The Exiles (1961)

Forty-seven years after its premiere, Kent Mackenzie’s The Exiles (1961) has finally returned to its iconic setting of Los Angeles; a newly restored print begins a week-long run at the UCLA film archive tomorrow and is being used to promote at least one historical tour of Bunker Hill. Although the new print premiered in Marseilles and New York City, you’ll have to pardon Angelenos like myself if we act proprietary about the movie, rebirthed in the wider cinephiliac consciousness by CalArt’s Thom Andersen, whose Los Angeles Plays Itself (2003) claims, “better than any other movie, [The Exiles] proves that there was once a city here, before they tore it down and built a simulacrum.”

Los Angeles is often described as a sprawl of suburbs connected by freeways; its downtown has become a prime example of dysfunctional city planning, urban renewal that demolished decades of residential history for shining steel skyscrapers that close at dusk. There’s a movement underway to repopulate downtown, but so far it seems rooted in the kind of gentrification that emphasizes luxury lofts that the majority of Angelenos still can’t afford. The Exiles documents a lost epoch when immigrants and working class people lived downtown and spent their evenings socializing, cruising the streets, and dreaming of a better tomorrow.

The film is receiving justifiable praise for its documentary aspects, but it’s more than a historical record: Mackenzie (who passed away at 50 in 1980) was a serious filmmaker and The Exiles is an observant, empathic, and haunting film with a street poetry all its own. Its nighttime photography is astonishingly vivid and immersive, perfectly capturing the architecture, faces, and bodies of its teeming urban setting. The film played at several international festivals (Edinburgh, Venice, San Francisco, New York) but never received theatrical distribution; Mackenzie (who studied film at USC) counted among his inspirations the work of Joris Ivens, Humphrey Jennings, and George Rouquier, and he offers the same kind of grounded lyricism. In the film’s original pressbook (reprinted by Milestone), Mackenzie explains his goal:

“Instead of leading an audience through an orderly sequence of problems-decisions-action and solution on the part of the characters, we sought to photograph the infinite details surrounding these people, to let them speak for themselves, and to let the fragments mount up. Then, instead of supplying a resolution, we hoped that somewhere in the showing, the picture would become, to the viewer, a revelation of a condition about which he will either do something, or not—whichever his own reaction dictates.”

It’s a perspective that now defines much of modern art cinema. Filmmaker Charles Burnett has offered a gracious endorsement: “[Mackenzie] was ten years ahead of me. I started in the late Sixties and he started in the late Fifties. . . . It’s too bad he wasn’t known. I think it would have saved all of us a lot of experimenting.”

Mackenzie didn’t want to film the story of American Indians living on Bunker Hill from his white, educated, middle class perspective; he wanted to film it from theirs. After exploring and researching the area, he selected three people to be the focus of the film. He consulted Yvonne, Homer, and Tommy while writing the script and used their recorded interviews as voiceover monologues in the film. With a loose sense of dramatic action, Mackenzie filmed his actors crowding together in a small apartment, gazing out the windows, walking around the neighborhood, traversing street markets, hanging out in bars, and partying it up in the late night hours. It’s a transient, escapist life for Tommy and Homer, but a claustrophobic one for Yvonne, Homer’s pregnant wife. Mackenzie attempts to capture the various shades and tenors of their lives, describing them without judgment.

The filmmaker’s desire to represent rather than dictate is the aesthetic and ideological inverse to the social manipulations that form the subtext of the film. It opens with a montage of Edward S. Curtis photographs and a narrator who describes the Indian way of life, how it became increasingly restricted with fewer opportunities at each forced transition from the open prairies to the Reservations to the cities. Artfully cultivated throughout the film–and highlighted in one sequence in particular–is the sense of faceless authorities and elusive powers; police patrol the fringes of crowds, their dark silhouettes hovering like vultures waiting for the most advantageous moment to strike. Knowing the imminent future of this neighborhood onscreen, its civic demolition and dispersal of lives–one more stage of desperate social transition–only makes its forlorn drama all the more poignant.

* * * *

I’ve learned these special events related to the screenings at UCLA have just been finalized:

Friday, August 15 @ 7:30 p.m.
A panel discussion following the screening with:

• Ross Lipman /  UCLA film preservationist
• Ben-Alex Dupris  / Experimental filmmaker, poet, Lakota tribe member
• John Morrill  /  Cinematographer
• Erik Daarstad  /  Cinematographer
• Norman Knowles  /  Saxophonist with The Revels, wrote most of the film score
• Merl Edelman  /  Crew member
• Lawrence Silberman  /  Crew member

Saturday, August 16  /  7:30 p.m. screening only
Post-film, Richard Schave of Esotouric will give a fascinating slide-show presentation on the storied Bunker Hill neighborhood.

Friday, August 22 & Saturday, August 23  /  all screenings
The Exiles will be preceded by the short:

Bunker Hill (1956)
DIR: Kent Mackenzie. CINE: Robert Kaufman. EDIT: K. Mackenzie, R. Kaufman.
“Kent Mackenzie made this short documentary while he was a student at USC.  The film documents the unique and vibrant low-income neighborhood and several of its residents—mainly retirees who had lived there for decades—before it was bulldozed in one of the most notorious urban redevelopment schemes in the city’s history.” (UCLA) 16mm, 18 min.

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