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,The Exiles

The Exiles

Sometimes it takes a movie to save a movie. Case in point: it is likely that Kent MacKenzie's "anti-social-documentary" The Exiles (1961) would still be languishing in film vault obscurity had not footage from it been included in Los Angeles Plays Itself (2003), Thom Andersen's patchwork paean to "the most photographed city in the world." Dead by 1980, MacKenzie was until very recently as forgotten as his first feature. A graduate of the University of Southern California film school, by way of the G.I. Bill, Mackenzie was inspired to make The Exiles after reading a Harper's article about a U.S. government bid to relocate Native Americans to the big cities. MacKenzie visited an Apache reservation in Arizona and considered making a documentary about the relocation process but decided instead to focus on the lives of aboriginals already making their lives in the Bunker Hill section of downtown L.A. Shot between 1958 and 1960, The Exiles was exhibited at the Venice and San Francisco Film Festivals but remained, despite positive word of mouth, without a distributor at the time of its inclusion in the inaugural New York Film Festival in 1964. Eventually acquired by Pathe Contemporary, The Exiles was duped down to 16mm and fobbed off on the educational film market. Prompted by buzz the film was getting vis a vis screenings of Los Angeles Plays Itself, the New Jersey-based Milestone Film and Video Company instigated a search for original materials; the eventual full restoration was overseen by Ross Lipman and the UCLA Film & Television Archive and primarily funded by the National Film Preservation Foundation.

The son of the American bureau chief for the London office of the Associated Press, Ken MacKenzie moved with his family half a dozen times across the Atlantic before he was ten. A Dartmouth graduate and a veteran of the United States Air Force (stationed in Germany) before he came to Los Angeles in 1953, MacKenzie may well have thought he knew a thing or two about rootlessness when he locked onto the subject of displaced American Indians trying to assimilate in the City of Angels. A protégé of USC film professor Andries Deinum (a Fritz Lang associate who lost his tenure in 1957 for refusing to testify before the House on Un-American Activities Committee), MacKenzie was encouraged to embrace all angles of filmmaking rather than specialize as an editor, a writer or even simply a director. A highly conscientious filmmaker, MacKenzie rejected the "ash can" aesthetics of documentarians purporting to expose social injustice while reveling in depictions of the related squalor. His graduate film Bunker Hill – 1956 had concerned itself with the dire prospects of elderly Angelenos facing down the juggernaut of urban renewal and The Exiles continued that scrupulous strain with a philosophy in basic agreement with critic James Agee's distaste for works attempting "to pry intimately into the lives of an undefended and appallingly damaged group of human beings." Relying on introductions from friends and acquaintances rather than a casting director, MacKenzie developed intimate associations with a number of relocated Native Americans, recording their stories and using those reflections as the basis for an improvised shooting script that is, in retrospect, simpatico with John Cassavetes' Shadows (1959) and Shirley Clarke's The Connection (1962) and The Cool World (1964).

Shot in high contrast black-and-white, without sound (dialogue was added later by MacKenzie's non-pro cast), The Exiles has a queer, dream-like quality that puts the film on an oneiric continuum with Jean Cocteau's Orphée (1950), Fellini's I vitelloni (1953) and John Parker's similarly post-synched Dementia (aka Daughter of Horror, 1955). The canned audio notwithstanding, the film is grounded in aching, day-to-day realism – much of it eye opening for white viewers unaccustomed to seeing Native Americans in blue jeans and v-necked sweaters. MacKenzie's principles – Apache Yvonne Williams, Hualapai Homer Nish and mixed blood Tommy Reynolds – were culled (along with the bit players) from the habitués of such defunct downtown saloons as the Ritz Café and Columbine. Pregnant at the time of filming, Williams had been slated to costar with her real life boyfriend Clifford Ray Sam; when Sam was unable to get time off from his job to participate, Williams was paired instead with Homer Nish. (The baby Williams carried throughout the early part of filming, a son she named James, would later die prematurely from the effects of diabetes.)

His story triangulating between the stoic but inwardly fearful Williams, the rootless but oddly passive Homer and freewheeling would-be lothario Tommy (a poor man's Anthony Quinn), The Exiles plays out as an Off-Hollywood spin on Look Back in Anger (John Osborne's 1956 stage play was adapted for the cinema during the years of The Exiles' on again/off again production) but works equally well as a time capsule of Lost Los Angeles, from the demilitarized zone of "Hill X" (bulldozed to make room for Dodger Stadium) to "Angels Flight," the funicular railway seen in such films as Criss Cross (1949), The Glenn Miller Story (1954), M (1951) and Kiss Me Deadly (1955).

Producer: Kent MacKenzie
Director: Kent MacKenzie
Screenplay: Kent MacKenzie
Cinematography: Erik Daarstad, Robert Kaufman, John Arthur Morrill
Film Editing: Warner Brown; Sven Walnum (uncredited)
Cast: Mary Donahue (Mary), Homer Nish (Homer), Clydean Parker (Claudine), Tom Reynolds (Tommy), Rico Rodriguez (Rico), Clifford Ray Sam (Cliff), Eddie Sunrise (Singer on Hill X), Yvonne Williams (Yvonne).
BW-72m.

by Richard Harland Smith

Sources:
The Exiles original press kit
"Exiles on Main Street: Searching for the Ghosts of Bunker Hill's Native American Past" by Matthew Fleischer, LA Weekly, August 14, 2008
Interview with Yvonne Walker (nee Williams) by Michel Martin, Tell No More, National Public Radio, August 2008
Thom Anderson interview by Evan Kindley, Not Coming To a Theater Near You, November 2009, www.notcoming.com
Biography of Andries Deinum by Brooke Jacobson, The Oregon Encyclopedia VIEW TCMDb ENTRY

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