The Exiles
Reviewed by Robert Koehler

Produced, directed, and written by Kent Mackenzie; cinematography by Erik Daarstad, Robert Kaufman and John Morrill; edited by Kent Mackenzie, Warren Brown, Thomas Conrad, Erik Daarstad, Thomas Miller, Beth Pattrick; music by Anthony Hilder, The Revels, Robert Hafner, Eddie Sunrise; starring Yvonne Williams, Homer Nish, Tommy Reynolds, Rico Rodriguez, Clifford Ray Sam, Clydean Parker, Mary Donahue. 1961. Black-and-white. 72 mins. A Milestone Films release.

The twin poles of contemporary cinema—the realism of duration, human consciousness and actual place on one end, and the fantasy of CGI, comic-book perspective, with its anyplace-at-all-but-this on the other—might not seem at first blush to suggest a shift beyond where it all began, with the Lumières and Méliès. But we are now living in a particularly interesting time, where many refinements and developments have allowed both to settle into extreme positions, literally northern and southern poles. The realism of “the cinema of duration,” a term coined by André Bazin in the early 1950s—and never more apropos than now (as if an esthetic aspiration required fifty years to be fully realized, as it was in 1999 by Lisandro Alonso with La libertad, which is starting to look like the most important film of this era)—has become a considerable international movement, embraced wholeheartedly by filmmakers of many different stripes on every continent (Benning to Weerasethakul, Jia to Costa) and helpfully supported by several forward-thinking festivals (Vienna to Vancouver, Buenos Aires to Gijon). The CGI fantasy cinema, supported by the international fanboy movement with their own Viennas, such as Comic-Con, has advanced the movies’ inherent knack for escapism, and in this specific case, the escapism from Earth-based psychology and history to alternative universes in which mythic codes replace the nuanced shadings of human experience and—not playing second fiddle to anyone—a hyperplasticity and comic-book framing that celebrates its own one-dimensionality (even as it strives for greater and bigger 3-D sensation).

Perhaps the realism of duration is an escape from CGI just as much as CGI is an escape from reality, and it may be equally true that each requires the other to exist. The clear difference—and a reason why one form is finally vastly superior to the other—is that the contemporary realists are fully, even painfully, aware of the CGI crowd, while the comic-book escapists (both filmmakers and their audience) are blissfully ignorant of the realists. This follows, quite logically—throughout the history of art, those engaged in one manner or another with realism are by necessity engaged with the world as it is, and thus must know its parameters, its paradoxes, its topography and meteorology, its poetry and violence, its interplay between nature and humanity. The task of the realist artist is to observe, distill, compress, and synthesize for an enhanced view of this world, the one where we live. The realism of duration is the latest phase in an ongoing tradition.

There’s no point in identifying when the phase we’re currently experiencing began, but in American movies, it’s tempting to think of a moment when something radically new on the realist front was ushered in, something that caused a permanent shift—and it’s fun to realize that it was just about the time that the Cahiers critics of the Fifties stepped behind cameras to make films and Antonioni made L’avventura (1960), the duration realist film par excellence. It was between 1957 and 1960 when, in Los Angeles, Ben Maddow, Sidney Meyers, and Joseph Strick made The Savage Eye (1960), John Cassavetes shot most of Shadows (1959) and, most importantly, Kent Mackenzie made The Exiles. And Mackenzie’s film, more than most, is a study in the cinematic twin poles made manifest on screen, since he applies an absolutely rigorous realism to every moment and detail, while casting a sympathetic look at a group of people trying to escape from the humdrum of their daily lives.

When Thom Andersen reintroduced the world to The Exiles in 2003, the year his epochal Los Angeles Plays Itself premiered at the Toronto film festival and gave Mackenzie’s film a special place of honor (as a rare film that actually got Los Angeles right, instead of using it as a thoughtlessly applied backlot/backdrop), the world was ready to embrace it. The conditions were right, because they had been primed by a few years of duration realists producing work of a high caliber, and the actual viewing of the film itself (not only the intriguing, generous, and cleverly applied clips in Andersen’s film, but the whole seventy-two minutes presented at the 2004 edition of Rotterdam) confirmed that The Exiles, given a paltry initial release and left to flounder on the 16mm rental market and on second-rate video, was finally out of exile—history had caught up with it. This isn’t because Mackenzie necessarily built his film with long, extended takes conveying the extreme sense of real time embraced by the duration realists, or because of any other particular formalist gesture, but because of the film’s totality, its universal commitment to a principle of realism simultaneously at the micro and macro levels. It became a kind of living template, in other words, of what realists everywhere can aspire to, and what one humble artist, living and creating in Los Angeles (a city which its inhabitants and natives know is a realist epicenter, contrary to its utterly bogus identity as a poseur’s epicenter as recycled by those who speak for but don’t know the city) managed to make with his limited resources and sensitive intelligence.

Because of this, it’s better not to repeat what Andersen has stressed about the film, which was how Mackenzie absolutely captured the rhythms, sounds, and look of life in late-Fifties downtown Los Angeles—stretching specifically from Main St. on the east to the decaying Bunker Hill neighborhood on the west, with bustling Broadway as its north-south spine—and how he cast his gaze on the overlooked contemporary Native American living in the big city. Both place and people, in many respects, now vanished or, at least, dramatically changed, are yet preserved on film. For one thing, Andersen has done that work surpassingly well, and for another, there are other aspects to consider. (Consider these too: Watch the opening scene of Anthony Mann’s The Glenn Miller Story (1954) for another, equally poetic view of a Bunker Hill with down-and-out denizens and the magically diagonal tram known as Angels’ Flight, and Joseph Losey’s M (1951), also in Andersen’s film and also shot in and around the streets where Mackenzie and his team toiled for a few years.)

The Exiles has a ghost of itself: the work Mackenzie originally intended, hatched as an idea out of his documentary training. As a USC film student, Mackenzie was drawn to the docu-narrative hybrid cinema explored (controversially) by, most prominently, Robert Flaherty and Humphrey Jennings, who combined narrative techniques, including dramatic music, and even “acting,” with documentary observation. He was equally repelled by the industrial model of film production in which USC, having been funded and founded by key members of the Motion Picture Academy and the Hollywood studio system, specialized as a training ground for Hollywood careers. Instead, he made a short documentary in 1956 near the end of his USC period, titled Bunker Hill, which gently observed daily life in the quarter. Mackenzie hadn’t intended it to be so gentle; angered at reports that the city fathers were planning massive “urban renewal” (one of those ghoulish Orwellian terms that only government bureaucrats can conjure) for the area, the young filmmaker wanted to show Bunker Hill as it was, a genial small town within the larger downtown, uniquely perched above the bustle and functioning by its own neighborly pace, yet still distinctly urban—worth fighting to preserve. Like his brand of realism, Mackenzie’s brand of preservationist advocacy was ahead of its time, and censored by government interests.

The Exiles would be unthinkable without Bunker Hill (a film that Milestone Films, now releasing the feature theatrically, would be wise to include in the eventual DVD release), since it allowed Mackenzie to understand the nature of the downtown’s complexities with a camera, just as, during the same period, Vittorio De Seta was able to make Bandits of Orgosolo in Sardinia in 1960, after an extraordinary string of short, lyrical documentaries shot in Sardinia and Sicily through the Fifties. The urge to preserve documentary “truth” in the service of a kind of narrative is an old one, and the examples of Flaherty and Jennings—Flaherty with his deep-focus views of the living Bayou swamps in Louisiana Story (1948) married to a simple tale about a boy and his interest in an oil derrick, and Jennings with his unromantic depictions of war-ravaged London and an adventure plot involving a firemen’s squad in Fires Were Started (1943)—were deeply influential for Mackenzie.

But the ghost of The Exiles is something else: affected by relationships he developed with Native American friends and spending time researching and living on Arizona Indian reservations, Mackenzie initially had the impulse for a sort of anthropological film on the challenges faced by young Native Americans torn between their desires to live “on the Res” and to make a mark for themselves like countless previous American generations, in the city. A film that started as a piece of sociology, however, became something else—it became a film that allowed itself to get lost with its characters, that liberated itself from a program or thesis for the greater risks and rewards of the drift of hour-by-hour, day-by-day life, precisely the conditions by which realist art can be realized.

The Exiles is, above all, a triumph of patience. Mackenzie, operating on a shoestring budget (he had to rely at points on bits and pieces of remaining “tails” of raw negative stock that were free but absurdly short in length) and always running out of money, lost crew members and had to switch from one cinematographer to another to another over a three-year shooting period (Erik Daarstad did most of the work in astonishingly limpid black and white, along with Robert Kaufman and John Morrill—all of it consistently fine, indicating that Mackenzie applied firm quality control and knew his way around cameras, lights, exposures, and stocks). Shooting wasn’t the cut-and-run, guerilla kind; shots and scenes were carefully arranged, lit with a discreet number of artificial sources to create the illusion that few if any lights were used at all; the cast, almost all Native American residents of Bunker Hill, basically played themselves and weren’t directed in a conventional way (better, they sometimes “directed” Mackenzie toward the heart of scenes, since they were based on their experiences); and because the shoot took so long, these actors sometimes had to be changed since life (like being arrested and sentenced) got in the way. Mackenzie probably felt, then, that time was his enemy. Now, the viewer, however, can see that it was his key ally, the reason why the final film is the way it is. This is a lovely paradox: the film’s timeline is compressed, its narrative covering less than twenty-four hours, from roughly early afternoon on a Friday, on through Friday night and ending on Saturday morning—Saturday Morning the title of Mackenzie’s only other feature in 1971, nine years before his death.

The circle of characters is just as compressed: Yvonne (Yvonne Williams), unhappily living with her husband Homer (Homer Nash), along with Homer’s friends, including Tommy (Tommy Reynolds) and Rico (Rico Rodriguez), who like hanging out, getting drunk, and picking up gals at bars. The process of making such a concentrated slice of life over such an extended period of time ushered in an increased sense of life as it’s actually lived, which seeped into the crevices of the filmmaking and turned it from documentary, from docu-drama, from post-Flaherty/Jennings hybrid, into a poetic consideration—at its widest view—of existence itself.

Already, even though awareness and critical consideration of The Exiles is only about four years’ running, the way that the film has been defined at its more detailed, micro aspect has been a bit misleading. During his abandonment of a sociological film, Mackenzie discovered that the film he was eventually to title The Exiles was about more than Native Americans in Los Angeles. For starters, one of the main characters isn’t Native American, but Latino. Proof of the wisdom of his eventual choices is in the remaining vestiges of the original concept. Easily the weakest sequence with the least conviction, and the only one that feels applied rather than felt, is when Homer happens to open up a letter from back home while waiting for his buddy to buy some booze in a liquor store. It becomes an awkward vehicle for an equally awkward flashback, set on the reservation, depicting a pastoral and relatively fake view of Homer’s family life at home, fake in the sense that it doesn’t even convince as Homer’s nostalgic recollection of what was likely a harsher reality. There’s also the prologue, featuring classic photos ofnineteenth-century Native Americans by Edward S. Curtis, that was added by Mackenzie after audiences at screenings in the Venice and San Francisco festivals called for it—an extra appendage, not necessary for an already complete and concise work of art. (This was the only case where Mackenzie bowed to outside pressure. It shows.)

What is crucial to understand, however, is that Mackenzie’s fascination and art transcend the Native American dilemma: his film becomes about the terrible gap that forms between men and women, generated by mutually opposed views of self and happiness—a theme that runs from Aeschylus to Strindberg to Cassavetes. Every monolog that Mackenzie records, as part of the film’s running inner thoughts of Homer, Yvonne, and Tommy, points to their personal aspirations or frustrations, most affectingly with Yvonne, seen exiting alone from the cinema where she has spent the night escaping her dreadful domestic life, and then seen longingly window shopping, talking in voice-over of how her dreams for a middle-class life with a good man have been crushed by personal disappointment and failings. Pregnant Yvonne, abandoned for the night by her carousing husband and the picture of loneliness (she has one good friend, who appears late in the film), sounds like she has given up. Homer and Tommy will keep going, Friday after Saturday after more Fridays and more Saturdays, going out, getting drunk, fighting, and stretching out the nights as far as they can until the dawn. Even their one respite from a cycle of barrooms, poker games and car racing, all of it captured with exhilaration by Mackenzie’s boundless camera—a gathering of chanting and drumming on a hilltop in nearby Elysian Park overlooking downtown—dissolves into more fighting, with men seen abusing women.

Mackenzie may have not been looking for this when he began his project, and the more politically correct side of him may have resisted this when it first appeared. But the side of him committed to a cinema esthetically, even ethically, grounded in actual time and space and the way humans work, was unable to deny it—so much so that it became his film’s centerpiece. We know this because Mackenzie ends The Exiles on an unmistakable note, ringing with a powerful visual statement of the awful chasm between men’s and women’s desires, a chasm that exists anywhere and everywhere, at all times and places. As the dawn fully takes hold, and the harsh daylight wipes away the softer, hidden textures of night, Yvonne is able to look out the window of her friend’s bedroom where she’s been sleeping. She sees Homer with buddies and new lady friends drunkenly drifting down a Bunker Hill alleyway, lost and receding into an urban canyon, and gradually, under Mackenzie’s patient gaze of duration, vanishing around a corner.

Copyright © 2008 by Cineaste Magazine

Cineaste, Vol. XXXIII, No. 4