Kent Mackenzie’s 1961 film The Exiles provides an extraordinary record of both a community and a location. It takes a frank look at the experience of the first generation of indigenous Americans to relocate from the reservation to the city, giving them a voice to tell their own stories. At the same time, it provides a rich view of the working class Bunker Hill neighborhood of Los Angeles in which they live. Its iconic Angel’s Flight funicular and shabby victorian housing had in past decades played a starring role in the writings of John Fante as well as bit parts in the films of classic noir but, as Mackenzie made his film, plans for new development meant its days were numbered.
The film, which runs a tight 72 minutes and taking place in the space of twelve hours, was shot on evenings and weekends across a span of three and a half years, using the leftover ends of 35mm reel film from other productions. A recent alumni of the University of Southern California, the British born Mackenzie had begun to acquaint himself with the neighborhood and its inhabitants while making his graduation short, the appropriately named Bunker Hill (1956). In preparation for his feature, he spent a substantial amount of time befriending and earning the trust of this community, ultimately casting individuals to play and express themselves. The resulting film blurs the line between the documentary and the narrative film, capturing something of the feel of direct cinema, but using voiceover to allow the participants to express their stories and feelings directly to the viewer. This contrasts with the rest of the film’s dialogue. Of necessity dubbed after the event, it creates a distance between viewer and subject, giving an overall push/pull effect that chimes with Mackenzie’s approach to his characters. In their listlessness, their drinking habits, their violent impulses, and perhaps especially in their treatment of women, the men are not always shown in the best of light. However, the film ultimately connects their behavior to a deeper malaise, one that if not excusing every action, nonetheless allows them to emerge sympathetically.
Mackenzie essentially focuses on three members of a larger group: the pregnant Yvonne, her partner Homer, and his friend Tommy. Yvonne, first encountered while shopping for Homer’s dinner, is already consigned to her traditional role. She muses on her hopes for her child, that they will grow up in the city rather than the reservation, that they will speak English, go to college, have the things she never had. She hopes that Homer will sort himself out, but wonders if life might have been better had she never met him. Homer is restless. He finds it hard to sit in a bar, repeating the same conversations. “I like to have some kind of excitement, you know. Get into a fight or something. Even just get up and walk all over town or something.” For Tommy, this repetitiveness is the stuff of life: “It keeps going on, day to day, month to month. Before you know it the year’s gone and it’s still the same. It’s just like when you go to jail it’s the same thing. When I’m in jail I don’t worry about it, because I can do time.”
We get to know these characters over the course of a single night. Yvonne is dispatched alone at a movie theater while the two men meet friends at a bar before Tommy and a friend take off to go dancing with two women, while Homer largely drifts from bar to poker game to bar. The culture they negotiate is the same as that for any young American of the period: convertible cars, advertising jingles, even westerns celebrating the superiority of the white settler. Tommy plays air piano to rock n roll music while Yvonne, after watching a movie concerning racial passing (Douglas Sirk’s Imitation of Life), gazes at shiny white mannequins displaying the latest fashions in store windows. Pausing outside a liquor store, Homer reads a letter from his parents in Arizona and we are briefly with them. His father sings as his mother and sister play with their dog in the long grasses outside their rural home. Back to Homer, and this scene of purity is contrasted with the bottles luringly displayed behind his back.
After debuting at the 1961 Venice Film Festival, The Exiles failed to attract commercial distribution and the film largely faded from view. A late lease of life came with the film’s appearance in Thom Anderson’s epic video essay Los Angeles Plays Itself (2003), which lead to Milestone Films approaching the UCLA Film & Television Archive for its restoration. Amongst the wealth of footage of this most filmed of cities, Anderson presents The Exiles as a progenitor of what he terms “a cinema of walking.” This he defines as the neorealist films, by directors such as Charles Burnett and Haile Gerima, about the marginalized communities who remain downtown after the wealthier whites take to their cars at the end of the working day. Watching Yvonne, laden with groceries, trudging home from the Grand Central Market, we might consider the term an apt one.
The film opens with historical stills of Native Americans in traditional dress, their weather beaten faces proud and dignified. The sound of drumming and chanting soon accompanies the images. For Homer and Tommy, the night of revelry climaxes in a shared longing for this past. A convoy of 1950s automobiles snakes up a Los Angeles hilltop, an scene that would not be out of place in a monochrome Rebel Without A Cause. Atop the enigmatically named Hill-X, the indigenous Americans continue their party, the focus gradually centering on a set of tribal drums upon which a few among them beat a rhythm. Together they all chant into the night. The bars are closed, there are no prying eyes. As the city sleeps beneath them, these exiles can at last reconnect to their ancestors, to their culture, to their home. In this nightly ritual they can, all too briefly, become free.
The Exiles is available on DVD from Milestone Films.