(Native) American Neo-Realism

The Exiles, Dir. Kent Mackenzie, Playing in IFC Theater starting July 11

Photo courtesy of Milestone Films.

From 1958–61, director Kent Mackenzie filmed a community of Southwestern Native Americans—who are never identified by tribe—living a hardscrabble life in the Bunker Hill tenements of down and out Los Angeles. Though acclaimed at the 1961 Venice Film Festival, The Exiles never found a distributor. While the Italians could easily place the picture in their cinematic history of social commentary dramas that utilize a detached moral view, non-professional actors, natural light and real-life locations to depict the quotidian reality of an abandoned underclass, Americans made an exile of the film itself.

The cheap, flashy clothes, Thunderbird wine, peeling-paint apartments, late-night police rousts and gutter fist-fights come straight out of Bukowski. As do the small-time kicks and hopeless dreams of the characters. “Seems like my prayers were never answered so I just stopped praying,” says Yvonne, the neglected wife of Homer, a hard-drinking, deeply distracted young man with a 6-inch Elvis duck’s-ass, an honorable discharge, a baby on the way and no apparent concept of tomorrow. Homer and his friends, and their ignored, smacked-around yet supportive wives and girlfriends, are caught between the opportunity-free homeland of the reservation and the unrealized potential of the uncaring city, where they all know they do not belong. The men act out, the women respond. The quiet close-ups of Yvonne’s stoic acceptance of unrelieved bad news prove the touchstone images of the film.

The director and his subjects are remarkably free of self-consciousness; their sincerity makes the film all the more poignant.

The Native Americans play themselves, enacting, or having documented, an uneventful, yet revealing day. The main characters narrate their thoughts in voice-over, as if the film were a dream of their lives. The sound seems to be — it’s hard to tell — post-synched, recorded later. If so, then the participants had to watch themselves, read their own lips and re-speak their own words — they could not hide from any moment, however painful.

The non-actors capture their lives, their vanities, the limitations of their situation, with astonishing openness. They do not fear depicting themselves as jerks, which, in a Bukowskian reversal, makes them more sympathetic. There’s a fatalistic acceptance in their unadorned depiction of a rough weekend night. No one pretends to be more aspirational or together than they are. How the filmmaker built the trust necessary to create this document, there ain’t no telling. Clearly, the preservation of the subjects’ lives, the truthful depiction of their existence, the fact that someone cared enough to pay attention, gave them courage to live on-camera. I hesitate to say ‘perform’ because it never feels like they are.

Clearly derived from Italian Neo-Realist classics like Rome, Open City, John Cassavetes’s groundbreaking Shadows (1959) and the Beat-influenced work of street photographers such as Gary Winogrand, Exiles’ power and flaws spring from the rigor of the filmmaker’s naturalist approach. He embellishes neither the tiny triumphs nor the lingering, inescapable tragedies. If the pacing is at times a little too 1961, so is Mackenzie’s conviction that the dignity of the telling will redeem the squalor of the tale. That squalor is redeemed, in part, by the vividness of life on screen.

The Exiles is a prism into an unseen world, and depicts that world with soul, compassion, astonishing b/w photographic composition, apparent truth and, only occasionally, more fascination than the moments might warrant. A sequence of an apparently gay white man pushing, shoving and dancing with the native rough trade goes on, as if the filmmaker couldn’t believe his good fortune in capturing that forbidden scene. The Indians drift through a night of drinking, cards, more drinking, fights, endless jabber about nothing, a pointless cruise around town, girl-groping and avoiding the cops. The women go to movies alone, sit with their girlfriends waiting quietly for the men to get home, get groped, left behind and slapped. In an astonishing closing sequence, the men gather at 2am as the bars close. They pile into a caravan of cars and climb, in a line of headlights and honking horns, up a winding dirt road to the crest of what they call Hill X. At the summit, downtown LA spreads out beneath them. They pull tribal drums and leg-bells from the cars, pound the drums, sing tribal chants and dance a high-knee prancing step—in their flash city clothes — to set the bells jingling.

But after a short while, the dance dissolves into another fist-fight, Hill x becomes a litter-strewn dirt field, and the night ends with a hung-over drive through the dawn to pick up the girls. The epiphanies ring through, gently. The Exiles, not quite ethnographic documentary, not quite Neo-Realism, pops off the screen. The vitality of the images mirror the lifeforce being wasted daily, nightly, and add to the overwhelming pathos of the story.

Contributor

David N. Meyer

David N. Meyer's Spring Semester cinema studies course at The New School begins January 26, The Desperate Horizon: Road Movies, Westerns, and the American Landscape.

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