Sunday, September 13, 2020

The Exiles (1961)

THE EXILES             A-                   
USA  (72 mi)  1961  d:  Kent Mackenzie

A remarkable record of a city that has vanished.    —Thom Andersen, 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, the same neighborhood depicted a few years earlier by Joseph Losey in M (1951), where huge, sprawling Victorian mansions overlook the city and cheap hotels are squeezed between old houses, with the Angels Flight tramway traversing the steep incline of the hill, where in the space of 12 hours they go on an all-night drinking binge, which is literally like opening a time capsule to a different era, but despite the vintage cars and the dated vernacular of the times (a trolley ride is only 5 cents, haircuts 25 cents, while gas is a whopping 27 cents a gallon), 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, the Exiles #1 1961 Native American History Conformity YouTube (21:16).  More than a century later, they’re still searching for it.  It’s an undisputed fact that on the East coast Mohawk Indians helped construct many of New York City’s tallest skyscrapers, as they supposedly possess no fear of heights (The Mohawks Who Built Manhattan - Native Village), but American Indians born on U.S. soil were only granted full citizenship in 1924, yet voting rights were still denied by individual states for several decades, where the final state to grant full citizenship was New Mexico in 1962, only then becoming free members of American society, coming several years “after” this was filmed, and nearly 100 years after the freedom of slaves.  In the 50’s and 60’s, in one of the untold historical migrations, many young people moved off the reservations into the cities in search of a better life, many who served in the army together, with Los Angeles becoming a primary destination.  By 1960 Los Angeles had the largest urban concentration of American Indians in the country, but few found opportunities awaiting them, a harsh reality this film reflects.  The camera initially 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 - REVELLION (Impact) YouTube (1:12), getting as drunk as possible on rotgut Thunderbird and Lucky Lager beer. 

Coming between Morris Engel’s Little Fugitive (1953), John Cassavetes’ Shadows (1959), and Shirley Clarke’s The Cool World (1964), the film captures the raw, independent spirit of American films, arguably the spiritual cousin of Charles Burnett’s Killer of Sheep (1978), as both are neorealist black-and-white independent films that use a documentary style to explore how minorities survive in downtrodden regions of Los Angeles, both named to the Library of Congress National Film Registry.  Literally unseen for decades, never finding a distributor, despite premiering at the 1961 Venice Film Festival and making the cover of Film Quarterly magazine, lingering out of sight until Thomas Andersen sought rights from Mackenzie’s family (as the director died at age 50 in 1980) to feature footage in his amazing documentary Los Angeles Plays Itself (2003), it was restored in 2008 by preservationist Ross Lipman and the UCLA Film & Television Archive, who was responsible for the restoration of Killer of Sheep as well, comprised of three different storylines, almost as if they’ve been stitched together, offering uniquely differing perspectives, as they aren’t always on the same track.  There is barely any trace of anyone who is non-Indian, maintaining a separate communal presence in such a large urban environment, existing in their own figurative island, subject, for the most part, to their own laws and rituals.  The luscious black and white photography by cinematographers John Morrill, Erik Daarstad, and Robert Kaufman is extraordinary throughout, particularly the night photography, shot on a 35mm Arriflex, 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 (bulldozed for Dodger Stadium) after the bars have closed at 2 am 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, If you ever fall for someone - YouTube (1:36).  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. 

British/American filmmaker Kent Mackenzie endeared himself to Bunker Hill and the people who lived there while a student at the University of Southern California, completing his graduate film project, a documentary entitled BUNKER HILL (1956) that featured old, dilapidated tenement homes in the city’s most crowded neighborhood, with poor elderly pensioners concerned about the city’s plans to demolish the neighborhood, as there was no similar low-rental district in the city.  Using leftover film stock and working with fellow film students for no pay, he shot this film in 1958, using borrowed equipment and spending a lot of time with a group of young Native Americans that lived in Bunker Hill, where the original budget was only $539, but a good deal of it was spent on alcohol, where the heavy alcohol consumption in this film is literally scary, certainly part of the overall story, but there is some question about the degree to which the director actually enables or contributes to abhorrent social behavior, including woman continually forced to fend off the predatory sexual behavior of inebriated men, seen getting punched at one point, as the alcohol certainly contributes to a perception of violence, and while not shown in the film, rape is certainly not out of the question.  Women are either pursued sexually, with men continually grabbing at them, or completely ignored, like Yvonne at home, with men only turning to them for money.  One could argue about whether this is even a documentary film, whether it might have been more powerful without fictionalized re-enactments, like the director (in glasses) placing himself behind Yvonne in the movie theater, but as is, we have never gotten such an unflinchingly realistic glimpse of Indians carousing, particularly wandering in and out of bars they frequent, offering a social portrait on being poor and being Indian that is simply remarkable, with three figures narrating their own extended sequences in the film.  Perhaps the real revelation at the time of the release was seeing Indians doing such ordinary things, like window shopping, going to the movies, buying groceries, driving cars, or pumping gas, as American film had never portrayed this before.  Indians in westerns were always seen on horses living in teepees, which makes this film all the more enduring, seen in an urban environment where they have blended into the popular culture of the 50’s, rebellious outcasts who are capable of controlling their own destinies.  To its credit, this film features transplants from the San Carlos Apache Tribe in Arizona, but also members of other tribes, men and women who have never been welcome anywhere except in the company of other Indians, all living hardscrabble lives in a fringe world where arrests and police intervention are the norm, 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.  What’s uniquely relevant in the film is the focus on subjects rarely seen in front of cameras before, offering sympathetic views of young men and women that 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.  


John Patterson from The Guardian, February 17, 2010, The lure of the night | Documentary films | The Guardian 

To add texture and verisimilitude, ­Mackenzie asked his actors to speak of their own lives, and their hardscrabble ways led to certain continuity ­problems.  “Characters’ facial features were altered by fist-fights, their ­costumes ripped in brawls or stolen while they were drunk,” Mackenzie wrote.  Nonetheless, the impression is of a proto-beatnik brotherhood, tearing up the night to a honking soundtrack by the Revels.  The Exiles is anything but depressing or admonitory.

And then it vanished.  David James, head of film at USC, suggests two ­reasons for this.  Firstly, The Exiles worked in a documentary style that was soon to become obsolete for 20 years. “It was poetic, visually striking, great 35mm stock.  But around this time, cinema verité was coming in: 16mm, handheld, sync sound, and instead of prizing visual appearance, film-makers now prized authenticity and non-intervention, so this kind of documentary was discredited.”

Secondly, says James, “by the ­beginning of the next decade, the 70s, the civil rights movement had entered into film culture and minority­ peoples had started demanding­ the right to represent themselves.  So the idea of a white male representing Native ­American people was discredited.”

Mackenzie went on to work as an ­editor on industrial shorts, medical films and TV documentaries, mostly with a progressive bent, throughout the 60s and 70s, and taught high-school classes in Marin County on Super-8 film-making.  He died young, in 1980, of complications from ­medication he was taking.

Dennis Doros, of Milestone Films, which has restored The Exiles, says the cast fared badly in later life.  He tried to track them down for its release, with little luck.  “Homer died young.  Most of the others too, in their 30s and 40s.  Yvonne is the only one who is still alive.  She had two babies during the production, and they both died.  It’s a problem for her, seeing the movie.  If you’re drinking and partying, particularly if you’re poor, dying young is something that happens more often.” 

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