“The Exiles” on Main Street

Pub date July 23, 2008
SectionFilm Review

TAKE ONE For a sharp perspective on Kent Mackenzie’s neglected 1961 classic The Exiles, push aside most contemporary reviews heralding the film’s rerelease. In the spring of 1962, Benjamin Jackson reviewed Mackenzie’s debut feature for Film Quarterly, and began by noting something no one today seems to think worth mentioning: only 28 years before The Exiles came out, the American Indians who starred in the movie weren’t even considered citizens by the US government.

That basic fact should be at the center of any appraisal of The Exiles, and yet, with the exception of Armond White in the New York Press, most 21st-century critics don’t contextualize the racist history and cultural prejudices the film confronts; forces that have since threatened to erase it. Almost 50 years and countless Sundance Film Festivals after Mackenzie’s look at Native American life in the city and off the rez, it’s still — unfortunately — a one-of-a-kind work. Just as Milestone Films’ successful release of Charles Burnett’s 1977 Killer of Sheep exposed American independent cinema’s lack of artistic imagination and societal insight, the return of The Exiles is partly inspired by the utter failure of American filmmakers to follow Mackenzie’s lead.

In Another Country (Vintage), first published one year before The Exiles‘ release, James Baldwin writes of a New York “so familiar and so public that it became, at last, the most despairingly private of cities,” adding: “One was continually being jostled, yet longed, at the same time, for a human touch; and if one was never — it was the general complaint — left alone in New York, one had, still, to fight very hard in order not to perish of loneliness.” The Exiles tracks a similar fight in Los Angeles, as waged by pregnant Yvonne (Yvonne Williams) while her husband Homer (Homer Nish) goes carousing through bars at Third and Main. Mackenzie follows both with a Weegee-like attention to detail that alights on everything from mechanical monkeys that blow bubbles to boisterous queens at a bar.

This major work of American cinema was created from film stock salvaged from a plane crash and short ends from I Love Lucy. Its potent original score of lip-biting rock ‘n’ roll is by the Revels, whose “Comanche” was exploited by Quentin Tarantino in Pulp Fiction. Its restoration is by Ross Lipman, who has also rescued Killer of Sheep and the work of Kenneth Anger. Further credit for The Exiles‘ revival belongs to Thom Andersen, whose 2003 survey Los Angeles Plays Itself first brought the film to the attention of a new generation. One year before Godard’s Vivre sa vie (1963), Mackenzie made an unsentimental movie about a woman who goes to the movies — in fact, The Exiles reaches its midway point just as Yvonne watches an intermission jingle that urges people to raid the concession stand. Both Yvonne’s night and this film’s are far from over. (Johnny Ray Huston)

TAKE TWO One reason we watch film noir is to look at the forgotten city. As American crime pictures got grittier, they stumbled from the plush nightclubs of Gilda (1946) to the sticky bars of Kiss Me Deadly (1955). First shot in 1958, Kent Mackenzie’s The Exiles is set in the same dilapidated Bunker Hill neighborhood valorized by John Fante and Charles Bukowski. Mackenzie’s ethnographic focus on a small group of urbanized American Indians would seem to place his film in a different league, but then many noir films open with statements not so different from his voice-over: “What follows is the authentic account of 12 hours in the lives of a group of Indians who have come to Los Angeles, California.”

Noir comparisons only go so far in elucidating The Exiles‘ enduring appeal. By focusing on a sloshed night-in-the-life of this group, Mackenzie locates urban malcontent rather than inventing it. After the first of many exquisite evening shots of a long-extinct LA funicular, we’re introduced to Yvonne: her moony face is inexpressive, and her voice-over amplifies her solitude in a bustling marketplace. She explains she’s pregnant and is glad to be having the baby away from the reservation, but worries about her husband Homer’s commitment. Homer’s boys’ club favors a Keroauc-ish jive-talk — with disenfranchisement for heritage, they adapt the “wherever I may roam” frontiersman-speak of the hipster.

Mackenzie wasn’t a native Angeleno, much less an American Indian, but his outsider perspective enlarges The Exiles. If the location details in Charles Burnett’s Killer of Sheep seem incidental, here they are part of a broader lyrical-documentary design. The fact that we can make out so many prices — mackerel for 21 cents a pound, gas for 27 cents a gallon — is symptomatic of the characters’ hand-to-mouth milieu and Mackenzie’s aesthetic calculus. The filmmaker’s anachronistic tendency to play the peripheries reaches fullest bloom when Homer burns with unnamed anomie, surrounded by the Café Ritz’s unsavory characters. The moody scene is a vivid if intense evocation of the kind of democratic mixing place Mike Davis eulogizes in his 1990 LA history, City of Quartz (Vintage).

If The Exiles anticipates both Jim Jarmusch (the outsider-as-hipster and jukebox soundtrack) and Gus Van Sant (the bender crawl and the combination of voice-over and neorealism), it’s more a sign of Mackenzie’s intuition than his priorities. The bitter irony of the title is that Mackenzie’s characters are exiles from both the past and the future. The director was well aware of City Hall’s redevelopment slate for Bunker Hill when he framed his long-take vistas. “Time is just time to me,” hep-cat Tommy (Tommy Reynolds) muses on voice-over. “I’m doing it outside, so I can do it inside.” Not so for Mackenzie, a true preservationist whose work has now been treated in kind. (Max Goldberg)


Aug. 1–7

Castro Theatre

429 Castro, SF

(415) 621-6120