Thom Andersen’s Los Angeles Plays Itself, an intensive study of LA as depicted in the movies, contrasts Hollywood’s self-portraits of privilege against the working class perspective of unsentimental low-low-low-budget films like Charles Burnett’s Killer of Sheep. The recent rediscovery of Burnett’s work exemplifies a concentrated yet significantly growing interest in a “lost” strand of pre-Sundance independent filmmaking: quasi-documentary urban realism focused on marginalized cultures struggling against poverty and its attendant indignities.
Kent MacKenzie’s legendary yet rarely seen 1961 film The Exiles, singled out in Andersen’s film, is now receiving its first commercial release courtesy of Killer of Sheep distributor Milestone Films. It’s about young Native Americans in the heart of Los Angeles, and is extreme even among this small subset of of homegrown countercinema. While John Cassavetes’s landmark Shadows (made during the same period) offers jazz-scored racial politics through an accessible romantic narrative, MacKenzie’s unique achievement wanders frustratingly, but also hypnotically, into the outer limits of plot and character, abandoning conventional reportage for a hybridized documentary/fictional group portrait captured in gorgeous, shadowy textures and moods.
Determined to combat the cinema’s stereotyping or ignoring of Native American life, MacKenzie befriended young Indians in the seedy Bunker Hill neighborhood of L.A. in 1957. These men and women were part of a new generation of Indians moving off reservations to live independently in big cities; their own reenacted stories and intermittent voice-overs form the film’s basis. In leading such a collaborative endeavor, MacKenzie employed an “anti-theatrical” and “anti-social documentary” style, keeping an eye toward his subjects’ environmental conditions and quotidian problems while avoiding pat conflict-resolution patterns and voyeuristic anthropology.
Caught between the traditional past (represented by a haunting opening sequence of Edward S. Curtis’s photography of elderly Native Americans) and the excitement of the modern city, the exiles of The Exiles live in a state of purgatory, making the ubiquitous appearance of Angel’s Flight Railway severely ironic. Seven live mostly unemployed in an apartment with pregnant Yvonne (Yvonne Williams), the cook and neglected girlfriend of ungrateful Homer (Homer Nish), who spends the film’s 14-hour period playing poker and picking fights. Abandoned at a movie theater, Yvonne afterward wanders the streets staring into jewelry store windows, dreaming of the unattainable luxury they display. Meanwhile, recklessly drunken Tommy (Tommy Reynolds) gallivants around town with girls. By the end of the night a group congregates to sing and dance tribal songs, but the brief moment of cultural solidarity is shattered by more fighting, the clumsy expression of unshakeable aimlessness.
If at moments MacKenzie’s film resembles the cautionary tales of 50s juvenile delinquent cinema, this flaw can be traced to limited resources, inevitable snags encountered while traveling uncharted aesthetic terrain, and the traps of liberal counter-clichés meant to oppose conservative ones. But based on its daring and largely successful execution, The Exiles is a film far ahead of its time even as it remains firmly rooted in the present (and unforgettable presence) of its subjects. Alternating inky and grainy cinematography, MacKenzie molds bleary-eyed joyriding ennui into lonely, isolated shapes; the voice-overs become succinct, despairing thought-poetry coupled with long-shadowed images of indulgence: “I’d rather be in that time then than this time now.” The Exiles stands as an indelible record, a night in the life of a people groping for an unconsoling dawn.