Shot around 1958 using ends of studio reels, premiered at the Venice film festival in 1961, and never released during the director’s lifetime, Kent Mackenzie’s The Exiles resurfaced for screenings a few years ago on the festival circuit thanks to the clips Thom Andersen included in Los Angeles Plays Itself (2003). Just those strikingly impressive fragments stand as enough proof that The Exiles must be one of the most meaningful documents about the city circa 1960, but watching the entire film confirms it.
Mackenzie was born in London in 1930, moved to the US, studied a little film, made a few shorts and two features and died when he was 50. The Exiles, his major contribution to filmmaking, proves that he was a talented and personal artist. But there is much more in The Exiles, starting with its subject, one that four decades later remains fresh and original enough to place the film amongst the leading ethnographic exhibits about urban life in the 20th century.
At first glance we are witness to a piece of classical neo-realism. The film takes place over 12 hours —from mid-afternoon to dawn—with a group of Native Americans in a popular neighborhood called Bunker Hill (now, as Andersen details, essentially vanished). It begins with rather conventionally classical stills of Native Americans, photographed by Edward Curtis, with a voiceover that reminds the viewer how those folks have been abused by the whites and confined to reservations. With such an introduction, combined with the fact that actors play themselves to—say nothing of the title—we are prepared to watch a film about misery, exploitation, and pangs of homesickness. But a few minutes later, there’s a scene where a woman is shopping, and we hear her thoughts: she’s pregnant, eager to have her baby, and she’s glad to be in town, not stuck on the reservation.
This kind of ambiguity is never resolved in The Exiles. Of course, this is not a film about people who fulfilled the American dream in spite of a racially imposed glass ceiling. Yvonne and Homer, the film’s poor main couple, don’t live in a rose garden. Homer is an alcoholic who leaves Yvonne every night to go out drinking with his male friends, while she goes to the movies alone. This kind of solitude—one with unstable family life, and poor interpersonal communication—made some critics consider despair to be at the film’s core. Manohla Dargis’ New York Times review ran under the tile: “Despair and Poetry at Margins of Society.” Just as often, Mackenzie’s work is seen in the company of John Cassavetes’ Shadows (1959). But I don’t see those comparisons at all. First of all, because Mackenzie depicts the individual failure to adapt to more bourgeois values, but, just as importantly, the suffering of the protagonists appears to be the background for his depiction of city life, not the other way around.
What really is striking in watching The Exiles is the non-stop pace of the action, the terrific black-and-white cinematography and, above all, the absolutely dense soundtrack, full of music from that period blaring from the omnipresent radios and jukeboxes (mainly rock, but also jazz, boogie, blues), and the Indian percussion that the characters play in their gatherings on top of Hill X. The first scene of the film takes place in a market, full of people and goods, fish and fruit. The formal device employed in The Exiles is plenitude, and, as a whole, contrasts with the bleak scarceness of the portraits shot against the background of desert landscapes. This plenitude is especially remarkable in a film whose characters probably earn the lowest wages in the whole city. It’s really surprising that these Native Americans, who live in a poor area, are able to enjoy the advantages of a nightlife that, by today’s standards, seems splendid. Leaving no margin at all for doubt, The Exiles shows that the distance between the rich and the poor in the US was immensely smaller than it is now.
The streets of Bunker Hill by night may come across as a provincial, maybe marginal, version of Broadway, but they are still full of lights, of bars, dancing places, movie theaters—all kinds of joints. Such places don’t exist today for lower-class people. The places are packed and they explode with sound and energy. Everybody seems to want a piece of the action: smoking, drinking, dancing, laughing, flirting, gambling, driving around, even picking fights. Those bars seem open to everyone; there’s even a glimpse of the gay scene in town. And money never seems to be a problem. Everything looks pretty cheap, and everybody seems able to get a friend of a friend to pay for a drink. That explosion of energy is what makes The Exiles so unique, so against the grain of the average political or ethnographic film.
This kind of night fever goes on well past closing time, peaking with a marvelous party at the top of Los Angeles, where people dance and sing and fistfight and dance again and, finally, make love, eventually returning home as people are headed to work, taking the marvelous cable car that the film immortalizes. Of course, all this excitement doesn’t prevent the characters from the sadness, the loneliness, and the violence inside—the sense of not belonging and of being discriminated. There is one key scene where two Indian couples go drinking and driving , ending up at a gas station where a young blond man has to fill up the tank. The camera captures the racial tension, but also a strange sense of freedom, of a dangerous and intoxicating sense of freedom and rebelliousness. One of the characters says that he doesn’t mind spending some time in prison, and, at that moment, the sense of freedom is paradoxically at its peak.
The Exiles is, of course, about being Indian, and about being poor and being displaced. But there is a direct approach to those issues, one not veiled by hypocrisy nor political correctness—starting from the fact that in those days the protagonists weren’t referred to as Native American. It’s no wonder then than Charles Burnett, a filmmaker who’s always been concerned with removing the clichéd stigmas surrounding racial issues, is involved in the current theatrical launching of the film.
It can be argued that if we watch The Exiles from the perspective of today, we tend to regard certain things as unusual when, in fact, back then they were perfectly normal. But that would be a mistake. For one thing, we haven’t been witness to those days, and in many cases we were not able to imagine them—until The Exiles. Cinema didn’t think of those places, nor those people: they were invisible. But there is more than that. There are not many films that deal with the obvious, but so important, theme of the film: the proletarian class having fun. There are a couple of masterpieces in that genre through film history: Murnau’s Sunrise (1927), Renoir’s Partie de campagne (1936). The Exiles fits perfectly well in that company.