“Distribute This!” is a space intended to showcase works that have not yet had the opportunity to find their audience. Not generally distributed at the time of writing, these are films that deserve to be seen, and theaters full of viewers are waiting for them. EDITOR’S NOTE: Happily, The Exiles was released in 2009 (four years after this review first appeared) by the redoubtable Oscilloscope Laboratories.
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This uncategorizable classic captures life in L.A.’s seamy underbelly
In case you’re ever wondering if you’re wasting your life watching way too many movies, I would like to remind you that film buffs may have done more for our cultural heritage and history in general — not just film history — through our enthusiasm than most people ever attempt. Henri Langlois, the ultimate film buff, literally saved thousands of films from destruction just by becoming a collector. Similarly, a sometime documentary filmmaker named Thom Andersen, who made a film in 1974 about Eadweard Muybridge, the Father of Motion Pictures, and made only two more since then, has managed to resurrect a film destined to be forgotten and possibly lost. In his tribute to Los Angeles, Los Angeles Plays Itself (2003), this lover of film found a 1961 film called The Exiles and excerpted from it liberally to show Bunker Hill, one of the city’s vibrant working/lower-class neighborhoods just before it was urban-renewed out of existence. Of the many films he sampled, The Exiles was the one I most wanted to see. Chicago’s Gene Siskel Film Center dug up a pristine copy of this classic film and scheduled two showings; I was one of the lucky few who got a chance to see it.
Classic? I didn’t know that term could apply to The Exiles until I read that the film made the cover of an issue of Film Quarterly following its release. I had thought this film was just an oddity that Andersen dug up in his research; and yet, it has so much going for it that the use of the word is entirely appropriate. Director-producer- writer Kent Mackenzie made his debut with this documentary-like feature film; tragically, he would complete only one more film before an untimely death. His talent is evident in his shot compositions, his heartbreaking close-ups, his thorough integration of settings and players, and his incredible use of lighting. This film is reminiscent of and every bit as good as Cassavetes’ Shadows, and possibly better for showing us people we almost never see on screen, even today.
The Exiles starts by showing archival stills of Indians both famous and forgotten and their way of life before their complete domination by the White Man took place. The film mentions the Native Americans’ fate and how a new generation of Native Americans was leaving the reservations to find a new way of life in the cities of the United States. The scene switches to Los Angeles and a particular group of Native Americans living in the Bunker Hill neighborhood. A collage of buildings sets the scene of this now-razed area of Los Angeles, ending at the Angels Flight funicular, which was used for transportation before it was resurrected a few years ago as a sort of Disneyland ride for Angelenos and tourists alike. We see a female Native American climbing halfway up the hill that the funicular scales and stepping into a hillside maze of buildings where her apartment lies. What follows is a combination of interior monologues by this woman, her husband, and a bon vivant friend of theirs, and scenes of life in the neighborhood as they and their friends wander through it, carousing, card playing, drinking, fighting, and in quiet camaraderie before more of the same begins again the following day.
There is a lively mixed salad of people in Bunker Hill, precariously balanced within society or sliding to the bottom of the heap. Liquor — primarily Lucky Lager and Gallo Thunderbird — liberally lubricate the search of these people for an escape from their dead-end, rootless lives. The Native women are merely around to provide their men with money and sex. The men are largely lost to alcoholism. These Native Americans are exiles — from their broken society, their reservations, and themselves — and we feel it looking into their expressive, sad faces and hearing their musings on their lives. The penultimate scene is very powerful. After the bars close at 2 a.m., the Native Americans drive up to what they call Hill X and have a bit of a pow wow. In the bars, they played the jukeboxes with popular rock ‘n roll tunes of the day. Here, the men beat on drums, chant, and dance with bells strapped to their legs. The sun comes up, the cars of Native Americans seeking their own company away from the prying eyes of the White Man are gone, and crushed cigarette butts and empties litter the hill. Los Angeles looms in the background.
Why has this film gone into eclipse? The reasons range from the small creative output of the man who crafted it to difficulty categorizing it to the lack of plot. America’s embarrassment over the treatment of its native population probably also has helped ensure its obscurity (as it has a classic from the silent era, The Vanishing American), an obscurity that only grows with the passage of time. However, this film deserves the embrace of a film public hungering for original, homegrown independent films that tell us who we are. “Distribute This!” proudly supports The Exiles.