Bunker Hill Blues

Kenneth Crab Jul 23, 2008

The Exiles
directed by Kent Mackenzie
Milestone Films, 1961

“I’m not going to let you know how scared I sometimes get of history and its ways,” declares Jackson Jackson, the young Spokane (Wash.) narrator of Sherman Alexie’s “What You Pawn I Will Redeem” (from Ten Little Indians), “I’m a strong man, and I know that silence is the best way of dealing with white folks.” The paradox of this rhetorical silence as an index of the incorrigible Native American knack for storytelling is captured to a T in Kent Mackenzie’s long-forgotten 1961 masterpiece The Exiles.

Co-presented by Alexie (with Charles Burnett) on the occasion of its first official release (courtesy of Milestone Films and UCLA, who did the impressive restoration job), this stealthy film is one of the screen’s great epic poems, and an L.A. movie unlike any other. The city’s Bunker Hill neighborhood – previously a setting of underworld vagaries in such fifties crime fables as M (Joseph Losey, 1951) and Kiss Me Deadly (Robert Aldrich, 1955) – is delineated through a shot rhythm that keeps pace with a loosely tied crew of Native American locals over a random twelve-hour nocturnal span. The camera traces these characters’ roaming, roving movements as if caught by an undulating urban tide, but the physicality of their whereabouts (frequently covered on foot, which makes manifest a ghostly, slo-mo La-la Land) serves a mapping of the mind – the ‘silent’ space-between of wandering.

The film occupies an uneasy middle ground between documentary and fiction. Though the story is scripted, location shooting has it unfold on the real home turf of the actors, who more or less play themselves (and retain their names). The introductory sequence is moreover rendered in ur-traditional documentary style. Over a montage of pictures that range from Edward S. Curtis photographs of tribal elders to stills of the protagonists culled from footage to follow, a voice-over summarily historicizes the Native American plight: their erstwhile displacement to reservations and, more recently, their young people’s exodus to the cities. Finally we are promised “the authentic account” of a night in the life of the post-reservation generation, focused on a representative group of individuals in Los Angeles. The start of the actual narrative implements a seismic shift in tone. Photographic abstraction gives way to cinematic flow, but the last few stills are freeze-frames from the film. This transition not only puts into question conventional historical representations of Native Americans (as an extinct species, consigned to archives and picture books), but also complicates the status of the filmmaker’s own evocation and record of their presence.

The detached, authoritative male voice-over is eclipsed by a woman’s intimate, lived-through narration. We first see Yvonne (Yvonne Williams) silently walk around Grand Central Food Market, while we hear her express hope of giving her unborn child some of the opportunities she never had. The off-screen vocalization of her thoughts resumes after she arrives home. In the kitchen, making food for her husband Homer (Homer Nish) and his buddies, she regrets their marriage, wishes he would get his act together and rues his neglect of her. The initial narrator’s establishment of an anthropological subject-object relationship is countered only to expose the misogynist fabric of Native American community.

The men are given their due share of contemplative narration, but Mackenzie subtly privileges the motherly, future-oriented subjectivity of Yvonne, whose wistful yet practical point of view bookends the digressive storyline. The sophisticated use of first-person voice-over distorts the semblance of our direct access to the characters’ ruminations. We never see them utter their testimonials, and the camera’s tendency toward a more distant short length during spells of narration enhances the perfectly pitched mode of free indirect discourse.

The very title of The Exiles suggests rootlessness and absence, but the universe it sketches proves paradoxically self-contained. There is no L.A. beyond the supposed minority pocket the film opens up; the other, greater urban area materializes as no more than a glittering backdrop that expands below the hill where a climactic tribal gathering is held. Reservation life remains an equally intangible point of reference, never visualized into concrete existence; its elusive realm dilutes the assertion by Homer’s pal Rico (Rico Rodriguez) that many guys, including himself, easily move back and forth between the city and the rez. (When Homer, who did not grow up on a reservation, reads a letter from back home, the film does show a scene of his family, but refrains from literally revealing what they wrote, thereby sustaining its ever equivocal, coded and coated take on language.)

With the outside scope such an uncertain proposition, action on the inside – no matter how commonplace – assumes an extreme intensity, conveyed through Erik Daarstad, Robert Kaufman and John Morrill’s radiant high-contrast cinematography. The difference between day and night evaporates in the glow, which gives an aura of authenticity to sundry non-happenings – watching a movie, window-shopping, playing cards, hanging out in bars, walking and driving… Mackenzie’s work takes hold like blues, simple yet dense. It halts on the skipped beat of a subculture and sounds a selfless, whispered cry. The refrain of the characters’ numbed anguish disperses into a cyclical drift.

Charles Burnett’s association with the film’s release comes as no surprise given its artistic kinship with his own Killer of Sheep (1977), also adopted by Milestone. Their common features include an under-the-radar L.A. setting, a working class focus, conflicted sense of heritage, poetic-realistic sensibility and narrative structured by song. Yet where Burnett translates the nostalgia of his immersive, family-based vision of Watts into a final homecoming, the British-born Mackenzie operates from a broader, self-consciously distanced vantage point, and opts for a more stylized treatment of his subjects, who haven’t yet made it home by the time the film draws to a close.

Hopefully at some point a creative programmer will schedule The Exiles as half of an odd double bill with its East Coast kissing cousin, Michael Wadleigh’s Wolfen (1981). A brilliant, strange and unique blend of romantic horror and ecological fantasy, Wolfen is the only fiction film that revolves around the historical presence of Native Americans in New York City. On a grand film-historical scale, these two seemingly disparate works share the ancestry of a diptych by the cinema’s great organic visionary, F. W. Murnau. Thus Wolfen can be deemed an heir to Nosferatu (1922), and The Exiles – with its lyrical beauty and orbital temporality – to Sunrise (1927). Like Murnau, Mackenzie grasps the American spirit in a way only a cultural outsider could, ending his tale of the city as dawn rolls around to signal how nothing has changed quite momentously.

–Kenneth Crab

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