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The Exiles

Kent Mackenzie’s The Exiles is what esoteric film fanatics are talking about when they refer to a hidden gem. The film was shot in the late ‘50s and early ‘60s and completed in 1961, but has remained largely unseen for the past 48 years. Milestone Film and Video has beautifully restored The Exiles, and prepared it for DVD release (along with lots of very good extras) this November. At once profound, seedy, sweeping and intimate, The Exiles chronicles a particular (and often ignored) moment in mid-20th century American history.

The film closely chronicles the lives of Native Americans living in Los Angeles in the gritty Bunker Hill neighborhood moving through the night to the sounds of good time rock ‘n’ roll. A group of loosely interconnected American Indians has left Southwestern reservations to look for work and a better, or at least different, life in L.A.

The Exiles opens depicting the Native American in a more “traditional” atmosphere—set against a soundtrack of chanting and beating drums, viewers see the iconic Edward Curtis photograph of Navajo on horseback crossing Canyon de Chelly, and portraits that 20th-century Americans so often associate with “Indians”. A male voice that sounds like Ward Cleaver informs us of the plight of the Indian: his wandering ways, rich traditions, and how he was forced to settle on confining reservations. We’ve heard this before, the white man lecturing about the condition of the Indian. This narration would be condescending if it was recorded today, but considering the time, it leans towards earnest rather than demeaning.

We abruptly break from visions of the prophetic American West to the busy streets of L.A. Wide Cadillacs with wings, dingy storefronts, and the bustle of people dominate the scene. Voice-over narration continues throughout The Exiles, but after the introduction, the characters speak for themselves. While this technique could be cheesy, it comes off as surprisingly moving. Mackenzie offers thoughtful close-ups of his character’s faces while they’re speaking, and the authenticity of their words is striking. (The actors wrote the monologues, based on their own real-life experiences). The actors also look like ‘real’ people (young and old, ugly and attractive), because they are.

The narrative most closely focuses on Homer and Yvonne, a recently married couple. Yvonne is pregnant, and spends large portions of her days alone: grocery shopping, looking at window displays, and going to the movies to watch Westerns by herself. We meet Yvonne’s husband, Homer, when she returns from her shopping. He’s sitting around the house with his buddies, waiting for darkness to fall so he can venture out and begin the usual nightly business of drinking, cards, and convertibles.

Homer and friends drop Yvonne off at the movies before they descend into debauchery. She stands alone in front of the movie theater, clutching her purse. Yvonne’s mouth is full and expressive, and the corners of her lipsticked mouth droops as she watches her husband drive away. The sight of Yvonne solitary and all dressed up is enough to break your heart, and make you hate the boys. Yvonne is complacent and sad, but she’s not stupid. She stays with Homer because he’s the father of her unborn child, and because she has nowhere else to go.

Homer himself would be more sympathetic if he didn’t leave his sad, beautiful wife standing alone beneath the marquee, and continue to exhibit passivity throughout the film. Outside a liquor store, against a backdrop of booze, Homer reads a letter from his parents. He narrates a flashback to his home in the Arizona desert. Speaking a mix of their own language and English, Homer’s family relaxes and works around their home, which is stark and bleak in the bleaching Arizona sun.

No subtitles or explanations are offered when Homer’s family speak their own language, which is as it should be. The scene is natural and so far from contrived that subtitles would interfere. What the family is actually saying is not important, though we catch the gist when they lapse into English. The un-translated dialogue emphasizes the separateness of Homer’s life in Bunker Hill. We view Homer’s family through his recollections: their abject poverty, his sister in a plaid school uniform, his father sitting beneath a tree in scarce shade. Homer is clearly glad he’s not back on the reservation, but carries a melancholy (and the letter) with him throughout his poker playing and whiskey- drinking.

The Exiles clearly recognizes and articulates the significance of a small subset of the population: Native Americans who’ve left their home turf in search of something more, but find themselves adrift and misunderstood in the wider world. They band together to little effect. Yvonne mentions that Homer and his friends don’t work, that they drink to excess, and at several points manhandle or force themselves on women that aren’t their wives. All of this is treated as a matter of course.

Perhaps when they arrived in Los Angeles, things were different, Homer and his pals were hopeful about finding work and changing the status quo. On the surface, they look like any ’50s greasers in white t-shirts, wearing blue jeans and just the right amount of leather. But there’s a crackling unrest in their movements—the way they swig a beer, lose at cards, grip the steering wheel. The characters are aware that all is not well (as much is revealed in the voice-over narration, too) but remain in a state of controlled chaos; one gets the sense that something’s about to erupt.

The treatment of women in The Exiles reflects the subtle, though constant discontent among the men. There are several instances of casual violence: the men press themselves on the women they meet at the bar, laughing but clearly not joking around. Once they set off in the convertible, one of the female cohorts pays to fill up at the tank, only to be abandoned at the gas station. At one point, in the wee hours of the morning on “Hill X” overlooking the city, a buddy of Homer’s pins a girl against a car, and when she struggles, slaps her and walks away. Homer watches this leaning on a nearby car hood with no action or comment.

His seeming disregard reminds us of Yvonne, who has walked herself home from the movies. Yvonne spends the night with a female friend and seems content enough, if lonely. Her husband’s absence is clearly a regular occurrence. By chance, Yvonne wakes up at the end of the film, just as dawn is breaking. Out the window of her neighbor’s apartment, she spots Homer and his friends stumbling home in their cowboy boots, arms draped around the girls from the bar. Yvonne’s expression doesn’t change.

Like her husband’s mask of complacency through his wild night, she has resigned herself. Homer and Yvonne’s simultaneous solitude, whether alone or among comrades, marginalizes them within their own community– they are the exiled among exiles.

The Exiles comes packed with a wealth of special extras. While interesting, the other Kent Mackenzie features included with The Exiles don’t come close to matching the stark beauty and unexpected profundity of the main attraction. Also directed by Mackenzie is A Skill for Molina, about Native American/ Latino/ black men going back to school to learn to become a welders and other trades.

Molina comes off as government propaganda, which in fact, it is. (The end credits reveal that the short film was produced by the US Department of Labor and the Education Bureau of California.) Story of a Rodeo Cowboy also directed by Mackenzie is like a ’50s TV special, showcasing the glamour and the harsh realities of a traveling cowboy side by side. Both films feel dated in their voice-over narration and unfortunately unsynched dubbing. (This is a problem in The Exiles, too, but is less noticeable.)

Ivan and his Father is much more naturalistic. A group of white and black teenagers (again, not actors) sit around communicating in a sort of group therapy. The therapy itself is hilarious to jaded 21st century eyes (they actually role play with one another). The ‘comedy’ extends to the hairstyles, clothing (argyle, loafers, varsity jackets) and use of words like “patsy”, but is meant to be serious. Ivan and his Father demonstrates Mackenzie’s commitment to cinéma vérité, but much of the original poignancy may be lost on contemporary viewers.

Bunker Hill 1956 is a USC graduate student project, which also features real Bunker Hill neighborhood residents, though the people in the film are white. Bunker Hill 1956 provides a different perspective on the area, and uses voiceover monologue technique similar to that of the The Exiles.

Bunker Hill: A Tale of Urban Renewal provides interesting and valuable historical context about the neighborhood since the Civil War. Understanding the many influences on the area (ranchers, the advent of the railroad, the construction of Angels Flight streetcar) if extraneous, lends new depth to The Exiles. Learning about how the entire neighborhood has been destroyed and rebuilt many times enhances a viewing of the film.

White Fawn’s Devotion is purportedly the first film completed by a Native American director. The style is typical of silent film: three acts, lots of gesticulating and the use of intertitles. The depiction of Native Americans and their behavior is gruesome and cartoonish, though this is difficult to avoid in early cinema when all characterizations tend to be reduced and obvious.

Perhaps most notably included are interviews with Sherman Alexie, the director of Smoke Signals, and a Coeur d’Alene Indian (his term of choice) who was involved with the restoration of The Exiles. Alexie is interviewed by independent film critic Sean Axmaker, and the two also provide commentary for The Exiles as an additional special feature. The commentary is funny and entertaining, and Alexie’s perspective as an Indian is appropriate and beneficial. Noting when Alexie laughs as well as when his explanations from his personal experience make the film more accessible to outsiders.

RATING 8 / 10