Sunday, October 12, 2008

The Night Is a Friend

THE EXILES
(Kent Mackenzie, US, 1961, 72 mins.)


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Bunker Hill was then a blighted residential locality of decayed
Victorian mansions, sometimes featured in the writings of
Raymond Chandler, John Fante and Charles Bukowski.

-- Milestone press release

Better than any other movie, [The Exiles] proves that there was
once a city here, before they tore it down and built a simulacrum.
-- Thom Andersen, Los Angeles Plays Itself

***** ***** ***** ***** ***** ***** ***** ***** *****

As a title, The Exiles works in ways British expat and USC film grad Kent Mackenzie (1930-80) can't possibly have intended. On the one hand, his cinema verite feature follows the lives of Native Americans stranded in the city in the 1950s (Mackenzie initiated the project in 1957). Clearly, these former reservation dwellers are exiles, but the movie itself became an exile until Thom Andersen featured it-and dozens of other forgotten efforts-in his monumental documentary Los Angeles Plays Itself.

Now Ross Lipman of the UCLA Film & Television Archive has preserved it (the Northwest Film Forum is screening a new 35mm print), and Milestone is hand-
ling theatrical and DVD distribution, just as they did with Charles Burnett's Killer
of Sheep
, another beneficiary of Andersen's attentions. Like Killer and Burnett's
follow-up, My Brother's Wedding, both of which didn't premiere until 2007, this year marks the official debut of The Exiles, which is being presented by Burnett and
local author Sherman Alexie (The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian).

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Tommy on the make
As a drum beats in the background, the picture begins with Native portraits by photographer Edward S. Curtis. Then a narrator presents a brief history of the Rez before Curtis's images give way to static close-ups of the main players: Yvonne Williams, Homer Nish, Tommy Reynolds, Rico Rodriguez, Clifford Ray Sam, Cly-
dean Parker, and Mary Donahue (all of whom portray versions of themselves).
Chanting begins as the opening credits unspool. Rock & rollers the Revels provide the rest of the diegetic soundtrack. (According to the press notes, Quentin Tarantino reclaimed the unused "Comanche" for "Bruce Willis's samurai scene" in Pulp Fiction.)
From shots of the city, including Bunker Hill's fabled Angels Flight tramway, Mackenzie narrows in on a public market, where Yvonne (an Apache) shops
for produce. An inner monologue conveys her thoughts. Pregnant, she looks
forward to raising her son in Los Angeles. She returns home to the tenement
walk-up she shares with her husband, Homer (a Hualapai), and their Mexican-
Indian friend Tommy, two layabouts who read comics while listening to the rad-
io ("The good times / the bad times" the Revels sing as she prepares chops).
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Homer on the town
Yvonne believes that Homer, who shares a name with the sadsack in Nathanael West's Day of the Locust, would make more of himself if their flat wasn't a hang-
out for all of his similarly unemployed friends. It's clear that Yvonne serves as
more of a maid to the men than anything even remotely resembling an equal. The disheartening feeling soon sets in that the child will grow up to be exactly like the father. After dining, "the boys" hit the town, leaving her to clean up their mess.
While the men cavort in cars and bars, Yvonne wanders the neon-lit streets by herself. The high-contrast cinematography by Robert Kaufman, John Morrill (A
Boy and His Dog
), and Norwegian-born Erik Daarstad (Frank and Ollie) looks like
a scrappy cousin to Robert Siodmak's classy Criss Cross and Robert Aldrich's
spectacularly seedy Kiss of Death, yet The Exiles never feels like a film noir.
Just when it seems as if the narrative will revolve around Yvonne, Homer's voice-ov-
er confirms that he does have some ambition for himself. An ex-Navy man, he may be a drinker and a layabout, but he isn't a gambler, like Rico (a flashback depicts the rural life Homer left behind in Arizona). For Rico, the city represents a place to "raise all kinds of hell," and Tommy seconds that emotion. After Homer and Rico leave to play cards, he chats up the prettiest ladies in the joint, dances to the jukebox, and goes on a drunken joyride. As he states, "I don't want that regular life-you know, those poached eggs and Ovaltine and stuff like that in the morning."
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Mackenzie on the set
When critics like Jonathan Rosenbaum praise The Exiles, they often mention that Mackenzie doesn't romanticize a world to which he arrived as an outsider. And it's true, but you could argue he goes too far in the opposite direction. Yvonne and Mary
aside, every person in the film is either an incipient or full-blown dipsomaniac. Then again: Lost Weekend, The Days of Wine and Roses, Leaving Las Vegas, etc. Most of cin-
ema's hardest-drinking protagonists just happen to be white. Further, the majority come from the middle class-even when their drinking leads them to the poorhouse (or the grave). One way or the other, The Exiles isn't a response to that genre.
Mackenzie doesn't judge or question why his subjects imbibe. He simply shows them doing their thing, and allows them to explain where they come from and what they want out of life (the voice-overs stem from interviews). In the timeline of the movie,
it concludes 14 hours after it began, though the production lasted three years. The result is a work of art as essential in cinematic, ethnographic, and historical terms
as John Cassavetes' Shadows, Killer of Sheep, and yes, Los Angeles Plays Itself.
In the end, Mackenzie doesn't just portray indigenous people estranged from their culture, but a lost city that lives on only in the fading memories of a rapidly dim-
inishing populace and in increasingly precious celluloid artifacts like The Exiles.
***** ***** ***** ***** ***** ***** ***** ***** *****
Related clicking: David Jeffers' review of In the Land of the Head-
hunters
and my interview with Frozen River's Courtney Hunt.
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The Night Is a Friend was one of several titles Mackenzie considered for The
Exiles
. The movie, which opened on 10/10, continues at the Northwest Film
Forum through 10/16 (Alexie leads a Q&A after the 7pm screening on 10/14).
The NWFF is located at 1515 12th Ave. between Pike and Pine. Scheduled for late
2008/early 2009, the DVD release will include Mackenzie's shorts Bunker Hill-1956
(of which cinematographer James Wong Howe was a great admirer), Ivan and His
Father
, and A Skill of Molina. For more information, please click here or call 206-
329-2629. Images from the official film site, OutNow!, and Roger Ebert.

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