by Tony Nigro
I live a short subway ride away from the site of one of the most interesting neighborhoods in Los Angeles. (Yes, we have a subway. Stop asking.) The architecture ranges from Victorian mansions to Spanish-style hotels to straight up urban tenements. Some call it a slum, but the people are a diverse group of ethnicities from different walks of life — pensioners, artists, drunks — the high- and low-lifes of a Bukowski novel. It’s a small community set atop a hill, a true neighborhood with all the character one should expect from a big city. The problem is, it isn’t there anymore.
Kent MacKenzie’s early American indie entry The Exiles is set in the L.A. neighborhood of Bunker Hill, the area I described above that shortly after the film’s production in the late 1950s and early 1960s was razed and redeveloped à la Chavez Ravine. Only instead of a baseball stadium there’re a couple concert halls, a museum and some nondescript skyscrapers. The only remaining icon of old Bunker Hill is the Angels Flight funicular, a short train built to take residents up and down the hill. And even that hasn’t run since 2001.
This is to say nothing of MacKenzie’s film, which is a sort of diamond in the rough that touches upon the lives of Native American residents of Bunker Hill, people who know their share of redevelopment, to put it lightly. They are folks have exiled themselves from reservations to the big city, but not to make it big in Hollywood. They’re just living — drinking, dancing, gambling, carousing, fighting. MacKenzie takes a doomed neighborhood and in it finds a group of cultural survivors on one melancholy night. To boot, he does so with a deft touch of humanity and manages to shoot L.A. like it would never be shot again. The whole thing earns the label “neo-realist,” although it’s just as much a documentary.
Never released commercially, The Exiles had the good fortune of being namedropped in Thom Andersen’s sprawling essay film Los Angeles Plays Itself (also never released commercially). Some time after, the UCLA Film & Television Archive restored the film, author Sherman Alexie and filmmaker Charles Burnett — himself no stranger to melancholy indie cinema — somehow got involved, and the good folks at Milestone did a theatrical tour. Now it’s finally on DVD.
But wait, there’s more… Milestone’s two-disc set includes enough material to fuel a survey class on both MacKenzie, whose career was cut short at age 50, and Bunker Hill, whose life was cut short at less than 100. Highlight bonus features include MacKenzie’s USC graduate thesis, “Bunker Hill 1956,” which offers more views of Bunker Hill, its people, and its redevlopment; clips of The Exiles as seen in Los Angeles Plays Itself, commentary by Alexie; and “White Fawn’s Devotion.”