The Exiles

12/05/2010

U.S.A. / 1961 / English

Directed by Kent MacKenzie

With Yvonne Williams, Homer Nish, Tom Reynolds

Still from 'The Exiles'Few texts dealing with the condition of Native Americans in contemporary society are able to avoid the matters of disconnection and economic depression, so long have they been treated as second class citizens in their own homeland, an oppressed minority without the “American dream” of upward mobility in mainstream society. The issues brought up in The Exiles, a film that follows, over the course of a night and a day, a group of youthful expatriates from different reservations who are living in Los Angeles, then, are not surprising ones. What is surprising, however, is the film itself, a naturalistic portrayal of an existence that is at once on the outside and set within a tight-knit community. It is neither a fiction passing itself off as documentary nor is it a documentary staged to the point of unreality. Rather it is an unusual synthesis of fiction and reality, an antecedent to contemporary films that blur the line between the two. Mixing staged scenes with improvised dialogue, voiceover narration and a loose, informal construction, the film paints a fascinating picture of immobility and dispossession, one whose ultimate effect is a reappraisal of the social-problem film, dignifying the daily struggles of its characters with spirited and piercing examinations of their inner lives.

We follow Yvonne, a woman wearing makeup and a bathrobe, as she buys meat at the market and walks through the city distractedly. She seems new to the place, although she probably isn’t, her body fully arrived and living an urban life in a hilly landscape of two-family houses while her mind has been left in fragments between her original home and here. She goes home to cook dinner for her husband, Homer, and his similarly unemployed friends, many of whom are napping around the apartment. They seem to share the place with several of these men. Pretty soon another group shows up at the house and partakes in Yvonne’s cooking before whisking the two of them off for a night on the town. In his car, Homer drops Yvonne downtown (from where, she notes, she will most likely have to make her own way home) and proceeds with his friends to a bar frequented mainly by other Native Americans.

This seems to be a nightly ritual, the biggest payoff of being unemployed and its most insidious perk. Homer’s friend Tommy is far looser and more gregarious than he, drinking in order to forget himself and fighting in order to distract himself. He is more of the moment, working against consciousness of his surroundings as best he can. Together they run into many friends at the bar, an occurrence they make look like a novelty even though it probably happens every day. Then they diverge, Tommy running off into the bewildered night to seek more drunken euphoria, Homer going to the apartment of another friend who will scrounge up funds to go gambling. While in there, a place crowded with the man’s family, he feels a more profound warmth than at the usual haunts, but at the same time everyone is paying more attention to the television.

Things proceed meanderingly, like in a Cassavettes picture (we watch the characters as they, with an almost existential urgency, drink, roughhouse, and carry on to no conclusion in particular) and is compelling for many of the same reasons, feeling voyeuristic but just short of lurid, set back from the characters but transfixed by their emotional spirals, peaks and troughs. The film is overwhelmingly of its time, rattled by jukebox rockabilly and riddled with beatnik slang, and that contributes to its immersiveness. Scenes are never sketched to completion, either, one scene leading into the next with a certain buzzed logic, a forward momentum that mirrors the characters’ desire for each subsequent, stagnant thrill.

Still from 'The Exiles'Especially isolated is Yvonne who, either out of marital constraints or mere disposition, seems to stay out of the desperate merrymaking in which the others partake. She provides a contemplative counterweight to the erratic and aimless paths of the others. We experience her mostly through her voiceover segments, and in seeing her as she walks through commercial districts, in turn looking at herself reflected in gaudy store windows. She appears caught between the panes of glass, a self-conscious stranger who nonetheless yearns to enjoy these material things. She lives to forget the exasperation of poverty, which she quietly and impassively bears.

Gradually we also get a feel for Homer’s depth as well, as he bows out more and more from the nocturnal activities he previously seemed to relish, looking more content to sit back and watch. Both he and Yvonne can feel the lack, in their lives, of fullness. They have both had the choice of living in poverty and social problems on the reservation or coming to the city, where they get the many of the same things, but with shops and bars. For us the connection seems clear between uprooting oneself and subsequently getting bogged down in this listlessness, these mindless pleasures, but we can also see why they wouldn’t come to the same conclusion. We are not meant to assume that life in the city is necessarily better or worse, but to better understand how it can seem attractive and be, ultimately, paralyzing.

Having been passed over for proper distribution after its completion, the film was little-seen but frequently talked about in the first forty or so years of its existence. Filmmaker Charles Burnett, author Sherman Alexie and many others worked to revive it, long after director MacKenzie’s untimely death in 1980. MacKenzie, who at the time he made The Exiles was a recent graduate of USC’s film program, shot the low-budget production using people whom he had befriended as the lead actors, situating them in their own neighborhood of Bunker Hill, in Los Angeles. The people we see in the film are, in a very meaningful way, acting out elements of their own lives, playing themselves and playing images of themselves at the same time. The director extracts pieces of real life in order to better display them, calling into question the very notion of documentaries as the final word in genuine representation. What we are left with is matter-of-fact and not overly stagey, a vérité-style dramatization that de-emphasizes the dramatic and favors that which is truly compelling in mundanity.

Still from 'The Exiles'Much of what we see onscreen is drawn from interviews with the actors, two of whom talk about their lives in introspective voice overs. The film consists not of a story, but of a report from an ongoing story, as flawed and unfocused as people’s verbal recollections often are. The director is drawing a comparison between the characters’ disaffection in their current setting and that of Native Americans in general, trapped in a numbed state in the wake of displacement and loss, and also anyone who has migrated from the countryside to the city. The characters carry the trauma of the past with them, living it out in a diffused, protracted stumble. Homer recounts life back on the reservation of his childhood in an idealized way, MacKenzie filming this memory as well, with a mother and son sitting under a tree in the Arizona sun while the father performs a religious rite. The director neither wants to make the characters appear pitiful to us nor does he want us to pity their situation. He wants to compel us to look closely at them, to recognize a degree of kinship. Reenacted, and with a cinematic sensibility, the film makes good on this objective, winding up engrossing rather than commiserative. This is something for which many documentaries strive but, sometimes due to too much or too little objectivity, can come up short.

One can see the bombed-looking Watts area of Burnett’s Killer of Sheep (1976) and many of his other of his films, as more or less still in evidence today. However the Bunker Hill in The Exiles cannot be visited now; it’s simply gone. So the film is considered by some to be important as a time capsule from a vanished place. And it is an unusually intimate record, of a type accorded to few locations seen in cinema, that delves into the essence of the neighborhood through a small demographic of people, expressing in miniature their sustained melancholy and brief flashes of joy. This is a frozen moment in the life of a community as much as it is a study of place, both physical and psychic. For this place in particular seems an area to which people are inexorably drawn, but where they prefer to remember other places that were better, or long for the rewards of a perpetual future. The lives of these Native Americans provide a particularly compelling example of this basic disconnection, embodying it in varied and individualized ways. So here MacKenzie does much more than offer a surface or informational profile of the place where the characters live, instead hinting at the psychogeographical characteristics that define its emotional makeup.

Angel’s Landing, the trolley terminus at the bottom of the hill that begins its steep ascent, acts as a prominent and recurring background element that defines the neighborhood. It appears as a contact point between this world and another, tempting human beings with a journey to different strata. It seems closely parallel with the way that the characters inhabit the long-lost spiritual connection of their origins by escaping their surroundings or, conversely, come into contact with it in the process of consciously disengaging themselves from it.

A notable facet of the small group of characters that we meet is that they don’t necessarily try to recreate the life of their reservation in the city, except in the early hours before dawn when they join others in congregating on a hill overlooking town. There they socialize, sing, drink, and beat drums, remembering the ceremonies that made them part of a whole unit. But these ritual imprints feel somehow devoid of meaningful connection to land and people, the point of enacting them left uncaptured. It is as though these people forcibly gave up those binding elements for an urban environment – a place that does not echo back their words and feelings but rather muffles them – having not calculated the loss before doing so. They want to regain a part of it, to leave the body where it is earthbound, and rise above the permanent matters of the ground.

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