Rediscovered, restored, and finally released theatrically, Kent Mackenzie's <i>The Exiles</i> is a lost film that has been hiding in plain sight for almost fifty years. Filmed in 1958 and 1959, premiered in 1961, given a limited non-theatrical release in 1964, it was kept in
circulation for many years by the University of California Extension Media Center. Unfortunately, however, they only made it available in poor-quality 16mm prints, and the VHS-tapes they sold were even worse. Moreover, the film's depiction of displaced, alienated Indians has not been fashionable. It's hardly a positive portait of an under-represented minority. It's just a movie about drunken Indians and the women they mistreat or neglect.
Is <i>The Exiles</i> a lost (or forgotten) masterpiece then? It begins unpromisingly with a montage of vintage Edward Curtis photographs and a self-conscious, almost apologetic voiceover (a sequence added after some preview screenings) that ends with these two sentences: «What follows is the authentic account of twelve hours in the lives of a group of Indians who have come to Los Angeles, California. It reflects a life that is not true of all Indians today, but typical of many.» Doesn't this claim to authenticity beg all the questions about crossscultural representation that have troubled film-makers since the 1960s? Today, however, such considerations seem, at best, irrelevant. What can I say? We are all Indians now. As the condition of external and internal displacement that it documents becomes more and more commonplace, <i>The Exiles</i> has come to look like the first movie of the twenty-first century.
Mackenzie may have been a naïve liberal lacking epistemological sophistication, but he was one of those rare directors (Leo McCarey is perhaps the greatest) who loves his characters and manages to keep them sympathetic no matter how badly they act. Mackenzie wrote in his pressbook: «I wanted to show their own point of view in the film if I could.» I believe that he did. He accords each of the three primary characters a series of interior monologues rendered in voiceover and distilled from interviews he conducted with the three main actors (Yvonne Williams, Homer Nish, and Tommy Reynolds). Each voice is quite distinct in attitude and inflection; each voice is eloquent. Yvonne still lives for the future (she is pregnant) although her hopes have grown dimmer; her wayward husband Homer cannot escape from a half-imagined past («Our people used to roam all over the place ... I'd rather be in that time than in this time now.»); Tommy lives without any sense of past or future («Just going round and round. Before you know it, maybe a year's gone by, and it's still the same ... Time is just time to me.»).
What is most remarkable in <i>The Exiles</i> is Mackenzie's special sense of time and sense of place. As Simone Weil writes in «Gravity and Grace»: «Time is unreal, yet we must submit to it.» So we drink, to stop time or at least suspend it. In the rhythms of his film, Mackenzie manages to simulate this alcoholic time. In its most amazing sequence, a drive through the Third Street Tunnel under Bunker Hill in a top-down convertible that lasts over a minute (in reality, the drive takes about fifteen seconds), he slows down time, even suspending it in certain images that jump out of the film like still photos: a bottle of beer held aloft as the lights of the tunnel pass overhead, sparks flying off the end of a cigarette and becoming fireworks in the dark.
In another sequence, objective time and subjective time are directly superimposed as in D. W. Griffith's Abraham Lincoln (while Lincoln proposes to Anne Rutledge, the outside world presented in long shots
framing the scene stands still): while his friend Rico buys a bottle of Gallo Thunderbird wine in a liquor store, Homer stands outside on the street reading a letter from his parents. There is a kind of flashback or reverie evoking Homer's earlier life in the Arizona countryside. An elder performs a traditional chant, women play around him, children run about, a man rides a horse off into the distance. The film has entered dream time. The flashback lasts almost three minutes and is framed by shots of a transaction that would take only a few seconds.
Mackenzie filmed intermittently for two years, but he chose to impose on his film a strict unity of time: twelve hours compressed into seventy minutes. Friday night and Saturday morning, just before sunset to just after sunrise. This temporality allows Mackenzie to replace drama with description (nothing out of the ordinary happens) and to reveal the degradation of time against which the Indians must struggle. Near the end of the film, after the bars have closed at 2 a.m., some ot them drive up to Hill X, a bit of open space on a hilltop overlooking downtown Los Angeles, a place where, as Homer puts it, «we can just be free and turn it loose» without anyone bothering them or watching them. There they try to reclaim that cyclical, preindustrial time for which Homer yearns. But their effort to revive the old cermonies and solidarities breaks up into almost desultory sexual assaults and fistfights.
Like all the other places of refuge the Indians found in Los Angeles, Hill X didn't survive the 1960s. <i>The Exiles</i> is the most concrete and detailed record we have of these doomed spaces. Mackenzie was well aware of their fragility, and that knowledge is perhaps what gives his film its special sense of place. He knew that in 1955 the Community Redevelopment Agency had passed a death sentence on Bunker Hill, the hillside neighborhood of run-down rooming houses where the Indians could find affordable living space (a few years earlier, he had made a short documentary film defending the community and lamenting its imminent demise).
Only gentrification could have saved Bunker Hill as a residential neighborhood. It was too early or too late. The destruction of the old Bunker Hill is now regarded as a great civic tragedy, and it has spawned rivers of crocodile tears. But if it had somehow been saved, the city would destroy it all over again. The collection of office towers, business hotels, and cultural palaces that replaced the rooming houses of Bunker Hill have became emblematic of «postmodern hyperspace», thanks to Fredric Jameson's essay «Postmodernism or The Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism». A walk around Bunker Hill today can be frustrating for anyone accustomed to a traditional city grid, but some of the vistas this cityscape provides are stunning. I'd call it «postindustrial sublime».
The bars on Main Street lost their customers when Bunker Hill was depopulated, and they soon closed. Hill X was leveled even before <i>The Exiles </i>was released, for the construction of Dodger Stadium. At least, there are still a few places like it left in Los Angeles, but where they are I'll never tell.
This film is screened together with <filmlink id=\"2792\">Bunker Hill</filmlink>.
1956, Kent Mackenzie
- Homer Nish
- Tom Reynolds
- Yvonne Williams