Bunker back alley: Milestone and the Castro bring back a forgotten piece of naturalistic filmmaking. (Photo courtesy the Castro Theatre)

'The Exiles,' a Return Engagement

Dennis Harvey July 30, 2008

Despite a handful of more sympathetic portrayals (as in Anthony Mann’s 1950 The Devil’s Doorway), Hollywood’s record on Native American imagery before the late 1960s was one of condescension when not outright "savage" caricature. And that’s just counting the thousands of period-set Westerns—in movies about modern life, American Indians simply didn’t exist.

Ergo there was a startling sense of discovery for viewers when Kent Mackenzie’s The Exiles premiered in 1961 at the Venice and San Francisco International film festivals, then other such showcases over the next couple years. This long-in-making naturalistic drama was an unvarnished look at "twelve hours in the lives of a group of Indians who have come to Los Angeles, California." As a narrator briefly explains—following an initial montage showing classic 19th-century Edward S. Curtis still photographs of the last free Native generations—these residents, "exiled" both from traditional lifestyles and the urban mainstream, live in ways "not true of all Indians at the time…but true of many."

It’s not an inspirational portrait. Indeed, despite winning some festival prizes and considerable critical acclaim, The Exiles was considered too bleakly uncommercial for theatrical release. It gradually disappeared from even educational circulation. The idealistic Mackenzie, who died in 1980 at age 50, only got to complete one more feature (1973’s troubled-youth study Saturday Morning, also once-acclaimed but now MIA) plus a couple shorts and TV documentaries. The Exiles looked to stay just another intriguing footnote in film history until it was painstakingly restored from original materials by the UCLA Film & Television Archive in conjunction with the National Film Preservation Foundation and Milestone Films.

Now Milestone is giving it the national theatrical distribution that originally eluded. This week’s revival run at the Castro might strike many viewers as a real discovery, just as it did festivalgoers nearly 50 years ago—although perhaps for different reasons.

While Mackenzie and his crew (including three credited cinematographers, each hired because the others kept getting drafted) were just recent film school students with little or no professional experience, The Exiles emerges an unusually accomplished effort in both sensibility and craft. Its gleaming B&W 35mm photography crisply captures a city’s moody underbelly of tenements and honky tonks.

If much of this L.A. looks unfamiliar—even more than the passage of so much time should allow—keep in mind that Bunker Hill, the once wealthy downtown neighborhood that by the time of the film’s shooting had become a de facto working class/unemployed/minority ghetto, was virtually razed to the ground a few years later by a municipal government anxious to replace erase its "blight." So, goodbye charming if dilapidated old Victorians, hello massive new skyscrapers (plus in more recent years the Walt Disney Concert Hall, Museum of Contemporary Art, and other upscaling monuments). It was an area whose less reputable, gradually displaced aspects inspired much of Charles Bukowski’s writings.

Concentrated here was a populace nearly invisible to Greater Los Angeles’ white middle class majority: Next-generation Native Americans who’d left the remainders of the ancestors’ tribal lifestyles on rural reservations, seeking some place in the big city, but mostly finding precarious escapism with each other.

Perhaps attracted to cultural/social "exiles" because of his own dislocating background (his family moved between England and the U.S. five times before he was nine), Mackenzie befriended an Onondaga Indian while working at a summer camp between college terms. A few years later he traveled to the San Carlos Reservation in Arizona, discovering that one of its biggest problems (like other reservations) was the light of young people to urban areas. He’d already made a prize-winning short, Bunker Hill—1956, which had portrayed the plight of poor elderly residents there being evicted for new development.

With threadbare financing (which eventually stretched the film’s stop/start production to over three years), he began filming The Exiles using only real locations and nonprofessional actors he’d recruited from hanging around the Indian bar scene near 3rd and Main Streets. The latter helped write the script; their occasional voiceover narration was taken directly from the participants’ taped interviews. Thus it’s no "hardboiled" writerly pose when one muses, "When I’m in jail I don’t worry about it. Time is just time. I can do it inside or I can do it outside."

Yvonne (Yvonne Williams) shares a cluttered Bunker Hill house with a bunch of other twenty-to-thirtysomething "exiles." Nobody has a job—always trying to look on the bright side, she notes that at least her spouse Homer (Homer Nish) is supposedly looking for one—preferring instead to laze around most days, then go carousing at night. Pregnant, hoping things will somehow turn around ("He might change if he sees the baby," she notes wistfully of her mate), Yvonne no longer parties with the mob. Instead, she waits at home or goes to the movies, invariably getting stranded when Homer & co. fail to pick her up at the appointed hour.

Her quiet, lonely evening is contrasted with that of the men, who restlessly cruise the streets or dive into a familiar dive where a drink or three usually leads to a fight over nothing. Homer drifts into a private card game; handsome Mexican-Indian Tommy (Tommy Reynolds) tries pushing himself onto various women already fed up with being pawed or stuck with the check. The drunken night ends on "Hill X," where men gather to sing and dance to traditional chants—though the fighting, sexual aggression, and inebriation doesn’t end there. As dawn breaks, it’s clear this hapless, oddly joyless pursuit-of-fun cycle is doomed to be repeated again and again.

Depressing as all this sounds, The Exiles is no lurid expose, but simply a portrait of a societal sector just a half-step above Skid Row, outcast and unwanted by custodians of the "American Dream" Yvonne would so like to have one small piece of. Mackenzie considered his first feature a "documentary," at a time when no one batted an eye at that genre utilizing staged sequences or scripted dialogue, particularly when the "actors" were essentially "playing" themselves. (Today, decades after the arrival of cinema verite, such devices feel like cheating—peruse any arthouse and you’ll find particularly galling examples of evident manipulation posing as real-life spontaneity.)

Viewed as a drama-documentary hybrid, The Exiles is remarkably assured of what it wants to do and be. Its rough edges (like the obviously post-synched dialogue) somehow synch perfectly with the refined editorial and pictoral elements; if the performers are hardly polished, they are nonetheless instantly credible. Mackenzie sought not to make a "social documentary" in the case-pleading sense, simply wanting to show overlooked lives as they were. He succeeded in making what one might best describe as poetical reportage.