The Exiles (1961) Directed by Kent Mackenzie. Yvonne Williams, Homer Nish, and Tommy Reynolds (72 min)
Young Native Americans cruise, drink, flirt and fight during one rowdy night in downtown LA. Not precisely either fiction or nonfiction, it’s an improvised hybrid of both using real people and situations. Never released theatrically, this film has been one of the great reissue discoveries of the year. “The movie walks a nightworld so crackling with unfocused energy—so alive with threat, promise, and raw honking rock ‘n’ roll, yet so limited in any sense of a future—that to enter it is to feel your blood surge.”—Village Voice
The Exiles was rediscovered when some of its gorgeous night photography of a vanished Los Angeles was included in a documentary called Los Angeles Plays Itself. The Exiles had never been released theatrically, in spite of the acclaim it received at the 1961 Venice Film Festival. The experimental form is so innovative, it must have been a film without an audience. Known only through dupes of dupes of old video tapes, Los Angeles Plays Itself’s director, Thom Anderson, contacted The Exiles‘ director Kent Mackenzie’s family for permission to use the clips. When the original elements proved too fragile for use, a full sized restoration effort was started. Milestone Films’ Dennis Doros and Amy Heller, organized a theatrical re-release to great acclaim, as he did with Charles Burnett’s Killer of Sheep. We’re proud to be able to present the regional revival premiere of this film.
Kent Mackenzie was born in 1930, to an American father and an English mother. He had a traditional British public school education. His father was the head of the AP’s London bureau in the 1930s, and in 1939, as the war broke out in Europe, the family moved to New York and his father become the AP’s foreign news analyst. Mackenzie continued his schooling both in England and the US, and graduated from Dartmouth College. His English literature professor there has just spent some time in Hollywood, and began teaching a script writing course that deeply engaged Mackenzie. His interest in Native American issues may have begun during a summer in Maine, where he was a tennis instructor, and Tom Two Arrows, an Onondaga Indian was a craft counselor. This formative friendship presumably helped Mackenzie develop sympathy for Native American culture. Two Arrows eventually became an artist and professional dancer.
Drafted into the military out of college, Mackenzie later attended USC on the GI bill, at the time an institution that nurtured those independents interested in moviemaking outside the major studios. His graduate thesis film “Bunker Hill 1956” about an LA neighborhood, won an award at the Edinburgh Film Festival. Inspired by one of his graduate professors to become a “film author,” he spent three years working on The Exiles, his masterpiece. He would make one other feature, Saturday Morning, and is the editor of the Academy Award winning Why Man Creates before dying at the age of 50 in 1980.
The Exiles evolved because Mackenzie had begun to hang around with the Indians, Chicanos and Filipinos in downtown LA. Many of them lived in Bunker Hill, a neighborhood that figured prominently in the fiction of Charles Bukowski, John Fante and Raymond Chandler. Built around 1910 as a tony neighborhood with hillside views for wealthy Angelenos, demolition was being planned by the city for the decaying mansions, ignoring the fact that the area was not blighted, but vibrant with life. Not only the buildings were torn down, but the hill itself was leveled, and the site is now the home to Frank Geary’s Walt Disney Concert Hall. Residents on the hill were served by the vanished Angel Flight funicular, rising up the side of the hill. The Second Street Tunnel still exists though, and has been the site of many film scenes, including a huge alien-induced traffic jam in Independence Day. And, I can’t help but speculate that this hill overlooking downtown LA was also the place that Harold Lloyd built his building climbing sets for Safety Last. He was always cagey about how and where he did it. The basic technique lined up built sets on a hill with the buildings downtown, to create a false, and dizzying perspective, and it makes sense to me that Bunker Hill was involved.
The Exiles is a hybrid of fiction and non-fiction film. Mackenzie taped monologues by some of the people he had befriended, and you hear these original tapes used as interior monologues in the film. At the time, there was a government program that encouraged Native Americans to leave the Reservation to look for work, and Los Angeles became a focal point of this diaspora. He asked the non-professional cast to reenact scenes from their lives for the camera, and some participants were recruited on the spot during filming. It was shot on the “short ends” the 100-200 remnants of film left over from 1000 ft reels, on an original budget of $579.00, the amount in his bank account. He later received other donations, including one from cinematographer Haskell Wexler. The camera was so noisy that all sound had to be dubbed in later, although this contributes to the sense of dreamy dislocation, or perhaps, just intoxication. It was shot by friends and colleagues on the fringes of the movie industry, in the spirit of new American independents like John Cassavetes and Shirley Clarke.
It takes place in twelve hours, between 4 pm and 4 am, but it took two years, and Yvonne, who is pregnant in the film, had three children during the production schedule. Yvonne Williams Walker fell into the part because Cliff, her husband at the time was in the film, although the part was recast with Homer Nish when Cliff could not get off work in the evenings for filming. Williams Walker said she was a loner by nature, an Apache from a reservation in White River Arizona, who worked as a housekeeper in LA. Reflecting on her experience, she said she was sorry she had made the film and didn’t want her kids to see it, perhaps because she had been too honest about her feelings, or the difficulty of watching the self destructiveness of her community. The US government agreed with her, terming in “a dismal picture of Indian life in the US.”
The observations of the main characters were the first to show the reality of modern Indian life without condescension, and were the forerunner of a Renaissance of Native American arts that began to percolate in the 1970s. As Sherman Alexie points out in an interview the film that he did with Chris Eyre, Smoke Signals is still the only movie written and directed by Native Americans that has ever received commercial distribution. Mackenzie wanted to avoid “the romance of poverty” and Alexie concurs that although some philosophers presume to think that lessons can be learned through economic deprivation, “poverty only teaches you how to be poor.” This look at Native American life is completely un-PC, but it dates from a time when it was considered unthinkable to have pride in your culture. Dennis Doros and Amy Heller of Milestone have sponsored ten or more screenings on Indian reservations, and the response has been positive, and the Indians grateful for this reclamation of their history. Fueled by the hard driving rock and roll of the Revels (whose “Commanche” was featured in Pulp Fiction) The Exiles depicts a vanished moment in time, with a community of aimless, frustrated men and women, waiting in vain for something meaningful to happen in their lives.
Thanks to the Milestone Films website for background information..