THE EXILES A-
A remarkable record of a city that has vanished.
—Thom Anderson, Los Angeles Plays Itself (2003)
Watching this early 1960’s film about American Indians adapting to their city environment in the now demolished Bunker Hill district of Los Angeles where in the space of 12 hours they go on an all night drinking binge, is literally like opening a time capsule to a different era, but despite the vintage cars and the dated vernacular of the times, this film is as relevant today as it was when it was made. The film’s strength is its wrenchingly honest documentary style, where the reality of a marginalized people whose past has been stolen from them is stunning, as they feel as detached from the present as from their past, where they have literally become exiles in their own country. The film opens with sage words: “The old people remember the past,” along with Edward Curtis portraits of strong Indian faces in the late 19th century, a time when Indians were forcibly evicted from a life of freedom on the open plains and ordered to live on restricted reservation lands, a military and political act that effectively cut native people’s ties to their heritage. More than a century later, they’re still searching for it. The camera focuses on a neglected pregnant wife, Yvonne Williams, whose husband Homer Nish (the spitting image of César Rojas from the Los Lobos band, known for his wide girth, trademark black sunglasses and slicked-back, black hair) all but ignores her and lays about jobless all day long as he would rather hang around every night in the company of friends than be at home. In the opening moments of the film, we hear her in voiceover describe how she’s glad to be off the reservation and hopes for a brighter future for her unborn child. But life is no picnic in the city either, especially when her husband avoids any connection to family and abandons her every night while he and his friends mooch drinks and cigarettes, hustle up whatever change they can scrounge together, and pretty much joyride and barhop every night listening to Anthony Hilder and the Revels' primitive rock ‘n’ roll on the jukebox, The Revels - Comanche 1960 YouTube (2:01), getting as drunk as possible on rotgut Thunderbird and Lucky Lager beer.
Unseen for decades until Thomas Anderson featured the film in his amazing documentary Los Angeles Plays Itself (2003), it was recently restored by preservationist Ross Lipman and the UCLA Film & Television Archive, comprised of two distinctively different parts, almost as if they’ve been stitched together, as they aren’t always on the same track. The luscious black and white photography by cinematographers John Morrill, Erik Daarstad, and Robert Kaufman is extraordinary throughout utilizing a very modern free-form camera technique of weaving in and out of crowds, capturing bar scenes, fights, sidewalk action, joyriding, and people gathering together high atop Hill X after the bars have closed for more drinking, drumming, and chanting Indian songs while also occasionally engaging in fisticuffs. While the camera captures the free-spirited look of the times, the audio track reflects the lack of any script whatsoever where much is dubbed from recorded interviews, so it lacks the searing intensity of the images and despite its best efforts to remain relevant, falls short in many respects. This may be what the “original” version of Shadows (1959) was like when it was completely improvised, filled with greetings, hip expressions, and an otherwise detached way of communicating with one another before Cassavetes sat down and wrote a more personal script. However this lack of personal connection in THE EXILES matches the theme of the title. The characters are so busy getting high and avoiding life and its responsibilities that their evasiveness even from one another leaves them completely detached from their own lives. In one telling scene, Homer and his gang are sitting in a car smoking a cigarette watching the cops routinely roust some customers in a bar before he gets out, without a word, and enters the bar alone. The guy doesn’t even feel like acknowledging his friends, he simply does whatever the hell he feels like doing. No questions asked. While in his mind this feels like freedom, it’s actually another failed connection, as he exists in a separate reality from the world around him. This stands in stark contrast to those Indian portraits from the 19th century of men who lived in complete harmony with their environment.
One could argue about whether this is even a documentary film, whether it might have been more powerful without fictionalized re-enactments, but as is, we have never gotten such an unflinchingly realistic glimpse of Indians carousing, particularly inside Indian bars. As a social portrait on being poor and being Indian, this film is remarkable. Speaking from personal experience, Indians don’t usually mix with whites in Indian bars. In the early 70’s, Indians were a strong presence in the Uptown community of Chicago. One of my friends was much like a character in this film, an Indian off the reservation who was attempting to redefine his own identity through reading, educating himself, exploring other cultural realms, so he was open to having a white friend. We regularly discussed whatever we were reading at the time with longwinded conversations, but we also ventured into an Indian bar on Argyle Street, where I was warned ahead of time what would happen. My recollection was that the conversation came to a halt upon my entrance. When we ordered drinks, my friend was served while I was ignored. No one ever uttered so much as a word to me or acknowledged my presence, but sat in silence and couldn’t have been more hostile, as if they were waiting for me to leave or say the wrong thing so they could kick the shit out of the white boy. It was not hard to learn whites were not welcome in Indian bars, which makes this film all the more enduring, as in the film they are seen in their chosen element. To its enduring credit, this film features almost exclusively transplants from Southwest reservations, men and women who have never been welcome anywhere, where Homer’s drinking buddy, ex-convict Tommy Reynolds, exclaims that life on the outside or inside prison is all the same to him, as either way it’s just doing time. These young men and women live their lives hard and fast and age quickly, consuming ungodly amounts of cheap alcohol, where their treatment of women is equally abominable, and their own life expectancy is short. Outside of Yvonne, a prisoner of cultural neglect who has to stay with a girlfriend for companionship, no one even hopes for a better existence. This is all there is.