The Exiles opens with Edward Curtis’s photographs of traditional American Indian profiles and dwellings, flowing into photos of the rundown Bunker Hill neighborhood of Los Angeles, where American Indian exiles from the southwest reservations lived in great numbers from the late 1950s to the early 60s. This black and white film is a luminous beauty, screening at the Walker Art Center in a recently rediscovered and newly restored 35mm print.
|the exiles, a movie directed by kent mackenzie. playing from january 16-18 at the walker art center, 1750 hennepin ave., minneapolis. for tickets ($8) and information, see walkerart.org.|
Kent MacKenzie’s 1961 debut as a “film author” is lovingly crafted in its stark, unflinching social realism. The Exiles is introduced by MacKenzie as “a true account of 12 hours of American Indian lives in the city of L.A.—not true of all, but of many.” Once-glorious mansions, the seedy skid row apartment buildings of Bunker Hill (celebrated in the novels of Raymond Chandler and Charles Bukowski) were eventually razed to make way for skyscrapers.
Bunker Hill residents Yvonne Williams, Homer Nish, and Tommy Reynolds describe their lives, hopes, philosophy, and actions in voiceovers culled from interviews. Williams, Nish, and Reynolds were three young American Indian exiles moved from reservations as part of a federal urban relocation in the late 50s. They hoped to experience new ways of life in the big city—make a living, send their children to college, enjoy the culture of the city. Instead, the men became part of an endless cycle of nightly barhopping, drinking, gambling, picking up women, and fighting, while the women stayed at home trying to hold things together, daydreamed at movies, and tried to hang onto the rent money their men squandered.
American Indian writers and activists have long considered The Exiles to be one of the first works to portray their modern lives honestly and, notes the film’s Web site, as “an important forerunner for the cultural renaissance of American Indian fiction, poetry, filmmaking and theater starting in the 1970s.” An early camp counselor of MacKenzie’s, Tom Two Arrows, likely influenced the director’s interest in the problems of American Indians. For at least a year before MacKenzie began filming The Exiles, he hung out at downtown L.A. bars such as the Ritz and the Columbine, which became settings for the film. There he hung out with people—including the people who acted in the film—and got to know them. Later, MacKenzie and his cast recreated moments MacKenzie observed during that time.
Like John Cassavates, MacKenzie produced and directed this early film in the direction independent films were going: grim, gritty, and authentic, with no apologies, pity, or judgment. The Exiles is gripping in its heartbreaking depiction of moments of thoughtless cruelties and its overall sense of hopelessness, contrasted with the beauty of the characters’ blithe oblivion and sense of freedom in spite of their poverty and self-destructive ways. Mindless cruelties, impulsive actions, and quandaries between reality and dreams permeate the film. Long, poetic slices of time pass by like a warm, heavy blanket as the characters watch and wait and walk: Homer drinking beers, becoming bored sitting around, and picking a fight as a result of his restlessness. Pregnant Yvonne, dropped off by her husband Homer at the movies—usually not to be picked back up—sits alone and lonely. While watching Yvonne walk from rich shopping areas downtown into the slums, we hear her narration of how she might be better off without her husband, but she doesn’t want to go back to the rez and hopes the baby will change things.
Tommy, an irresponsible young hep cat who’s a player always looking for a good time, says he doesn’t want a “regular” life “with poached eggs and Ovaltine every morning, going to bed the same time every night. I see good days and bad days. I get my kicks.” Tommy does note that their lives are “like a merry-go-round. Day-to-day becomes months, then a year’s gone by.” The viewer tangibly feels the restlessness, the alluring charms of nights in the bar with the new rock ‘n’ roll music, the dancing and drinking, as well as the harrowing breakneck drunk-driving car scene through a tunnel, driver and passengers wildly oblivious. Brief moments of clarity and nostalgia, such as those triggered by a letter from the rez, are snuffed by booze and carousing, or by daydreaming about the future or resignation to the repetition. A nightly after-party on X Hill depicts a strange dichotomy of traditional drumming and singing with drinking and fighting, then going home at dawn to begin the cycle again.
Cyn Collins (email@example.com) is a Twin Cities freelance arts and culture writer. She is the author of West Bank Boogie, a substitute programmer at KFAI, and an assistant producer of Write On Radio.