The Black Hole of the Camera

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The Exiles

Kent Mackenzie’s The Exiles (1961) actually causes us to rethink the beginning of the modern independent film movement. The Exiles has been compared by critics to John Cassavetes’ debut feature Shadows (1957-59), but it seems even more related to Alfred Leslie and Robert Frank’s beat classic Pull My Daisy (1959), especially in terms of its style and content. Thanks to sponsorship by Charles Burnett and Native-American writer Sherman Alexie (Smoke Signals), the superb restoration of the film by Ross Lipman of the UCLA Film and Television Archive, and its recent re-release by the good folks at Milestone Films, this landmark independent film is finally gaining the serious attention it deserves.

The film’s focus on automobiles, bars, gas stations, juke boxes, neon lights, and advertising recalls Robert Frank’s photographic essay, The Americans, first published in 1959. It doesn’t share the same “snapshot aesthetic” of Frank, but rather incongruously harkens back to the pictorialism of Walker Evans, giving it the photographic texture of an even earlier time period. Yet it presents a similar view of alienation and anomie as that of Robert Frank – a shared outsider perspective – by concentrating on a group of American Indians adrift in the urban landscape of the Bunker Hill section of Los Angeles during the Eisenhower Era. Jack Kerouac wrote in the introduction of The Americans that Robert Frank “sucked a sad poem right out of America onto film, taking rank among the tragic poets of the world.” The same could be said for Kent Mackenzie, but the difference is that The Exiles has languished in obscurity for nearly fifty years.

Mackenzie, who went to film school at USC, made the film over a three-year period. Despite being screened at the prestigious Venice Film Festival, The Exiles was unable to gain theatrical release. This should come as no surprise given the fact that Hollywood was a closed system, which made it virtually impossible for independents to get their work shown in commercial theaters that had union projectionists. MacKenzie made only two features in a brief career before passing away in 1980 at the age of fifty. His other film, Saturday Morning (1970), a cinéma vérité documentary about a teenage encounter group – a film I actually saw at the time – also had difficulty being released, but it eventually did receive very limited theatrical exhibition. Although Mackenzie thought of The Exiles as a “restaged” documentary in the poetic tradition of Robert Flaherty, it really seems more like a “plotless” narrative rooted in realism. In many ways, it’s exactly the type of cinema Jonas Mekas was actively promoting during this period through his lavish praise of the first version of Shadows, Pull My Daisy, and Ron Rice’s The Flower Thief (1960).

There’s an ethnographic quality to The Exiles. Mackenzie, an outsider to the Native-American subculture he obsessively was documenting, reportedly hung out with the film’s main participants over this extended period of time. He involved them creatively in the project, followed them around and recorded their behavior and conversations. Much of the dialogue in The Exiles was not recorded synch sound, but later dubbed in post-production. It also includes voiceover narration and a prologue containing historical photographs of American Indians by Edward Curtis, who attempted to document their traditional life style before it disappeared, providing a context for the displacement we see in the film, which was partially the result of a voluntary government plan, The Urban Indian Relocation Program, that paid Native Americans to relocate to large cities.

The dubbed dialogue, voiceover narration, and deliberate restaging of events for the camera could be criticized as heavy-handed techniques that detract from the authenticity of The Exiles. There are several scenes – the card game, for instance – where the camera seems to be on the wrong person in order to disguise the lack of synchronous dialogue, but these potential flaws are minor when compared to Mackenzie’s otherwise brilliant reliance on pure visual storytelling. Although the credits on the film indicate that it was “written, produced, and directed by Mackenzie,” at least according to John Morrill, one of the film’s three cinematographers: “There was never any script.” The resulting film is a visually stunning “twelve-hour” portrait of down-and-out American Indians, who seem not so different from the beat characters who populate Pull My Daisy.

The beats celebrated the social outcasts or underdogs of society, and no one could be more marginal than the likes of Yvonne Williams, Homer Nish, and Tommy Reynolds – the three principal characters Mackenzie chooses to follow in The Exiles. Ironically, the men seem to share the same sexist values as their fellow white hipsters, especially in their concern with being free from responsibility and predilection for male camaraderie. The women – much like Milo’s wife in Pull My Daisy – are merely there to administer to the needs of their husbands and children, to suffer physical abuse or dole out cash, while the guys get to carouse with friends and engage in all-night drinking binges. Despite the fact that this sobering portrait is based on a painful stereotype involving alcoholism, Mackenzie’s empathy for his characters manages to trump political correctness in this instance. Sherman Alexie has defended the film as an important document of a neglected aspect of Native-American urban culture. He told Dennis Lim: “It’s a little problematic in that it’s a white guy’s movie about us. But in learning how the film was made, I think people will discover it was truly collaborative. The filmmakers ended up in the position of witness as much as creator.”

The film opens with a sustained drum beat over Edward Curtis photographs. The narrator solemnly intones: “Once the American Indian lived in the ordered freedom of his own culture. Then in the nineteenth century, the white man confined him within the boundaries of the tribal reservation. The old people remembered the past. They witnessed great changes. Many of their children stayed on the reservation. But others of a new generation wandered into the cities.” The initial narration concludes that the film “reflects a life that is not true of all Indians today, but typical of many.” As much a city portrait of downtown Los Angeles as one of an American Indian subculture trying to survive within it, we first meet the pensive and pregnant Yvonne as she shops at a public market. Yvonne is happy that she’ll at least get to have a child she wants even if the rest of her life, especially her marriage to Homer, is already imbued with a sense of resignation and disappointment.

Yvonne’s arrival home with the groceries is met with utter silence by Homer and his friend, who sit reading comic books and listening to rock music, while another guy sleeps on the bed. As she makes dinner for the men, Yvonne conjectures: “If I hadn’t met him, I probably would have been all right maybe at what I wanted. I’ve tried to be a good wife. I did everything that I thought it would satisfy him like cooking for him when he comes home and ironing his clothes. I always have his clothes ready for him in case he wants to go somewhere.” Also a political commentary on the situation of women in general in the 1950s, The Exiles is extremely sympathetic to their plight. Homer drops Yvonne off at the movies, but, as she complains and we later observe for ourselves, he often neglects to pick her up.

Homer provides his own narration by explaining that bars provide excitement and an opportunity to “get in a fight or something.” He discusses being a high school dropout, coinciding with his starting to drink, which accelerates after he gets discharged from the military. As Homer reads a letter from home, there’s a dissolve from a snapshot of his folks to his actual family in Arizona, providing a striking contrast to his current life in Los Angeles as he waits in front of a liquor store for his friend to buy more booze. Homer later claims, “Truthfully, man, I think . . . white people got more troubles than the Indians do, you know. They usually have . . . something on their mind all the time. My people mostly roamed all over the place two, three hundred years ago, before the white man came in. I’d rather be in that time than I would, you know, in this time now.”

Homer and his buddies still roam like their ancestors, but it’s to each other houses to get cash from their wives, gamble at cards, pick up women in bars, and go for joy rides in their cars. In an extended scene at a gas station, Tommy puts down straight life. He says: “I figure a person who lives a regular life lives in a worse world than I do because they want to live the way I do, but they just can’t do it.” Tommy later says, “When I’m in jail, I don’t worry about it because I can do time. I mean, time is just time to me. If I’m doing it outside, so I can do it inside.” When a woman named Mary takes too long in the bathroom, Tommy takes off without her. It says everything about his character. There’s a great scene at the Columbine Bar that epitomizes Homer. As music blares from the juke box, sloshed drunks with craggy faces sit around in stingy brims, and a gay white guy takes to the dance floor, there’s an underlying subtext of violence that finally explodes when Homer inevitably provokes a fistfight. This scene cuts to images of Yvonne looking in store windows as she’s forced to walk home alone from the movies and we hear her discuss her broken dreams: “I used to pray every night before I went to bed and ask for something that I wanted, and I never got it, or it seems like my prayers were never answered. So I just gave up.”

Although Yvonne remains on the straight path, her disillusionment makes her at least vulnerable, even as she reaffirms her resolve not to become like the others. She confesses, “Well, I stopped going to church and all that already, but I haven’t started drinking or hanging around Main Street yet. No, that will never come for me.” Yvonne hopes that Homer will change once she has the baby, but we sense that she knows in her heart this is unlikely. Instead of going home, Yvonne visits her friend Marilyn and sleeps over there to forget her loneliness. After the bars close, Homer heads up to Hill X, a haunt where American Indians go to drum, to sing traditional songs, and drink. Homer reflects on the tribal medicine man who used to chant all night when someone on the reservation got sick. Although some people dismiss the healing power of this as “fake,” Homer insists he’s seen it work. A huge fight breaks out among the men over a woman, who eventually pulls a shawl over her head and watches the night lights of the city from inside a convertible. The night landscape of downtown Los Angeles dissolves into morning, as church bells ring. Cable cars ascend and descend on “Angel’s Flight” next to the tunnel, while Yvonne and her friend are fast asleep. Homer and the other drunken revelers return. Yvonne wakes up and watches the three men and two women out the window as they stumble along and finally disappear down the street on the way to her house.

With the passing of time, Mackenzie’s The Exiles has become a memory piece – an ode to a place that no longer exists. There’s an irony in the fact that the government first encouraged the Native Americans to relocate from reservations to poor urban neighborhoods such as Bunker Hill only to bulldoze them soon afterwards under the guise of urban renewal, adding another layer of exile to those already exiled in their own country. Shot on 35mm, running a mere 72 minutes and completed the same year as the infamous First Statement of the New American Cinema Group in New York, The Exiles now takes its place among the seminal films of the independent film movement, alongside works by Morris Engel, John Cassavetes, Alfred Leslie and Robert Frank, Shirley Clarke, Ron Rice, Lionel Rogosin, and Jonas Mekas. Except for a handful of scholars and cinephiles, who knew until now that one of the most important beat films featured American Indians in Los Angeles?

Seeing The Exiles makes us view other indie films, such as Charles Burnett’s recently restored masterpiece Killer of Sheep (1977) – a work that also documents a minority neighborhood in Los Angeles by utilizing poetic realism, non-professional actors, and visual storytelling – in an entirely new light. The unfortunate neglect of Mackenzie’s The Exiles had consequences. As Burnett explains in an interview in indieWIRE: He [Mackenzie] was ten years ahead of me. I started in the late sixties and he started in the late fifties. He had already worked out his aesthetics, but I have only heard about him recently. It’s too bad he wasn’t known. I think it would have saved all of us a lot of experimenting.”

Special note to local readers of this blog: Kent Mackenzie’s The Exiles will screen on Saturday, September 20 at 7:30 PM at the UW Cinematheque, 4070 Vilas Hall. Mark your calendars!

Posted 26 August, 2008