Appellate Judge Tom Becker saw this film on Main Street.
My people mostly roamed all over the place, two, three hundred years ago, before the white man came in, you know. Well, they used to roam all over the place, all over the canyon, from the canyon and then back down again, you know, they did a lot of farming around here, corn and squash. I guess they lived mostly off the land, you know, all kinds of, you know, berries and all that.
I'd rather be in that time than I would, you know, this time now.
Kent MacKenzie directed just two feature films. The second, Saturday Morning, made in 1971, was a documentary about teenagers in California discussing their problems and thoughts in an "encounter group" setting.
MacKenzie's first film was The Exiles. A minor masterpiece, this potent bit of American neo-realism has been largely unseen for nearly 50 years. Now, The Exiles is getting an audacious release from Milestone Films.
Facts of the Case
A night in the life of displaced Native Americans, living in Los Angeles in the Bunker Hill section, a depressed area connected to the rest of LA by the Angels Flight trolley. Yvonne (Yvonne Williams) is pregnant and living with her husband, Homer (Homer Nish). Actually, Yvonne and Homer seem to be living with several Native Americans, their shabby apartment serving as a kind of flophouse. No one seems to work; Yvonne brings home groceries, but the men seem to spend their time hanging out, waiting for the sun to go down.
At night, they drop Yvonne off at a movie while they go to a bar. It's the local "Indian Bar," and everyone knows everyone else. The men drink and talk, and they laugh with each other. Homer remembers his childhood on the reservation. Yvonne notes that she never knows if the men will be back to pick her up, and when they don't return, she walks home and stays with a neighbor. As the night ends, the men and some women they've met go out to a hill—Hill X—and drunkenly greet the morning with tribal songs and dancing, while Yvonne sleeps in her neighbor's bed.
Beautifully shot and heartfelt, The Exiles is an exciting find. One of the first films to depict contemporary Native Americans, it was made on a shoestring between 1958 and 1961. It played festivals—including Venice and New York—to great acclaim, but never got a theatrical release. For some reason, just a couple of years after John Cassavetes was being celebrated for his visionary independent film Shadows, MacKenzie's film—no less powerful—was overlooked. Fortunately, Milestone Films, which two years ago released a definitive version of the long-unavailable Killer of Sheep, is giving us a long-overdue chance to see The Exiles.
The theme here is displacement. These Native Americans have moved off the reservations for a better life, but found themselves in slums. Aimless and disaffected, they live marginalized lives in the Bunker Hill section of Los Angeles, an area that's been condemned and designated for destruction.
The film focuses on Yvonne and Homer, though we see very little of them together. Were we not told, we wouldn't know that they were a couple. Homer spends most of his time hanging out with "the guys," and some women who are also regulars at the bar. Yvonne is often by herself. She seems more den mother to this group of barely employed men than a wife to Homer. She accepts this role, just as she accepts that Homer is going to go out and enjoy himself without her, while goes to the movies alone and then spend the night with a friend, waiting for him to return at dawn.
Much of the film is told through monologues, which the actors—nonprofessionals all—wrote themselves. MacKenzie wanted to depict these individuals' own experiences, and the monologues are authentic and affecting. The best of these are from Yvonne. While the men seem more interested in hanging out and partying, Yvonne harbors hopes and dreams of a better life, if not for her, then for her unborn child. As the film unfolds, however, we see how fragile that dream is. Homer thinks back to his days on the reservation, though he doesn't seem to regret leaving any more than he plans on returning. In one of the film's few nonlinear moments, he reads a letter from his family and visualizes the words. His view of the reservation is of a place that seems quieter and more like a home, but is no less disadvantaged economically.
But The Exiles isn't a film about despair. The soundtrack pops with cool rock music from The Revels, and there are scenes—including a car full of partiers zipping through a tunnel and the final gathering on Hill X—that are exhilarating. The cinematography is outstanding, particularly for a film with such a low budget, with images that covey MacKenzie's vision with haunting clarity.
As they did with Killer of Sheep, Milestone has given this obscure film an impressive release. The image, restored by the UCLA Film and Television Archives, looks great, the full frame transfer showing little wear or damage. It's a solid black and white image, and the transfer does just to the remarkable cinematography—shot, at various times, by Erik Daarstad, Robert Kaufman, and John Arthur Morrill. Audio is the original mono track, and it sounds just fine.
The two-disc set is packed with extras. There's an informative and appreciative commentary track with Native American author Sherman Alexie and film essayist Sean Axmaker. For Alexie, who grew up on a reservation, watching The Exiles is a highly personal experience, and much of his commentary is informed by observations that might not be obvious to someone who is not Native American. Listening to this track while watching the film a second time adds greatly to the experience. A short clip from Thom Andersen's Los Angeles Plays Itself comments on The Exiles as an artifact of a Los Angeles that no longer exists. Andersen's decision to include the clip in his film—a documentary on how LA has been depicted in films and television programs—actually brought The Exiles to the attention of Milestone. Audio only extras include a clip of the film's 2008 showing at UCLA, an interview with Alexie and Axmaker, and a radio interview with Alexie and filmmaker Charles Burnett (Killer of Sheep), both of whom were instrumental in getting The Exiles into release.
Perhaps the best bonus on the set is MacKenzie's short film Bunker Hill 1956. Made while he was a student at USC, the film examines the proposed redevelopment of the depressed Bunker Hill area through the eyes of some its residents. Unlike many late 20th century redevelopment projects, which try to preserve the history of a place, the Bunker Hill redevelopment entailed tearing down all the buildings and eventually leveling the hill. While many of the structures on the Hill had fallen into disrepair and become slum housing, they were still quite grand, from an architectural standpoint. In Bunker Hill 1956, we don't see urban blight and decay, but comfortable buildings that have seen better days and people—many of them senior citizens—facing the loss of their longtime homes and ways of life. Clearly, this film was the impetus for The Exiles.
Disc Two contains three more of MacKenzie's short films: A Skill for Molina, The Story of a Rodeo Cowboy, and 1970's Ivan and His Father is an interesting bit of verité in which a young man hashes out problems with his father by talking to a group of friends. An interesting supplement: White Fawn's Devotion, a short from 1910 that is the first film made by a Native American.
The Last Ride of Angels Flight is a short film detailing the final day the Angels Ride ran up Bunker Hill in 1969. Bunker Hill: A Tale of Urban Renewal offers a good history of Bunker Hill and its demise.
We also get a nice line-up of text extras as DVD-Rom options, including the press kit for the re-release of The Exiles, which gives us some background on MacKenzie and the production, as well as MacKenzie's resume, his Master's thesis on the film, some archival brochures, and the scripts for The Exiles, Bunker Hill 1956, and an unproduced film.
Milestone has upgraded its packaging since Killer of Sheep. While that film's two discs were housed in shoddy cardboard packaging, The Exiles gets a nice plastic case, with each disc in its own holder.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
Like many films of the period, MacKenzie dubbed his audio in post-production, with the actors synching up their voices to what was onscreen. Unfortunately, it sounds like clumsily post-dubbed audio. For a film that is created so naturally, the dubbing is glaringly bad. Although it's claimed that the audio was dubbed by the original actors, here and there, that doesn't seem to be the case. The main actors might have done their own dubbing, but many of the smaller parts sound like they were done by whatever random voices were available at the time.
Milestone doesn't put out lots of discs, but when they do, those DVDs are events. The Exiles is a wonderful "found" film, and Milestone's work here is exemplary. Highly recommended; a must-see.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: Milestone Films
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