(Check out my previous essay on Independent Cinema: 1976’s The Grim Reaper)
The Exiles is an independent American film directed by the British-born filmmaker Kent Mackenzie who also produced and edited the picture, gathered the story and shaped it into a script form. To create this docudrama on a day in the life of a young group of Native Americans who left their reservations years prior for the city life in Bunker Hill, Los Angeles, California, Mackenzie talked with dozens of young Native Americans living under these circumstances, recorded their stories, and then worked with them to shape a script from their real-life experiences, which they would then act within as themselves. The result was a powerful film about the lives of real people as expressed by those people thereby lending the film more claim to authenticity than nearly any committed to celluloid in the drama genre hence or thence.
Shot two years after John Cassavettes’ independent classic, ‘Shadows’, and certainly the product of similar times and aesthetic tastes if not directly influenced by that prior work, we see in both films focused close-ups, gritty noir expressionist lighting for scenes of urban nightlife, a preoccupation with a camera of faces and of lines (the line of the railcars climbing intense gradients to carry the elderly or infirm throughout Bunker Hill, the lines of people following streets and market passageways in the city’s bazaars), and an eye for compositions that allows the student of photography to freeze a frame at most any moment to reveal a beautiful picture. The seedy, sprawling, vivacious night lives of the films are punctuated and intensified through use of popular music: Jazz in the case of ‘Faces’ and rock and roll (courtesy of surf rock band The Revels) in the case of ‘The Exiles’.
The use of a completely Native American cast and the use of those actor’s real stories and narratives adds another dynamic name into the film’s conception: Neorealism. Like the works of the Italian neorealists de Sica and Rossellini before it, historical conditions are paramount. The viewer is invited by the film’s prologue to understand that the history of Native Americans since white colonization began on the continent was one of exclusion from society, corralling into reservations, and the loss of their society. As these young Native Americans left their world in the reservations of few prospects for advancement, they hoped to find the American Dream of good jobs and the income to build happy, healthy families; the joy of youth in a city with its dance halls, clubs, gambling, drugs, alcohol, and rock and roll; and most importantly in the hopes of finding and staking claim to a piece of life in the country their ancestors lost. But the big joke, the irony of the work is that Bunker Hill, a once vivacious and beautiful place is becoming commodified and slowly taken over by big business. The fun to be had in a great city is being lost as police presence increases and limits freedom, danger, and the excitement of Bunker Hill. Just as Native American life was once changed forever by imperialism and the myth of manifest destiny, capitalist expansion into all facets of life and a move toward more social control is destroying the Bunker Hill of the past, the Bunker Hill of John Fante’s youth and of Charles Bukowski’s youth decades later.
Two figures, out of the dozen or so in the film’s ensemble cast, center the film emotionally and narratively: Yvonne and Homer. Yvonne is a young woman with a child on the way. She came to the city in the hopes of finding a new life, of living in a place where her children could receive a good education and grow up with good economic prospects. Once she arrived, she fell in love and became pregnant, but the man is a bum. He constantly goes out on the town, gambles, and cheats on her with other women. She prayed that he might change, and hopes he may still do so when the child is born, but has as of late stopped praying and going to church as she realizes that these efforts have no efficacy and import in her life.
Homer lives in the flat shared by Yvonne, her child’s father, and half a dozen other Native Americans. He is young man like all the rest. He gambles, listens to rock and roll music, combs and pomades his hair in the greaser style, wears white t-shirts and blue jeans, and is looking for a good time wherever and whenever he can find it. But visions of the past plague him. Visions of his father who still lives on the reservation in abject poverty, of maracas and traditional songs, of riding horses on the open range and feeling free and easy unlike in the city where money is always a concern. In Bunker Hill, there is a larger hill outside the downtown proper where it is quiet (or it once was) and one can look out over the city lights and up toward the stars. Here, on Hill X, Homer and his friends meet together and rejoice at life through the numbing effects of booze, mary jane, love, and fighting. It is here where Homer jumps in to stop a man from hitting his girlfriend: an action that immediately gets everyone interested and becomes a full-out Dionysian life-affirming brawl.
The tragic throughline of Yvonne’s story is balanced by a hopefulness for the future despite the hardships she is currently facing and always an ability to look back to worse times. Homer’s joyous throughline at living in a time and place where he can be relatively free for a while and enjoy life with fellows friends who have lived through similar pasts and understand him is balanced by a recognition of the pitfalls of his own lifestyle and the ugliness of it compared to the simple and idyllic joys of life before, of life on the reservation (despite its own problems), of life closer to the traditions of his people. The Native American experience is complicated, and the choices Native American youth have to make are difficult, and ‘The Exiles’ manages to express some of the vagaries and vicissitudes of these difficulties head on without oversimplifying them or trying to provide simple answers. In this way, ‘The Exiles’ is preeminent among neorealist independent American cinema because it frames the thing as closely as it is as possible to do and makes it clear that each person must define his or her own relation to history, and more importantly, in what direction one’s own life will push it toward.
[Next up: Killer of Sheep]