Early in his essay film Los Angeles Plays Itself, Thom Andersen says that “Los Angeles is where the relationship between reality and representation is muddled,” and although that ambiguity is by its own nature complicated in such ways that shall be dissected shortly, that unreal, ambiguous atmosphere is fundamentally defined by the unbalanced racial and social class power dynamic at work between the everyday citizens and the Hollywood culture deeply embedded within the city. Kent MacKenzie’s The Exiles punctures this power dynamic in a multitude of powerful ways.
The Exiles is a documentary filmed during the late 1950s about the lives of a community of transplanted Native Americans living and working in Los Angeles. The film’s ‘stars’ were not professionally trained actors, but they did perform a script for the film that applied structure to the film beyond what the editing process can do. This script was effectively co-written together by director Kent MacKenzie and the film’s various subjects, as its text derived entirely from interviews with these citizens conducted prior to filming. That first-person point of view that the film provides allows for it to contain nuances and joys that transcend it far beyond poverty porn. It fell into considerable obscurity and rarity over the decades, even drifting into potential lost film status, but UCLA’s Film and Television Archive acquired a print and produced a restoration that gave the film new life through its summer 2008 home media release.1
What The Exiles represents for the dynamics of Hollywood, and for the connections and contrast between working class realism and working class expressionism, comes from a variety of sources. MacKenzie’s status relative to Los Angeles as a British outsider arriving into the city much like the outsiders he’s capturing, even with his comparative privileges in mind. By extension, the nature of his Native American subjects as the first generation relocated to urban areas, isolated among Natives and non-Natives alike as well as each other as their own kind of immigrants. And foremost of all, the previously established collaborationist relationship between MacKenzie and the individuals whose lives the film captures. That relationship defines the nature of the film’s design and production and creates a transcended form of the blurs between representation and reality as discussed by Andersen.
The film features the Natives’ community of Bunker Hill at its setting, which was pointed to by Plays Itself‘s Andersen as “proof that there was a city here before they tore it down and built a simulacrum,” through its historical cycle of development as a wealthy elite neighborhood, its abandonment and reclamation by working class people of color such as the film’s subjects, and then the consumptive redevelopment by the city’s powerful as they forced the working class out to destroy and rebuild their homes in the image of the new elite neighborhoods. Grasping that past and future context and applying it to The Exiles’ snapshot of Bunker Hill in the late 1950s, in addition to the Natives’ historical context provided at the film’s outset during an anthropological opening that calls to mind older, more stereotypical images of Native life that are belied by the imagery seen throughout the film, paints the necessary sociopolitical foundation necessary on which for MacKenzie to build a true piece of working-class cinema.
To achieve an evenhandedness of representation and power as much as possible given the available resources and circumstances of the time, MacKenzie enabled the voices of his Native subjects to speak the truth of their lived experiences and built the film around said active voices, featuring extensive use of audio from these individuals’ interviews contextualized as mental narration of their lives, jumping from Yvonne’s to Rico’s and others’, in order to create a broad-scoped and intimately drawn portrait of their lives within a visual frame of staged reenactment. The Natives that are the film’s subjects serve as non-professional actors portraying themselves or extra roles, with a combination of naturalist non-verbal interactions between each other and the extensive use of ADR for their direct dialogue, that works in tandem with the narration to underline that these are real untrained people placed into a set-up version of their everyday lives, filmed in the actual locations of those lives, still a rarity for cinema in the 1950s, to further enhance the documentary style of working class realism. Reenactment is an often necessary and frequently employed device within documentary format, but as an element that carries throughout the entire visual framework of the film, it thus places a barrier of distinction between The Exiles and some of the works with which it carries its working class cinema kinship, like William Greaves’ Symbiopsychotaxiplasm.
As The Exiles and Charles Burnett’s Killer of Sheep built off the cinematic naturalism of Italian Neo-Realism, Greaves built off German Expressionism into his own stylistic approach to working class cinema, using largely outright documentary footage (as opposed to reenactment) as the visual component and reworking it into an assembled expression of the state of mind among his crew and in the class system of America at large. For all of the precise design and construction at work on William Greaves’ part on an editing level in Symbiopsychotaxiplasm, for all of the carefully managed artifice of a completely chaotic lack of control used to disguise said design, there is no planning, no manipulation, no symbolic ideation at work in the arrival of the homeless man in the final scenes of the film. That moment is, in the words of Werner Herzog in Grizzly Man describing the arrival of the fox pups, a paragon of “things falling into your lap, which you couldn’t expect, never even dream of, something like an inexplicable magic of cinema,” a sense of discovery at work that can only be accomplished by the observational lens of documentary. He is vital to the film’s conclusion and overall themes by functioning as a part of Greaves’ larger tapestry through the choices made in editing, of the footage’s inclusion and placement, as while the behaviors of his crew throughout are manipulated but not entirely predictable, here control is applied only through the editing process and not present in the production of the footage itself.
With the decade that separates The Exiles and Symbiopsychotaxiplasm, truly monumental tide shifts had occurred that demonstrate both the evolving tones and dynamics featured in each the films, the adaptation of style that developed between them, and even the technological advancements made in the time. The social unrest brewing in the lives of the working class and people of color as made apparent by MacKenzie’s film had begun to fully erupt, and a black American like William Greaves was empowered within that atmosphere which was paralleled on a smaller level by the greater accessibility and intimacy of camera technology pioneered by Robert Drew and Richard Leacock earlier in the 1960s, a revolution of its own in the place it has in the gradual democratization of cinema. And so the established power dynamic of Hollywood classes, and with it the styles and kinds of working class cinema that can be produced, has been upended to a greater and broader degree than previously achieved by individual films. The breakdown in stylistic approach that occurred in the process is reflective of the concept of representation in film changing in priority and direction by this shift in directorial power, and it underlines the ambiguity lying at the heart of documentary format that, as the fluctuating boundary between the two, has been perpetually influencing both fiction and nonfiction since the advent of cinema itself.
What each of these films portray are a reckless, dissatisfied community lifestyle brought about by systemic alienation, or a microcosm of the dissolution of effective authority figure over the course of the 1960s, speaking again to the respective social states that produced these films but also very much the perspective that controlled these films’ editing processes, an outside artist operating at best to empathize with and give agency to marginalized people, focusing on a limited and more “objective” POV, versus what a distinctively artistic minded marginalized person does when able to represent himself, reflecting on and manifesting their own internal state of being in alternately humbling and egoist fashion, and the states of others’ in parallel to his, all as a product of the systems of marginalization. This jump from naturalism to expressionism is also what in the process necessitates dancing over the line within documentary at the intersects of editing and filming by shifting from reenactment to documentation, a change that Greaves understood the need for very well with extended documentary experience prior to mounting his own expressionist adventure. The need to maintain a sense of observational truth kept under careful filmmaking control, via whichever approach one might take, is that line networking documentary film together into a whole.
This work has been edited and republished from a 2017 college essay.
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