Minority Report

Amy Taubin on Kent Mackenzie's The Exiles

Kent Mackenzie, The Exiles, 1958–61, stills from a black-and-white film in 35 mm, 72 minutes. Left: Yvonne (Yvonne Williams). Right: Tommy (Tommy Reynolds).

MISSING FROM AMERICAN independent-film history for over forty years, Kent Mackenzie’s The Exiles (1958–61) follows a group of Native Americans, residents of the warrens of wooden houses that once covered downtown Los Angeles’s Bunker Hill district, through a night of drinking, gambling, brawling, and abusing women. Shot on 35-mm black-and-white film and digitally restored by the UCLA Film Archive, the film is startlingly beautiful—its blacks as lush and grays as detailed as in the classiest Hollywood noirs. Which, by contrast, makes the behavior of the characters all the more ugly.

While a student at USC in the mid-'50s, Mackenzie made a short film about an Apache who “relocated” from the reservation to Los Angeles. The Exiles, which grew out of that film, was an attempt to depict a marginalized subculture—the Indians of the relocation period, ten years before the civil rights movement gave birth to the concept of Native pride—barely surviving in a city where they had hoped to find a better life.

The film also belongs to an exceptionally creative moment in American independent-film history. Viewed today, The Exiles, despite the anomaly of its refined cinematography, has much in common with independent films made during the period—Robert Frank’s Pull My Daisy and John Cassavetes’s Shadows (both 1959) in particular, as well as films by Shirley Clarke, Jonas Mekas, Sidney Meyers, Lionel Rogosin, and Morris Engel. These filmmakers were staking out the terrain of an American neorealism, using nonprofessionals or fledgling actors who played characters very like themselves. The blend of fictional and documentary elements applied to every aspect of production. The shoestring-budget films were often shot documentary-style, with handheld cameras; their scripts were written or improvised in collaboration with the actors. Because it would have been difficult and costly to record synchronous sound, most dialogue was rerecorded and postsynchronized, resulting in the hollow sound, a distinguishing characteristic that The Exiles shares.

The Exiles opens with Yvonne (Yvonne Williams), a pregnant woman in her twenties, shopping for groceries. Yvonne, her husband, Homer (Homer Nish), and, to a lesser degree, Homer’s friend Tommy (Tommy Reynolds) are the only characters in the film who have any discernible interiority. Mackenzie edited interviews he recorded of the three actors discussing their own lives into voice-over monologues. As Yvonne shops and then climbs the steep stairs to the cramped apartment she shares with Homer and a half dozen of his friends, we hear her musing about how trapped she feels and how none of her prayers have been answered. At home, Yvonne cooks dinner for the men, who lie around drinking and watching TV. As is his habit, Homer drops off Yvonne for a night at the movies alone (Douglas Sirk’s Imitation of Life is glimpsed on one marquee) while he goes off with his friends. From then on, the film sticks mostly with the men as they drink their way through the night, occasionally cutting away to Yvonne, alone in a nearly empty movie theater or wandering through downtown looking at shopwindows. The worst of Homer and his friends’ behavior is directed toward women: Not only do they grab and maul, they mooch money off their wives, girlfriends, and any woman stupid enough to come within arm’s length.

Unlike other slice-of-life films of the period, The Exiles is located within a milieu of abjection, a milieu of which the director, despite his years of research, was not a part. Frank was a participant in the Beat culture of Pull My Daisy; Cassavetes was intimate with the Times Square bohemia of Shadows. Their insider positions result in a discernible, though not always coherent, critique of the culture depicted on the screen—and of the act of representation itself. This is not the case with The Exiles, where the question of who is looking and to what end is barely posed, let alone answered.

I have no doubt that Mackenzie was committed to honestly documenting a ghettoized, desperately impoverished minority that a wealthy city chose to ignore, as well as to finding moments of wild poetry in the experience of people with whom he empathized. Still, I could not help but notice that what was on the screen was in fact a bunch of drunken Indians—not Indians acting drunk and pawing at women but, well, the real thing, aided and abetted by the film’s director. I didn’t need to read in the production notes that “8% of the budget went for alcohol” to understand what I was seeing. At the time of its original release, The Exiles was treated with great respect by critics and cinephiles. (Pauline Kael wrote that 1961 was likely to be remembered in film history as the year of The Exiles.) The veneration of the rerelease has been even more over-the-top. I can only look at the screen and wonder, What’s wrong with this picture?

The Exiles opens at IFC Center in New York on July 11, with other cities and a DVD release to follow. To watch the film's trailer, please click here.