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Exile and Displacement on Bunker Hill

I was really lucky to have an opportunity to see the brand new pristine 35 mm print of The Exiles last week. Originally made in 1961, the film never was distributed until 2008, and even now it is playing on very few screens and for very short runs, which is a shame because it is an incredible work of art. Hopefully, it will be released to DVD soon, so more people will have a chance to see it.

Set in the Bunker Hill district of Los Angeles, the film chronicles a night in the lives of a group of Native Americans who moved to LA to find a life outside of the reservation. Though written and directed by Kent McKenzie, the film is actually an amazing collaborative artistic effort, directed and photographed by a group of young filmmakers. Many of the artists involved in the project held day jobs at movie studios, and the entire film was shot using the “excess” or “waste” from mainstream films. They collected the “short ends” or leftover film stock discarded by the studios. All of the actors in the movie are actually “non-actors” who play themselves. The entire film is alive and vibrant with the energy poured into its production.

What struck me from the opening scene to the final shot is how exquisitely photographed this film is. I immediately thought of the urban documentary photographers from the 1950s (e.g. Elliott Erwitt, Lee Friedlander, and Gary Winogrand) whose work I like so much. It seemed to me that McKenzie and his collaborators were employing the stylistic techniques of the new documentary photography of the 1950s to document this “exiled” and invisible population residing not far from the Hollywood sign. Each shot is meticulously composed and utterly exquisite. The choice of details and framing, the way the characters inhabit the space and are illuminated by internal light sources (a ceiling lamp, neon lights, car headlights, a jukebox) work to elevate the profound realism of the film’s content into a state of illuminated art.

This art-meets-realism technique infuses the film with a kind of tension that speaks to the tension within the characters themselves. There is the internal tension within the characters themselves who are being split between two cultures (White and Native American), and there is the external tension between the men and the women, the men and the men, and everyone in their environment. All of that tension speaks to the identity split within the characters – the part of them that maintains a commitment to the rituals and traditions of their culture and life on the reservation, and the part of them that is seeking a new kind of freedom in the white media-saturated culture of Los Angeles. The scenes with the characters walking through the tunnel are breathtakingly beautiful. As they traverse the glowing lights of the tube with cars speeding by in a cacophony of motor sounds, you get this visual sense that these people are in transit, moving through this in between place, caught between two locations and cultures – the reservation and the city – represented by each end of the tunnel.

A preponderance of consumer and entertainment culture infuses every scene. A young pregnant Native American woman studies the display of baby carriages and accessories in a department store window, all modeled with pristine white mannequins, and all far beyond the character’s socio-economic means. Every scene is punctuated with popular music and cinema references. Music pours through the jukebox. A romantic melodrama flickers on the movie screen. A commercial blares from the television. The juxtaposition between the rhythm of the reservation (represented by a flashback with a Native elder playing drums and singing) and the rhythm of commercial media and the city drives the energy of the film as the characters move from drunken scene to drunken scene. All the energy coalesces in a gorgeously tumultuous powwow on a Los Angeles hilltop. The drums, cars, honking horns, violent sexuality, singing, dancing, and drunken brawling show the chaos created by this cultural split. The scene reels with an unhinged energy from a desperate and unsuccessful attempt to assimilate in an environment where assimilation seems neither possible or ultimately desirable. So much of the power of the movie is delivered through tension and rhythm and a sense that something is brewing and going to explode at any moment. The threat of violence lurks just under the surface. We see it in an odd homosexual drunken dance scene in a bar, in a glimpse of cops beating some men on the sidewalk, and in the constant threat of seething sexual violence between the men and the women.

In fact, the tense gender dynamics between men and women are quietly written into this film. We see a culture where the women are strong, steady, and enduring while the men reel out of control. Throughout the film, it is the women who hold the purse strings and the men who have to ask the women for money. We see these men struggling with their emasculation in white urban culture as they try to maintain their virility, masculinity, and independence through drinking, gambling, and rebel-rousing. In a number of scenes, the male characters attempt to force sexual encounters with the women, but the women ultimately prove stronger and the men are left to suck on their bottles and beat their drums while the women emit a stoic resignation. Indeed, resignation fuels the rhythm of the film because it is despair and resignation that ultimately drives the characters to live lives of such reeling drunkenness. When someone warns one of the characters that he could be arrested for his behavior, he responds that it doesn’t matter because he’s just “passing time” and he could “pass time just the same in jail or out of jail.” That is resignation.

The Bunker Hill neighborhood in which the film was made is now itself a kind of “Indian Burial Ground” as it was razed in the 1960s to make room for urban “redevelopment.” Watching this film is also sort of like watching a ghost story, since the entire neighborhood and its occupants were erased from the geography. Like in so many other urban redevelopment projects, the impoverished residents who occupied the Bunker Hill neighborhood were displaced by eviction and demolition. So the term “exiles” resonates even further when we watch the movie today knowing the future of Bunker Hill. First the Native Americans were exiled from their own land by European settlers, then exiled from the reservation to the alien landscape of the city, then exiled from their city home to make room for urban redevelopment.

Part of the rhythm of the movie is also the rhythm of exile and displacement. I’ve been to that neighborhood in LA which was razed to build the Hotel Bonaventure (documented in Mike Davis’s City of Quartz) amongst other urban redevelopment projects. The neighborhood feels eerily sterile and artificial. The gates to Bunker Hill as seen in the movie still stand, but now they serve as a kind of gravestone, a marker of the community that was killed to build the “new space.”

The movie is breathtakingly beautiful though hard to watch because of its relentless desperation. And even though the film documents the specific Native American population that occupied Bunker Hill, I think it will feel profoundly real to anyone who has partied the night away and saturated themselves in alcohol and/or drugs in a desperate attempt to feel freedom and life. It sure felt real to me.

KIM NICOLINI is an artist, poet and cultural critic. She lives in Tucson, Arizona with her partner, daughter, and a menagerie of beasts. She works a day job to support her art and culture habits. She is currently finishing a book-length essayistic memoir about being a teenage runaway in 1970s San Francisco. Her work has appeared in Bad Subjects, Punk Planet, Bullhorn and Berkeley Review. She can be reached at: knicolini@gmail.com.

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Kim Nicolini is an artist, poet and cultural critic living in Tucson, Arizona. Her writing has appeared in Bad Subjects, Punk Planet, Souciant, La Furia Umana, and The Berkeley Poetry Review. She recently completed a book of her artwork on Dead Rock Stars which will was featured in a solo show at Beyond Baroque in Venice, CA. She is also completing a book of herDirt Yards at Night photography project. Her first art book Mapping the Inside Out is available upon request. She can be reached at knicolini@gmail.com.

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