. It spoke of the situation of recently-displaced Native Americans (who have been generationally displaced to boot) and what happens when you do that to someone. However, it's akin to experiencing the beauty of a sword by having someone slice your arm open with it. You can appreciate the workmanship and detail, but its true function is to cut and to kill, so what better way to truly immerse yourself in its beauty than by taking part in its primary function? The amoral, artistic side of me understands that that would be the pinnacle of sword examination, but the rest of me, well, doesn't really want to get cut.
And so, with my mighty blog and website and stuff, I set forth a demand to appeal to the audience. [And by that, I mean that I know that there are some Eastman House employees who will read this, and might consider bringing it up at a programming meeting, if the mood suits them.] My friends and I have had this kind of experience many times before: when a film is considered "great" or "important" for reasons other than how well it is appreciated by the average audience, but is noted for being altogether brilliant in its cinematic quality. I, personally, tend to enjoy these films too, but I need to be mentally prepared for them, and when I'm unprepared and end up getting blindsided, I find myself alienating the Dryden. I seek other avenues for entertainment … at least for a while. And I always end up coming back, and hopefully sooner than later.
I propose, therefore, that the Dryden begin offering "audience appreciation" films. This is different from "popcorn movies" which offer purely an experience of entertainment; rather a delineation of cinematic masterpieces that overlaps the "popcorn" genre. It's movies where the filmmakers consider the audience to be the most important part of the process.
Understandably, it's a difficult aspect to divine — after all, The Exiles had the audience at the forefront of its production as much as any other movie, and perhaps even more for respecting their knowledge and wisdom. Consider how different it is from Encounters At the End of the World, though: it's as if the audience is a cherished friend invited to explore something new and fascinating rather than colleagues already insatiably interested in the topic at hand.
Put simply, there's a difference between "cinematically important" and "enjoyable".