The Exiles (1961)

When it’s on: Friday, 3 August (2.35 am, Saturday)
Channel: Film4
IMDb Link

Today’s focus was going to be on Vertigo, for me the best film I’ve ever seen (and seen many times). The BFI agrees, overhauling years of advancing Citizen Kane as the all-time greatest work of cinematic art with Alfred Hitchcock’s masterpiece in its most recent poll. In the end I backed away, intimidated at my ability to do it any kind of justice, and instead ordered The Exiles from Lovefilm.

The Exiles is a documentary by Kent MacKendrick that was widely considered to be lost before footage from it appeared in the 2003 film, Los Angeles Plays Itself. Found and duly restored, the 70-minute picture is a look into the lives of young Native Americans who have left the reservations to try living in the City of Angels. Planned for several years but shot over a 12-hour stretch, it focuses on three people, letting them narrate their experiences and following their tracks as they are swallowed up in early sixties Bunker Hill.

Following some stills of Native Americans, the film pursues its trio of protagonists through a night out in LA. They interact, go drinking, get into fights and visit the cinema. Their existences seem extraordinarily empty and dissolute. Hualapai Homer Nish spends his time drinking and gets involved in a game of cards that he realises is loaded against him. Especially affecting is a letter he receives from family still based on the reservation, and his imagining of their lives. Would-be Don Juan, Tommy Reynolds, picks up girls who aren’t fully willing to go with him. Saddest of all is pregnant Yvonne Williams, an Apache who’s married to Homer yet experiences no joy with him, left to contemplate a lonely life of being left alone and clinging to the scraps at hope that come with bringing up her baby in the city. As Yvonne spends the night with a friend, the two men wind up at Chavez Ravine, where they drink and fight some more, listen to Indian drumming and chanting and participate in dancing rituals as though attempting to recreate those of their forefathers.

The two issues that stayed with me were the rootless prospects of these people, lost within a system that’s taken over lands once belonging to their tribes, and how terrible life must have been in the reservations if this was preferable. The film is shot in wonderful, crisp black and white. MacKendrick’s camera often lingers on a face in the crowd, as though contemplating the histories of all subjects it shoots. Ritz Caf is full of Native Americans, all sharing the fag end of the American dream and with defeated faces to match, but equally interesting is the market stall holder who eyes Yvonne with open suspicion, implying bad dealings with other Native Americans, and the petrol station attendant who clearly wants them off the forecourt as quickly as possible. This seems like no life for a woman. They’re either ignored, like Yvonne, or taken for rides and tapped for cash.

Also fascinating is the insight into a city that no longer exists. The area of LA filmed here became prime real estate and was developed into the typical modern American cityscape, all skyscrapers and glass frontages. Chavez Ravine turned into the home of the Los Angeles Dodgers. The city of The Exiles has gone and the documentary therefore takes the shape of a real historical document. Still present are many of the locations used for countless film shoots, including numerous instances of film noir, which felt at home in the faded glories of the Victorian development conceived originally by Prudent Beaudry.

The two-disc BFI edition includes a number of MacKendrick’s other documentaries. On my rental copy is his student work, Bunker Hill, filmed in the mid-fifties as a major redevelopment project bent on slum clearance was underway. MacKendrick shot the area and its people, recording the concerns of several denizens. Most touching is the long-standing community doctor who continues to treat Bunker Hill’s pensioners despite their inability to pay him adequately. Like The Exiles, it depicts a world that has altogether vanished.

The Exiles: ****

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