Review by Leo Goldsmith
Posted on 18 November 2009
Source Milestone Films DVD
An Interview with Thom Andersen
Los Angeles Plays Itself
The Spring 1962 issue of Film Quarterly featured a roundtable discussion entitled “Personal Creation in Hollywood: Can It Be Done?” Participating in the dialogue were critic Pauline Kael, director Fred Zinnemann, producer John Houseman, screenwriter and Nick Ray collaborator Gavin Lambert, and Kent Mackenzie, the 32-year-old filmmaker behind The Exiles, which had lately been touring film festivals to some acclaim. The conversation, intended “to illuminate the creative situation confronted by the serious film-maker in Hollywood,” is largely dominated by Zinnemann and Houseman, who discuss their production companies, film festivals, and the use of international markets to leverage Hollywood deals. Finally, the largely silent young filmmaker Mackenzie chimes in:
But I have felt throughout this whole discussion that I must associate with a different circle than most of you. I am not of Hollywood, although I work in it, and aside from the fact that I owe a lot of money to people in Hollywood, I really don’t identify myself with the industry as such, and my feeling about [my] film is that I can’t be concerned about the distributors and the unions and all these things.
Mackenzie was, after all, very far from a Hollywood player. The Exiles was his first feature (he only made one other, Saturday Morning, in 19701), made produced with an initial budget of the $539 in the filmmaker’s savings account. And the circle that Mackenzie associated with was not that of the dealmakers and breakers of commercial moviemaking. As he later noted, his chosen cinematic subject was that of “people who were outcasts, or without roots, or on the move within this society—American Indians, elderly pensioners, Mexican laborers, rodeo cowboys, and teenagers,” and his collaborators (like Exiles cinematographers Erik Daarstad and John Morrill) were filmmakers energized by the potential for documentary to reveal this underrepresented sort of American experience.
Mackenzie was directly influenced by the narrative actualities of Robert Flaherty, the output of John Grierson’s documentary units in the United Kingdom, the educational films of George Stoney, and 1950s photojournalism. He saw an opportunity to exploit the newly lightweight camera and portable sound equipment to use film as a form of ethnography, much as contemporaries like John Cassavetes and the French New Wave did. As a graduate student at the University of Southern California, he made a short film called Bunker Hill—1956, about the residents of the eponymous downtown Los Angeles neighborhood, then proposed for an urban renewal project. After reading a damning article in Harper’s about unscrupulous government dealings with Indian reservations, he embarked on several years worth of research with the intention of making a film about intra-national Native American migration.
“Moving, wandering, searching, or escaping to freedom.” This was the theme that Mackenzie subsequently identified in his films, and The Exiles concerns just such an itinerancy and a desire for escape. By 1960, the Urban Indian Relocation Program (which started in 1952) had relocated over 33,000 Native Americans from the reservations, setting them up with temporary housing, job counseling, social resources, and a small stipend for their first month in any of a variety of American cities. The intermittent aid of the Bureau of Indian Affairs allowed some to thrive in these conditions, but others were caught in cycles of wandering between city and reservation, rural poverty and urban, alcoholism and unemployment.
One of the urban neighborhoods in which displaced Indians convened was in fact Bunker Hill, which once again provided Mackenzie with an ideal location in which to explore the everyday atmosphere of a neighborhood caught between present poverty and threatened (or promised) renewal. The Exiles doesn’t address all of the problems to be found in Bunker Hill, or even the worst of them (such as prostitution or drug addiction); indeed, one of the reasons it is now so highly regarded is its lack of melodrama on the subject of social issues. The subjects of Mackenzie’s films are neither successes nor failures, but simply average people - Yvonne, a pregnant and somewhat neglected housewife; Homer, her gambling, carousing husband; Tommy, his rakish buddy - voicing their feelings and troubles in voiceover as they act out for the camera the typical activities of a largely nocturnal 14-hour period.
Mackenzie’s project is principally an ethnographic one, but in spite of the sense of distance between filmmaker and subject this might create, the director nonetheless demonstrates a willingness to listen and to seek their input. The actors lend their lives to the film, working closely with the filmmakers to shape a film that properly reflected many aspects of their daily lives. The result is not simply a document notable for its presumed authenticity, but also one that succinctly conveys the Indians’ extreme ambivalence about their place in American life. Subtle, knowing touches address these themes in surprisingly progressive ways: Indians greet each other with sarcastic cries of “How!”, and the background dialogue of a Western on TV has a character exclaim, “That’ll teach the moon-faced Indian to have more respect for his betters.”
So, although the film begins with a perfunctory prologue (added on the suggestion of test audiences) explaining the plight of the Native American in voiceover, accompanied by the rather bloated Indian iconography of Edward Curtis’ photography, these photographs are immediately rejoined by a credit sequence of stark and statically composing images of ramshackle urban buildings. Mackenzie then launches us into the film’s glimmering black-and-white nightworld, where the familiar signifiers of Indian-ness fall away, and he begins his film not, as we might expect, through the more dynamic male characters, but through Yvonne, a young Apache woman.
Stolid and taciturn, she wanders solitarily through a glaring, bustling food market as she expresses her thoughts on the soundtrack: “I don’t know what to do sometimes, now I’m having so much trouble.” Most of her concerns are not particular to a Native American, but are common to many women living in poverty: she expresses hope about the baby she has on the way, but regret about the baby’s father, his lack of employment, his profligate lifestyle, his indifferent attitude toward her. Homer, meanwhile, lies at home until it’s time to go out, gamble, and get drunk. He drops Yvonne at the movies on his way out for a night on the town, leaving her to roam the commercial side of downtown as he seeks out its seedier corners. The film then follows their parallel narratives, finding the pensive Yvonne passively watching a moviescreen or a shop display, Tommy leering at women and staggering about drunkenly, and Homer tacitly following the gambling and barhopping of his friends until morning.
The style of reenactment mixed with voiceover by which Mackenzie documents Yvonne, Homer, and Tommy in their lonesome, drunken night-wanderings is likely one of the reasons this film has not until now achieved its deserved recognition. Directly drawn from the films of Flaherty and of Grierson acolytes like Basil Wright (Night Mail) and Humphrey Jennings (Listen to Britain), Mackenzie’s documentary mode would soon strike the adherents of 1960s direct cinema and cinéma vérité as outdated. Even if The Exiles is similar in many respects to Jean Rouch’s Chronique d’été, produced at the same time and also the product of extensive collaboration with its subjects, Mackenzie’s technique is far less overt or self-conscious in its form. By today’s standards, however, it also seems less obsessively self-regarding, more concerned with putting across the impressions of its characters and an earnest representation of at least part of the life on Bunker Hill.
And in doing so, it spares few details. Aside from the endlessly fascinating and vividly rendered street scenes - images of the original site of the funicular tram Angels Flight, the brilliant vortex of the Third Street Tunnel through which the characters take an exhilarating, drunken plunge in one sequence - The Exiles also documents the Native American subculture’s reappropriation of space, specifically Hill X, where they gather for a powwow bacchanal in the wee hours. Subsequently leveled in order to make way for Dodgers Stadium, the hill serves as a makeshift prairie where the characters sing tribal songs, dance, drink, and brawl with the fuzzy lights of Los Angeles floating in the near distance.
Mackenzie is particularly attuned to the flailing destruction of masculine energies—lazing on the sofa, cruising the strip, drinking in bars, getting in fights. Midway through the film, as his wife windowshops solitarily downtown, Homer drinks in a grim, late-night bar filled with bleary-eyed incoherents, men dancing drunkenly with each other and draining beer-mugs. Tommy drunkenly manhandles the women they encounter in these bars, and he’s not above coercing them if they don’t play along. Throughout these scenes, commissioned songs by The Revels (whose “Comanche” is featured famously in Pulp Fiction) provide the perfect, slow-burning rock-n-roll soundtrack for the film’s setting, harmonizing with all forms of liberation and escape: booze, cards, girls, and “raisin’ hell.”
But there is poetry in this atmosphere as well, suggested not least by the candid, often heartbreaking voiceovers of the main characters. Even Tommy elicits sympathy in relating his feeling of constant imprisonment, that in his disregard for life he sees no difference between prison and the outside. Homer, too, in his passivity and negligence suggests the pathos of one who simply wants to be free of worry: his vision of his parents in their meager shack back in Arizona evokes a nostalgic longing for home on the Hualapai Reservation, as well as a sense of the hopelessness of living there. That all of this narration serves as counterpoint to and commentary alongside the images of a night on the town suggests Terrence Malick before the fact: disjointed memories and observations provide the mood through which to read the sometimes gorgeous, sometimes grotesque, portrayal of Bunker Hill, its bars and boarding houses and interstitial spaces.