Started in 1958 and shot over three years, then absent from public view until the UCLA Film Archive restored it, The Exiles is now finally in theaters, thanks to Milestone Films. This is the company that last year resurrected Charles Burnett's magnificent Killer of Sheep. (Burnett is a co-presenter of The Exiles, with Native American novelist and filmmaker Sherman Alexie.) Mackenzie's dramatized documentary film isn't quite in the Killer of Sheep class, but it's an acute, great-looking, doggedly noncommittal view of a culture just one step up from the lower depths: Native Americans who have left the reservation for a hardscrabble existence in the downtown Los Angeles neighborhood of Bunker Hill.
The film traces a long evening, from four one afternoon to early the next morning, in the lives of three characters: Homer (Homer Nish), a Hualapi who prowls the bars of Main street with his Mexican-Indian pal Tommy (Tommy Reynolds), while Homer's pregnant Apache wife Yvonne (Yvonne Williams) makes meals for the guys, takes in a double feature and muses on her loneliness. "He doesn't ask me if I want to go anyplace, down to the theaters or down to shop," she says in a monotone voiceover. "He usually take me along but he drop me off, and he don't pick me up when I ask him to."
But Homer is busy at the Ritz Bar, cadging drinks and watching Tommy, a fast-talking Lothario, flirt with the girls. (Tommy: "When I booze I'm not gonna sip on a drink. I wanna drink and get high, That's what drinks are for. ... I don't live that regular life, you know my poached eggs and Ovaltine. As long as I feel strong the way I always do, well, they'll never get me down.") While Homer tries to change his bad luck in a poker game, and Yvonne, abandoned by her husband, goes to a girlfriend's place to sleep over, Tommy takes a joy-riding with a friend and two women. After the bars close, dozens of Indians convene on Hill X for tribal music and a fight or two. As Homer says, "Indians like to get together where they're not gonna be bothered or watched or nothing like that. Want to get out there and just be free nobody watchin' every move you make." As dawn breaks, Homer, Tommy and two women laugh as they walk down a back street. Above them, in her friend's bedroom, Yvonne listens.
That's about it for the plot of this 72 min. movie. But in The Exiles, the texture is the text. Few fiction or nonfiction films nail the sense of place and time as palpably as this one does. We're in the late '50s, when TV had come into even the poorest homes and a gallon of gas cost 30 cents. We get a glimpse of the Victorian houses that had once been Bunker Hill's elitist pride and were now slum abodes. The Angels Flight railway, the movie theater, the Ritz Bar are seen in their full functioning glory. Since the people in The Exiles rehearsed some of their scenes, the movie may not fit the precise definition of a documentary. But it is a precious document of a vanished culture. (The film is eloquently excerpted in Thom Anderson's excellent history of the city, Los Angeles Plays Itself.)
The streets of Bunker Hill, with their Frisco-style cable cars and steep slopes, had been fabled in L.A.'s history and in movie lore, which often are the same thing. It's where Charlie Chaplin shot a two-reeler, Work, in 1915, and where Harold Lloyd made many of his silent comedies. By the late '40s it had become a seductively seedy location for the film noir crowd: Act of Violence, Hollow Triumph, Night Has a Thousand Eyes, Criss Cross, Douglas Sirk's Shockproof, Joseph Losey's remake of M and Kiss Me Deadly were all filmed there. The 1999 L.A. Confidential went to Bunker Hill to capture the majestic sleaze of the city circa 1953, Now a Frank Gehry building, the Walt Disney Concert Hall, looms over the Indians' old stomping ground.
They're vital and craggy in this film. Faces jump off the screen and leech into your memory. Homer, a round-faced Freddy Fender type, and Tommy, the Valentino wannabe, and Yvonne, despair stamped on her prettiness. At the Ritz, bit players become stars for a second, like the toothless gent sucking on a beer bottle. Mackenzie's sense of portraiture is less stark and sensational than that of his contemporaries Robert Frank, Diane Arbus and Weegie, less hagiographic than the work of his predecessor Edward Curtis (whose photographs of Amerindians provide the film's opening montage). He just knows how to choose faces, how long to leave them on screen.
As with many an indie film, the story of The Exiles' making is as strange an adventure as the travails of Homer, Yvonne and Tommy. Mackenzie, born in 1930 in London to an Englishwoman and an American journalist (who ran the Associated Press's London bureau), graduated from Dartmouth College and went to film school at the University of South California. There he conceived his study of Native Americans; he planned to call it Thunderbird, after their favorite wine. He worked out the story with the main characters, whose reminiscences he taped and used as the voiceover narration.
The Exiles took three years to make, as MacKenzie enlisted friends and fellow students from USC. (The movie's credits list five cinematographers and six editors.) When he had money, he filmed; when he didn't, he tried raising more. He got $1,250 from his barber, another $2,000 from a woman in Pasadena who put off buying a car to help him. Some of the capital went for bail money when his actors got arrested. Mackenzie's "actors" deserve medals for not acting, for revealing so much of themselves, as Yvonne does in one of her most plaintive monologues: "Y: I used to pray every night before I went to bed and asked for something that I wanted, and I never got it, or it seems like my prayers were never answered. So I just gave up,. And now I don't hardly go to church and don't say my prayers sometimes. But I haven't started drinking or hanging around Main Street yet."
Presumably unable to afford clearances for pop songs, Mackenzie papered the soundtrack with rock and doo-wop numbers written by Anthony Hilder and performed by his group The Revels (one of whose songs, "Comanche," is played in Pulp Fiction.) All the dialogue from TV shows and movies, all the commercials and DJ patter, Mackenzie's team made that up too. Nearly four years after it was begun, the film had its premiere at the 1961 Venice Film Festival and was bought by a U.S. distributor, but it was licensed only in a 16mm version to schools and churches. It never received a proper theatrical release till now.
Seeing it is thus a good deed, for the selfless saints of film preservation and for the part of any moviegoer open to a fresh experience from an old film. So if you're in the vicinity and can't get into The Dark Knight, try Mackenzie's film; it has twice the angst at half the running time. And next week, if it' s a choice between The X Files and The Exiles, take a chance on the little guy.