Monday, December 21, 2009

Roaming the wilderness of cities, time, and the vagaries of the film industry: The Exiles on DVD

Homer (Homer Nish) leans against the storefront window, his large head with its meticulously greased-back pompadour literally haloed by liquor. He’s just received a letter from back home, which he opens to read. While the film is heavily reliant on voice-over, repeatedly juxtaposing the disparate internal and external lives of its characters, it’s among the film’s masterstrokes that no voice-over is used here, in the very moment we most expect it. Yet Homer’s letter is, in a purely cinematic sense, read to us. As he unfolds the pages we’re taken from this neon-lit strip in Bunker Hill to a sun-beaten pastoral scene in Valentine, Arizona, where Homer’s family gathers beneath a tree near the shack we presume to be their home. There’s singing and dialogue, but no subtitles. We’re momentarily immersed in the distant world Homer mentally revisits during a pit-stop along yet another night on the town, getting drunk, gambling, maybe looking for a fight. There’s nostalgia in Homer’s voice-over for a time when Native Americans were nomadic and lived off the land, and implicit in Kent Mackenzie’s
The Exiles (1961) is the notion that this tradition continues in some bastardized form, where wandering is limited to the confines of a neighbourhood literally on the verge of being condemned, and the land being lived off is comprised of the disposable consumer fruits of modern mass production. Like the climactic scene in which Homer and his friends drive up to Hill X—today’s Dodger Stadium—to play drums, get wild, and keep drinking, the bar-hopping reads as a distorted updating of once revered traditions.

Kent Mackenzie in production on The Exiles

Nearly 50 years on, The Exiles, which never received theatrical release until last year, still feels singular, ahead of its time and ours, and not only because of its bold blurring of documentary and fiction, its use of non-professional actors to tell their own stories in staged—and gorgeously photographed—scenes. As Native American filmmaker Sherman Alexie emphasizes in the informative and hugely entertaining audio commentary, “I guarantee this was the first time in a motion picture you saw Indians in khakis, getting gas!” (Alexie also draws attention to such timeless items as the sense of mischief particular to Native American culture and the inexplicable persistence of “weak Indian moustaches.”) Fully integrated yet unmistakably Other, wearing the clothes and driving the cars and listening to the music of white Americans yet existing in a defiantly separate realm, the characters who inhabit The Exiles emerge from behind the veil of social invisibility and genre film stereotype, not for the purposes of liberal hand-wringing but to tell their own stories, or rather provide a complex and resolutely unresolved portrait of a problematic community. Thanks the Milestone’s superlative new two-disc package of The Exiles, which contains several additional works from Mackenzie, who died in the midst of a frustrated career in 1980, we can begin, however belatedly, to appreciate the themes that reside at the core of Mackenzie’s compressed oeuvre. His was a cinema of community. Above all, he seemed to cultivate a sense of place. And a sense of place is not complete until you convey a sense of how that place is shaped and made relevant by the people in it.

The Exiles follows three characters, each of them Native Americans relocated to Los Angeles after being raised on reserves, over a 12-hour period. Two of them—the men—go out for a night of revelry, the third—the beautiful, quiet and very pregnant Yvonne (Yvonne Williams)—out for a movie and, later, the company of a girlfriend. We glean something of their personal philosophies through the voice-over track that glides between them, but their portraits are only completed by Mackenzie’s ongoing movement between close-ups and wide shots of the city that looms over them. The evocation of Bunker Hill Mackenzie provided was sufficiently striking to be included in Thom Andersen’s monumental documentary Los Angeles Plays Itself (03), excerpted on the Exiles set, in which Andersen paid tribute to Mackenzie conveyance of how “different social realities coexist without touching each other.” Mackenzie’s early short, the elegant and touching ‘Bunker Hill 1956’ (56), also included here, laid the groundwork for such urban commentary by collecting the testimonies of three residents of this once affluent enclave which gradually became a haven for the pensioners and visible minorities. By then Bunker Hill was already slated for demolition and Mackenzie’s short functioned as a form of protest, a demand for affordable housing instead of throwing residents into further exile and destroying a vast expanse of architectural history. In ‘A Skill for Molina’ (64), Mackenzie by contrast applauds a federally-funded skill development program that allowed this documentary’s titular WWII vet and father of nine to gain a trade as a welder. Yet here too Mackenzie’s deftness with ambiguous understatement can be found in a montage sequence that shows Molina cutting each of his children’s hair—he had earlier took courses in hairdressing, but had to stop when he ran out of money.

Other highlights in Milestone’s set include an episode of ‘Leonard Lopate’ featuring the Exiles’ official “presenters” Alexie and director Charles Burnett, whose Killer of Sheep (77), while not directly influenced by The Exiles, was also successfully re-released by Milestone two years ago and now feels very much like a continuation of Mackenzie’s project. It begs the question: who’s continuing this work today?

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