Monday, November 9, 2015

The Exiles

THE EXILES (Mackenzie, 1961)
Milestone Films, DVD, Release Date Nov 17, 2009
Review by Christopher S. Long

(On Nov 12, 2015, TCM will be celebrating the 25th anniversary of the great independent distributor Milestone Films with a marathon of five of the great titles they've released during their impressive quarter-century run. Kent Mackenzie's "The Exiles" is one of the films in the program and, like all of them, is more than worth your while. I originally posted this review in 2009 - now re-posted with significant revisions - when Milestone released their meticulously curated DVD. If you click on the Milestone tab at the bottom of the review, you'll find that my reviews of their titles repeatedly gush over the care they lavish on their projects. If anything, I may not be doing them justice. You can also find my reviews for other films in the TCM tribute to Milestone, including Shirley Clarke's "The Connection," Lionel Rogosin's "Come Back, Africa," and Edward S. Curtis's "In The Land of the Head Hunters.")

In the great book “Movie Mutations,” critic Alexander Horwath discusses his concerns about “film-cultural globalization” and the tendency of the art-house circuit to focus disproportionately on “a few masters who can transcend all national borders and dance on all markets.” Films that “travel well” are celebrated for their universality, presumably the most laudable goal of art under this globalization model.

Horwath argues in favor of an alternative: “I am much more interested in filmmakers who speak in concrete words and voices, from a concrete place, about concrete plans and characters.” Specificity is the key here. Horwath values the films that depict the nuances and details of a singular time and place, irreducible qualities that would be lost if they were subsumed into a generic global culture in the pursuit of universality.

“The Exiles” (1961) is a sterling example of a film that speaks in “concrete words and voices, from a concrete place.” The words and voices in this case belong to several young Native American men and women who have moved from the reservation into the (now non-existent) Bunker Hill section of Los Angeles circa 1958-1959. The cast consists of non-professional actors who portray slightly fictionalized versions of themselves as they spend twelve hours roaming at night through the neighborhood.

Writer/director Kent Mackenzie goes to great pains to distinguish his characters from the depictions of Indians in American cinema and mainstream culture. The film begins with a montage of photographs by (in)famous photographer Edward S. Curtis whose Native American subjects are terribly serious and dignified. They’ve learned, a la “Smoke Signals,” to “get stoic.” Mackenzie then cuts directly to his modern characters with their blue jeans and slicked-back hair as Native chants are replaced with a bopping rock ‘n roll track by the Revels. Now it's time to “get down.” 

Expectant mother Yvonne (Yvonne Williams) struggles gamely to maintain a household on limited means and keep up her spirits in the process. Her husband Homer (Homer Nish) and his friend Tommy (Tom Reynolds) shoulder their burdens as well, but enjoy more freedom to shirk their responsibilities and blow off some steam. Homer dumps th harried Yvonne at the movies so he can hang out with his buddies and knock back more than a few cold ones, while slick-talking Tommy chases any skirt that wanders into his line of vision. All the while that great Revels music permeates the film, providing everyone a good excuse to dance and have a good time.

“The Exiles” is not a documentary, but it has documentary elements. Mackenzie constructed a narrative based on interviews and conversations with his actors (who he got to know well before shooting) and gives them a chance to speak about their own concerns in voice-over. Yvonne talks about her fears for her baby and her wavering faith. Homer relates an anecdote from his childhood on the Arizona reservation. The goal is to capture a twelve-hour slice of their lives, one that is true of their experiences but, as the narrator at the beginning of the film says, one that “is not true of all Indians today.” Only true of these young men and women (“concrete characters”) as well as many of their friends who are also seen in the movie, chilling, rocking, and living just enough for the city.

While tracking his characters, Mackenzie evokes a powerful sense of place seldom seen in movies. Homer and Tommy cruise from café to café, drive through tunnels (with open beer bottles in hand), and walk down alleyways all within a couple square miles of each other. You get the impression that they haven’t left the confines of their Bunker Hill neighborhood in years and have probably never thought twice about it. It’s just their world, a world captured at night in gorgeous black-and-white by cinematographers Erik Daarstad, Robert Kaufman, and John Arthur Morrill over a lengthy, intermittent shoot from 1958 to 1959.

Mackenzie’s film played a few festivals and then, failing to secure distribution, was all but forgotten by most viewers for nearly four decades until filmmaker Thom Anderson brought it back to the attention of both audiences and critics in his 2003 documentary “Los Angeles Plays Itself,” praising it as the best Bunker Hill film. The badly faded clips he showed rekindled interest in this “lost” film. Happily the UCLA Film and Television Archive and Milestone Films were eager and willing to pick up the project. UCLA’s restored print is a luminescent miracle and looks like it was struck from the original negative yesterday. Milestone’s extraordinary contributions to the project are discussed in the sections below.

There are a few remarkable moments in “The Exiles” that stand out for me, some of those “concrete details” that Horwath wrote about: Yvonne shopping at the bustling Central Market, Homer’s friend lounging on the bed reading a comic book with the title “The Terrible Toy!”*, the television jingle for “Double Crisp” that plays in the background while Tommy tries to scam money from his girlfriend/wife, the many different faces at the Columbine Café, the light glistening off a policeman’s twirling baton, Tommy playing “air piano” on the bar as the omnipresent jukebox blasts the Revels. Certainly everyone can connect to these characters and their experiences (that universal thing again), but it’s the specific touches that give the film a time capsule power that makes it so special. Bunker Hill may not exist anymore, but this Bunker Hill, on this night (a “single” night created over multiple nights on a lengthy shoot), is palpable and will exist forever.

Mackenzie worked on several short films but only completed only one other feature, “Saturday Morning” (1971), before his death in 1980 at the age of 50. “The Exiles” alone is enough to secure his place in history as a great American independent filmmaker. It is a history from which he has been all but erased until now. Thanks to Thom Anderson, UCLA, Milestone, the Mackenzie Family, and many others, his name is back in the books and his film, no doubt, will be back on film school curricula where it belongs. This DVD set from Milestone is as much a tribute to the director as it is to his signature film. Read on for more of the juicy details.

The film is presented in its original 1.33:1 aspect ratio. As mentioned above, the film has been laboriously restored by the UCLA Film and Television Archive and it is breathtaking. The film clips seen in “Los Angeles Plays Itself” (perhaps taken from a badly-worn VCR copy) show how much work has been put into this project. The black-and-white photography is sharp both in resolution and contrast. The transfer by Milestone is very strong as we would expect from them.

The DVD is presented in Dolby Digital 2.0. Mackenzie did not film with synch sound for budgetary reasons, and had his actors record their lines later. The dialogue has a strange, hollow quality to it that makes it sound like it’s coming from an off-screen space. Everyone sounds like they’re speaking in this same space, no matter how they’re arranged in the frame. It can be little distancing if you're not used to it but it works just fine.

No subtitles are provided.

There are many passionate distributors who put a lot of effort into their DVD releases, but when Milestone assembles a package it brings a level of passion and dedication to the project that nobody else can beat. Their DVDs are lovingly produced with tremendous respect for the material at end. That was the case with last year’s magnificent “Killer of Sheep” release and it’s just as true of “The Exiles.”

Disc One features the restored film and allows the option of playing with a commentary track with author and filmmaker Sherman Alexie and critic Sean Axmaker. I enjoyed this commentary enough to watch the film twice in a row, once without commentary and once with.

Disc One also includes Mackenzie’s USC graduate film,“Bunker Hill 1956” (17 min.), which shows the neighborhood from a different perspective than seen in “The Exiles.” Even by 1956, the residents of Bunker Hill knew that the city was planning to move them out to make way for “progress.”

Milestone has also included a three minute clip from Thom Anderson’s “Los Angeles Plays Itself.” Actually, it’s two separate clips that reference “The Exiles.” It’s great to have any footage from Anderson’s brilliant movie available, but what a cruel tease. “Los Angeles Plays Itself” has not been released on DVD because of the numerous copyright problems involved with the hundreds of film clips it uses but, please please please, can somebody work a miracle and get this movie out to a home audience? (Update: Cinema Guild stepped up to the plate in 2014 and answered my plea with a DVD and Blu-ray release of Anderson's great film.)

Disc One also offers an Audio Recording (51 min.) of the film’s Los Angeles Opening Night at UCLA and features several speakers involved with the restoration project.

That would be enough for many DVD packages but we haven’t even gotten to Disc Two yet.

The second disc features three short films by Kent Mackenzie.

“A Skill for Molina” (16 min.) is an educational short about an unemployed family man who is learning how to become a welder in a government sponsored training program.

“Story of a Rodeo Cowboy” (25 min.) is a beautiful short documentary about three men who try to scrape up a living on the rodeo circuit, hauling halfway across the country to try to win enough prize money to pay their entry fees and travel expenses to the next rodeo. A slow motion shot of one of the men on a bucking bronco is quite lovely.

“Ivan and His Father” (13 min.) records a group therapy session with teenagers and older counselors. Ivan is a young man working out problems with his father, and other members of the group help him play-act an imagined confrontation. Mackenzie steps out from behind the camera to role-play the father. It gets pretty heated and doesn’t end with an easy resolution.

Milestone’s box set is not only a tribute to the filmmaker, but also to the Bunker Hill section of Los Angeles which essentially no longer exists. Two short films provide glimpses of the area.

“Robert Kirste’s Last Day of Angels Flight” (2 min.) provides video footage of the final day of operation of the Angels Flight, a funicular railcar that carried riders up a steep slope. It was a major landmark in Bunker Hill and features prominently at the beginning of “The Exiles.” It closed in 1969.

“Bunker Hill: A Tale of Urban Renewal” (23 min.) is a short film by Greg Kimble who details the rise and fall of Bunker Hill. It’s not just a historical documentary but an angry indictment of shortsighted urban renewal plans in a city whose planners have never had much of a plan. Los Angeles is not a city that cares much about its non-Hollywood history.

One last film is a real treasure for cinema history buffs. “White Fawn’s Devotion” (1910), directed by James Youngdeer, is described in its opening title card as “A Play Acted By A Tribe of Red Indians in America.” It has been credited here as the first Native American film though film historians know the perils of attributing the distinction of “first” to any film. Nobody would confuse this with a masterpiece, but it’s a film of historical significance that was added to the Library of Congress’ National Film Registry in 2008.

Disc Two also includes two Audio Features. First up is a second interview with Sherman Alexie and Sean Axmaker (38 min.) which sounds like it precedes the commentary track included on Disc One. Next is an episode of “The Leonard Lopate” radio show (18 min.) on WNYC. Lopate interviews Sherman Alexie and filmmaker Charles Burnett, who are both credited as presenting “The Exiles,” along with Dennis Doros of Milestone Films. All of these features are wonderful but you will wind up listening three separate times to Alexie’s story of where and when he first watched “The Exiles.”

Are you still with me? There’s even more.

You can access an extraordinary number of files from your DVD-Rom drive, including (but not limited to) six different scripts for The Exiles, the funding proposal for the film, promotional materials, and even Kent Mackenzie’s final resume.

But no liner notes. Geez, put a little effort into it, Milestone!

Film Value:
I think it’s fair to say that Milestone has pulled out all the stops for this all-encompassing boxed set. Simply making “The Exiles” available to a home audience would have been contribution enough, but this exhaustive compilation is a work of scholarship and a labor of love. What more could anyone ask for? Not only has Milestone never disappointed, they exceed themselves with each new release. I can’t imagine how they could top this one, but I’m sure they’ll find a way.

“The Exiles” is indisputably one of the best DVD releases of 2009.

*Trivia: The comic book with the gaudy title “The Terrible Toy!” is Issue 63 of “Astonishing”on stands in August 1957.

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