A HALF CENTURY AGO I was standing in a skid row bar wondering what role I was playing. The bar was called, almost mockingly, the Ritz, and we were making a film, but the role I pondered wasn’t an acting part, and it was more than a question of what function I had at the moment.
The Ritz was one of two bars on Los Angeles’s skid row—the other, with equal fancifulness, was called the Columbine—that catered almost exclusively to Native Americans, or, as they were still called then, Indians. Some were just off the reservation, and many were now calling these squalid streets home.
On this particular night, we white guys were more or less welcome. We couldn’t very well be ignored. A 35-millimeter camera and a film crew were pretty conspicuous even among the Ritz regulars, wasted alcoholics who were used to odd people and behavior.
My friend Kent Mackenzie was the director, and it was his film from beginning to end. I was just helping out. Kent was a graduate student at the University of Southern California film school, a prestigious institution even then, and this was to be his thesis film. It eventually turned into a feature-length documentary, but with an approach and technique that somewhat bent the genre.
Before my aging memory fades further, I’m going to try to relate some of the story, or rather the search for the story, on screen and off, of The Exiles.
Sometimes good news travels slowly. In the case of The Exiles, it took a half century, and in some ways it is still arriving. After nearly fifty years of utter neglect, Kent Mackenzie’s film, completed and first screened in 1961, is being recognized as a remarkable and significant work. Described now as “a landmark in American independent cinema,” The Exiles has received extraordinary reviews: a “miraculous independent film…the night photography alone would make the film immortal” (New Yorker), “almost unbearably intimate” (Los Angeles Times), “a mesmerizing marriage of poetry and prose” (Washington Post), “one of the screen’s great epic poems” (The Independent). The film has been placed in the permanent collection of the Library of Congress.
The Exiles is a depiction of one long day and night in the lives of Native Americans living in Los Angeles in the late 1950s. Filmed in 35-millimeter black-and-white, the images of a now-lost downtown Los Angeles are haunting, at times even beautiful, but it is the lives of three reservation-born “exiles”—Yvonne, Homer, and Tommy—that are the heart of the film.
A documentary with the look and feel of a drama, The Exiles did win immediate recognition, including a grand prize at the Mannheim Film Festival in Germany. Pauline Kael, then on her way to becoming America’s preeminent film critic, proclaimed that 1961 would be remembered for two films: John Cassavetes’ Shadows and The Exiles. Until now, she was only half-right. Cassavetes continued to explore his improvisational techniques and, supported by his acting career, made several more films. Kent Mackenzie, working primarily for others, made a few more documentaries and then, leaving Los Angeles, slipped into obscurity, dying at age fifty in 1980. The Exiles never found a distributor and remained on the shelf, so to speak, until 2008, when it was recovered by a film archivist who, dazzled by its superb black-and-white cinematography, restored it. Now in distribution, it is winning acclaim at festivals and being showered with critical accolades. You can read the many reviews on the film’s website.
For those of us who worked on The Exiles—that is, who helped Kent make his film—this belated recognition is very gratifying in that it acknowledges the talent and courage of a good and remarkable man. But perhaps there is more to this story than simply delayed justice. What did Kent see and portray in his film? What does it say to us now?
I’m not a neutral observer, and so I must explain my connection.
Kent was a generous and genuinely collaborative filmmaker, and his principle collaborators in the making of The Exiles were the performers, if that is the right term for the young Native Americans, non-actors portraying their own lives and creating their own spontaneous dialogue. Kent’s other creative partners consisted of a team of talented cinematographers—Erik Daarstad, Bob Kaufman, and John Morrill—whose images, recorded in a grim urban jungle, are extraordinary and have been justly praised. During the more than three years that it took to make the film, others also contributed their time and skills, including several talented documentarists willing to crew and pull cable.
My own role was difficult to define and remains so. In the credits of the new print I’m listed—first among several, probably due to alphabetization—under production. I served as what might be termed first assistant director for some scenes, most particularly the major final sequence—a riotous all-night powwow on Hill X overlooking the city. The credit is not undeserved, but is only recognition of an effort to prevent mayhem from descending into utter chaos. The central fight was staged, but real violence and sexual assault were taking place, and at least one participant had to be taken to the emergency hospital. My credit might better have read “referee” or “bouncer.”
In an earlier version of the credits, I was listed, along with Beth Patrick, later Kent’s wife, as an associate producer. This is perhaps more accurate if the title is understood, as it was in Hollywood, as indicating a role primarily in post-production. I worked with Kent for many weeks to reconstruct the first-person narration that reveals the inner thoughts and feelings of the protagonists. Together we carefully pieced together recordings Kent had made earlier to compose long monologues from Yvonne, revealing her hopes for her baby and her future, and Tommy, revealing his cynicism and despair.
However, as all who participated acknowledge, The Exiles is the creative work of Kent Mackenzie. It was his personal vision and extraordinary accomplishment. I would say that my primary role was simply that of a friend. This was not insignificant. We were two ambitious and very idealistic young men, trying to make sense of our lives and work.
We were also increasingly exiles from our own culture, and the film was in part an attempt to understand how this happened. In this respect, I must amend the impression given by many of the generous and otherwise perceptive film reviews. The Exiles is not just a portrait of displaced Native Americans, nor is it simply a contribution to the experimental film technique known then as cinéma vérité—though it accomplished both. It is also a mid-century signpost pointing to what was happening to all of us.
To clarify what we were trying to do, I need to relate some things about Kent and myself. Our friendship was intense and, for me at least, invaluable, but it lasted less than a decade. I can’t attempt a biography of Kent. I know little of his life after the tumultuous years of the late sixties. But I know what we talked about—our hopes and fears—during the making of The Exiles.
My own background had less to do with the reality of poverty and skid row than with the imaginative theatrical arts. An actor since the age of twelve, I had been inspired by my acting teacher, Viola Spolin, the mother of improvisational theater in America, and then most particularly by Charles Chaplin, who directed some of the dress rehearsals at the Circle Theater in Hollywood where I had performed. The Circle was small in scale but big in reputation during the post-war period, drawing numerous movie celebrities. After performances, particularly opening nights, I had the privilege of meeting, among others, the director Jean Renoir, stars such as Edward G. Robinson, and a tall, handsome, and gallant Italian named Vittorio de Sica. I didn’t know who he was.
I must admit that I enjoyed some of the glamour as well. As I remember, Syd Chaplin, Charlie’s son, was courting Gloria DeHaven at the time, but prior to that he had dated a cute blonde who had been raised in the orphanage across the street from the Circle, and who had just changed her name to Marilyn Monroe. The real beauty, however, was the petite brunette that Roddy MacDowall brought to our performances, the very young Elizabeth Taylor. I was just a kid, too young to be jealous.
So standing in a skid row bar watching my friend Kent direct people who weren’t even actors, but were playing themselves, wasn’t exactly where I thought I had been heading. I was still years away from making a distinction between a career and simply good work.
What was significant even then was that Kent was also playing himself—not on screen, but by being genuine and honest with the actors and with all of us—and that’s a central part of the story that eventually made it to the screen.
I met Kent and his friends at the USC film school in 1956 when we joined together to protest the firing of his teacher, Andres Deinum. Deinum had refused to answer the questions of the House Un-American Activities Committee (I was at the hearing) and, despite our protests, lost his university position. He had been a colleague of a prominent communist documentarist, Joris Ivens, but I know nothing of his political views at that time. Kent was not a political partisan and, to my knowledge, never was. On the other hand, I had been an active member of the Young Communist League and had only recently broken with the party. Despite my increasing disillusionment with communist ideology, I still considered myself to be on the left and circulated petitions defending Deinum and others.
Kent and I became good friends, and he somehow managed to sneak me into Jean Renoir’s master class, a workshop for USC graduate film students, despite the fact that I wasn’t a graduate student and was studying at UCLA. Renoir, the great humanist filmmaker, was a significant influence on all of us, and my gratitude to Kent would be profound even if his friendship had provided nothing further. But, of course, it did. I think it was Kent’s integrity more than his talent that drew me as well as others to him. I admired his short film Bunker Hill, but the vision that led to The Exiles wasn’t yet fully formed. We were on similar paths, more than we realized, but it wasn’t just about making or theorizing about films.
Had you asked me that night in the Ritz bar who I was, I would have told you I was a writer, and while this was largely true—I had written for TV and belonged to the Writers Guild—I certainly wasn’t employed as such. In fact, I was blacklisted in Hollywood, and perhaps that’s part of the story as well.
At my age I’ve been granted the privilege of hindsight, which doesn’t mean I’m right but at least offers some perspective—a wide angle, if not an establishing long shot.
The 1950s were an exciting time for films. In Hollywood, those of the pre-war generation—Ford, Hitchcock, Capra—were now doing some of their best work. While lounging in our agent Paul Kohner’s office on the Sunset Strip, my writing partner Jim Buchanan and I could watch Orson Welles, John Huston, Fred Zinnemann, William Wyler, and Billy Wilder come and go, and with genuine admiration despite their inaccessibility. We were then at the bottom of a long list of Kohner’s writer clients, but we had our Hollywood dreams.
But it was in Europe that the most inspiring work was being done. Jean Renoir’s pre-war films had just been discovered by a new generation in the film schools, and the Italian neorealists, including the gallant de Sica, and the French New Wave were challenging us to rethink how to make movies.
However, the fifties in Hollywood was also the period of an intensifying Cold War and the blacklist, an attempt, often cruel and unscrupulous, to purge suspected communists from the film industry.
There remains to this day a persistent mythology that obscures the nature and history of the blacklist years by ignoring some fundamental realities. As a Young Communist League member in Hollywood I had a good perch, so let me puncture a couple of the revisionist balloons.
There were, in fact, real communists in Hollywood, some firmly under the direction of a Communist Party dominated by Stalinist ideologues. They were not liberals being persecuted for their defense of freedom of expression or conscience, but were making a disciplined effort to gain control of the guilds and unions, and spreading pro-Soviet propaganda. The Communist Party in America was, in fact, in the middle of its own witch hunt, removing any dissident or truly free-thinking individual—an ideological purging that had been demanded by the Soviet leadership.
I’ve never been inclined to write about these sad events. Perhaps it was ill-advised, but over the past decades I’ve retained too much affection for some of the old reds I knew who suffered from the blacklist. To the best of my knowledge, despite their myopia, most had done nothing worse than be politically obtuse—a fault I had shared. Since then, however, vengeance-seekers have persistently rewritten this sad chapter in Hollywood, either to defend themselves or sometimes, more understandably, their parents, and they have been merciless in their judgment of the “friendlies” who testified. I never testified and refused to give names, which was why I was blacklisted, but I knew many who did, and I agree with Dalton Trumbo, one of the Hollywood Ten, who later wrote that in this era there were only victims—and primarily victims of their own blindness and attempts at self-justification. Those who continue to blame and victimize should be ashamed of themselves.
What was significant about the political bloodletting in those days was that these bitter internal disputes were yet another symptom of a growing disillusionment, particularly among the left in Hollywood, which had become influential if not fashionable during the war. The genuine personal sacrifices as well as the self-serving posturing allowed the left to turn its face from a reality even crueler than McCarthyite persecution: the left was dying.
By the 1950s, the communist movement, despite its apparent strength bolstered by Soviet atom bombs and Mao’s success in China, was intellectually and morally bankrupt. Fidel Castro and later Che Guevara offered romantic substitutes for a brief period, but it was becoming clear that the idealism that had once inspired communism had been drowned in blood and hatred. The international hard left had bled to death internally.
For me, the blacklist was a blessing, though I certainly didn’t think so at the time. With two children to support, I had no choice but to seek other employment, and found it as a county social worker. I was quickly posted to the heart of the East LA barrio, then in the midst of an epidemic of heroin addiction and gang violence. I would spend the next few years learning about the reality of poverty, not simply as an economic or social injustice but also in terms that would not become clear to me until the gospels helped me see them. It mattered not so much that I learned what poverty meant to the genuinely poor and deprived, but that I learned what the poor might mean to me and to all of us. The mantra of the sixties was “everything is political,” which, if it meant anything, was an exaltation of human power. I came to see that the biblical emphasis on the poor refutes and rejects this obsession with power.
Looking back, I think it is also important to note that while Kent and I were determined to try to be free and independent in our work, we were also both married and had children. We were engaged in life in a way that had taken us beyond the freedom and illusions of adolescence. We were exploring the reality of poverty, but we weren’t really poor, just broke.
Kent was not just looking for a career but a way of life—as well as a way of looking at life. This made him unique. Some of us nicknamed him JC. None of us were religious at the time, but it was not meant disrespectfully, and certainly not of Kent. We sensed that he was seeking something beyond technique. Together, we were doing nothing less than seeking the truth.
What is needed to understand the full meaning of the title, The Exiles, is the context of those times, and what it meant for us to search for truth and reality. In our postmodern era this peculiar aspiration would designate both Kent and me as naïve realists, in that we were searching for some meta-narrative. It’s true we were searching, but we didn’t know what it was or how to find it.
The film form and techniques we were exploring were then termed cinéma vérité, that is, “truthful cinema.” Cinéma vérité —to the extent that it was a self-conscious movement—was perhaps initially inspired by Robert Flaherty and John Grierson and other British filmmakers as well as some of the early Soviet experiments, but unlike most of them it reflected an impulse to look beyond a purely objective approach. On the other hand, we most certainly rejected the artifice of Hollywood theatricality, an aversion which led to a search for a narrative beyond conventional dramaturgy. As I believe I was the only one of Kent’s group trained as a writer, my conversations with him during the reconstruction of the personal stories within the film often focused on questions of structure and resolution.
What I was watching in that bar was an interaction between art and reality, and at about the same time John Cassavetes was in New York making a similar exploration with his film Shadows. A year or so earlier, I myself had been one of the producers of the first police reality show on TV, a short-lived series called Nightwatch. As others would do a generation later, we followed real cops into crime scenes and then tried to cut it together. The major difference was that we weren’t shooting video, with all its flexibility, but 16-millimeter film. We were, in effect, newsreel cameramen who required high-intensity lights, as at that time black-and-white film was significantly less light-sensitive than color film is now. Technology was only just beginning to liberate filmmakers from the sound stage. Kent had bravely decided to use 35-millimeter black-and-white film, just like a “real movie,” and, despite the cost, the remarkable glowing images justified his choice.
Cinéma vérité wasn’t a form of the later New Journalism in that it didn’t impose a point of view. In fact, it was TV journalism that, in the opinion of many, killed the cinéma vérité movement. In both New Journalism and TV reporting, the supposed objectivity and, on the other hand, the agendas both led, we felt, to artificiality and manipulation. Cinéma vérité in some respects had more in common with Italian neorealist and French New Wave fiction than with propaganda for good causes. The work of the Maysle Brothers, in which the filmmaker and camera seem to disappear, came close to achieving the form’s original aims.
In France, Truffaut, Godard, and others were also looking for new ways of telling stories that would pursue truth rather than diversion. In retrospect, I think that John Cassavetes’ and Viola Spolin’s explorations of improv were also in part a reaction to the loss of confidence in theatrical stories. This is not to say that movies couldn’t offer tight, skillfully honed story structures—obligatory for Hollywood writers of that time—but that these artificial “well-made plays” disguised an underlying moral incoherence. These worn-out forms concealed both a lack of truth and an increasing loss of belief in truth.
This loss of conviction was related, particularly in Hollywood, to the collapse of the political left and in ways that only became clear decades later. My playwriting teacher had been John Howard Lawson, the first president of the Writers Guild of America, West, but also the head of the Communist Party in Hollywood. Lawson’s theories about dramaturgy were directly related to his materialist and Marxist understanding of history. But by 1956 the communist ideology was, as the Marxists of that day would have put it, moribund. Nikita Khrushchev, Stalin’s successor, had exposed more than his predecessor’s crimes; he had unintentionally revealed the criminal nature of the communist regime in Russia. The Soviet invasion of Hungary followed during the same year, and democratic socialists such as Mike Harrington were already warning us about entertaining illusions as to the benign nature of communist China. History as a form of metaphysics had failed, and, deprived of any other secular faith, we were already beginning to experience the fallout, including doubts about the efficacy of stories themselves.
Again in retrospect, this was neither a new development nor simply a reflection of political disillusionment. The loss of faith in communism had begun long before Khrushchev’s revelations, provoked by, among other events, the betrayals in Spain, the Moscow show trials, and the murder of Leon Trotsky.
The loss of belief in truth and coherent stories had also begun long before the cinéma vérité experiments. In fact, it began before Kent and I were born, much less took up the question. My friend Gil Bailie, in a recent lecture at Notre Dame, offered an insight into the early symptoms of this malaise by way of a brilliant analysis of Virginia Woolf’s 1931 novel The Waves. One of Woolf’s central characters, Bernard, is a writer who at the end of his life realizes that his stories are empty and incomplete, merely “a tangled mess of fragments.” Woolf herself was quoted as saying “my contemporaries don’t write stories because they don’t believe stories are true.” The horrific war that was to follow didn’t create modern nihilism as much as confirm it.
Neither Kent nor I would have been as articulate as Virginia Woolf or Gil Bailie, and I’m not attempting anything more here than to chronicle our search. But we sensed the cultural incoherence that Woolf and so many others were addressing. For us, this was far more than a theoretical problem about narrative forms. I was helping Kent try to find the story in the seemingly meaningless lives of three young people who, having lost their own traditions, were now shipwrecked in urban isolation. We were trying to depict their lives; we were also fighting for our own. We were not alone. By the late fifties, there was no shortage of signs of distress among the young. We were dubbed a silent generation by the media, but those who had ears to hear couldn’t ignore Ginsberg’s poetic “Howl” of despair, sounding a retreat into the deceptive refuge of narcosis and subjectivity.
The alterations we made to the main characters’ stories—so fundamental as to turn Homer into Yvonne’s boyfriend when she was actually with Gilbert, a minor character in the film—constituted a moral problem for us, and particularly for Kent; I was perhaps already demonstrating the flexibility necessary for a Hollywood career. We asked ourselves whether we had the right to change real lives to fit a movie. Again, this wasn’t a matter of aesthetic purity. The question was, were we attempting to impose meaning where none existed? It was Kent’s integrity that mandated an open and unresolved ending.
This was the morality behind what we were trying to do. It was what John Ruskin had described as the artist’s obligation—simply to see, and then to describe as honestly as possible what has been seen. I’ve learned that it can take a lifetime to be able to do this—if ever.
The problem with the documentary form, as we were even then beginning to sense, is that by the nature of its requirements it seldom allows one simply to see, and even more rarely to change one’s mind. Even with the best of intentions—or perhaps because of the best intentions—the documentarist seldom begins a project without a conclusion firmly in place. Kent, to his credit, and ultimately to his great cost, didn’t do this. Whatever agenda he may have begun with was surrendered to the truth of what he observed.
In the light of this search, it is also a misreading of The Exiles to see it as primarily an avant-garde work. Artistic innovation was never Kent’s intention. Aesthetics can be as evasive of life as political ideology. The loss of the meta-narrative would in later decades be accompanied by announcements of the death of philosophy. Neither of us saw this trend as subject matter for a graduate thesis. It was far too close to home. If our stories weren’t “true”—however naïvely put—then what were we doing?
My search for truth, however, has been in life more than cinema. I can’t speak for Kent—only his work can—but as for myself, I was rescued by people, not theories. Perhaps Chaplin, Vi Spolin, and Jean Renoir were the initial lifeguards who pulled me to safety, but it took years of mouth-to-mouth resuscitation by others who managed to live with and even love me in one way or another.
During the years of my own exile from Hollywood, my social work took me into jails, mental hospitals, and even at times back to skid row. Perhaps standing in the Ritz bar with Kent was the beginning of my attempt to see what was in front of me without the blinders of preconception.
Thoroughly saturated in Hollywood secularity, I was not pleased, though not entirely surprised, when sometime later Kent told me that he had become a Christian. I felt then—as undoubtedly some of the film’s current enthusiasts still might—that a religious inclination was a sign of weakness, even possibly a character flaw. Quite independently and years later, I would also follow that at times desolate yet ultimately liberating path. From the standpoint of dramatic structure, our conversions were the obligatory scenes necessary to make the story work.
In our circles in Hollywood and at the universities at that time, questions posed in terms of religion were considered obscure if not reactionary, and any sense of spirituality was a generation away. We were, however, conscious of alienation, and not just as a sociological description of modern life. About this time the Jesuit philosopher Bernard Lonergan had concluded that much if not most of modern thought was simply an attempt to justify our alienation.
To me, those old concerns seem to echo into the present time. By the end of the last century, after some decades of working with young people on the streets and in the universities, as well as in and out of jail, I found that a loneliness so deep as to seem terminal appeared to be overwhelming many of them. One result is sexual obsession, a desperate clinging to a relationship; any judgment threatening this relationship, no matter with whom or in what manner, is experienced as painful and frightening.
Wasn’t this what we were seeing a half century ago? Kent was remarkably intuitive, very bright and talented, but thankfully not an intellectual. In any case he couldn’t have known, nor could I, that we were observing wounds that would grow and fester, and not just for displaced Native Americans. The organic relationships, the connectedness that has given human beings meaning and identity for centuries, were disintegrating before our eyes.
When at dawn Yvonne looks out into the alley from her window—the end of the movie—and sees her boyfriend, the father of her unborn child, with other women, she reacts with a passivity that is more than stoic. She has the child within her but no more can be expected.
Homer’s flashback to the reservation evokes a sense of a self-defining place now remote, just as Yvonne’s longing for a child points to an even more fundamental loss of family bonds. The attempt to sustain tradition through the midnight ritual dancing on Hill X is at times touching but pathetic in its artificiality. (Several of the dancers were making a living at Disneyland.) Tommy’s cynical view of life, however facile, is the result. “I’m doing time on the outside,” he tells us, so jail is no big deal.
I don’t know where Kent’s Christian search ultimately took him. I may never know. The exilic motif, however, isn’t limited to Christianity. Exile is in some ways a permanent and universal spiritual condition, but it can also be a prelude to revelation. The Exodus was the prerequisite for Hebrew and later Jewish identity. Without the inescapable desert wasteland there would have been no law, no wisdom, no prophesy. Exiles aren’t just people away from a physical home.
Relentlessly naïve, I have continued my own search for truth, and even at times in movies. After teaching at the USC film school in the 1990s, I led a group of young colleagues into the wilderness of making an improvisational feature, Blue in Green (which I describe in my book In a New Light). Audiences have responded positively to the film, but my old Hollywood friends have often been more critical. They find that it lacks a strong narrative line and works only in fragments. I wish Kent had been around to help us sort this out.
Kent was the only one of my friends who ever reproached me for pursuing my Hollywood career. He did so in character, mild and understanding—but he was disappointed that I had gone so far off the trail. In my later decades, I’ve tried to regain a compass. I have served as the director of a program for homeless men on the streets of Hollywood and as a Catholic prison chaplain—once again playing the role of referee and bouncer, only in spiritual terms. The young men and women I tried to serve in prison and on the streets were also exiles, and I tried to help them find the missing story in their lives. But what I’ve learned is that no one’s story stands alone, and that no one knows the end of his or her own story.
What the good news of the recent critical recognition of The Exiles doesn’t erase is the high price Kent paid for his integrity. This is no conventional happy ending, but I think it does confirm the meta-narrative that both Kent and I were pursuing, and that only comes to light through integrity and willingness to pay the price for it. Our affectionate name for Kent, JC, wasn’t meant to exaggerate his virtues, nor should it romanticize him now. It was just a nickname for a man who believed that some stories were true.