The old people remember the past," a narrator says early in The Exiles over a prologue of Edward S. Curtis photographs — faces of aged Native Americans who may have had their lands taken away, but not their history or memories. For the length of Kent MacKenzie's 1961 feature, the past is not distant: It's vital, concrete, immediate — a record of vanished sites and vanquished dreams suspended in an eternally looped present. Thanks to a superlative UCLA restoration and the efforts of Milestone Film (who partnered last year to release Charles Burnett's Killer of Sheep), this fifty-year-old film about a Los Angeles neighborhood on the skids and its barely tethered dwellers stands as the freshest movie in theaters.
An account of fourteen dusk-to-dawn hours in a community of scuffling Native Americans — the once-prosperous Bunker Hill — The Exiles unfolds without artificial urgency or hyped-up climaxes; it's acted with unpolished conviction by neighborhood residents whom the British-born director met in the mid-'50s while researching a documentary. Even so, after its premiere at the 1961 Venice Film Festival, it never received an official release.
The Exiles was plucked from obscurity by a shout-out in Thom Andersen's 2003 essay film Los Angeles Plays Itself. "The cinema of walking," Andersen called it — when one of its main characters, Yvonne, a lonely, pregnant Apache woman played by Yvonne Williams, trudges home after a night of dissatisfied window shopping, the camera takes in her real-life surroundings at the same pace, situating fiction within docurealism.
Written and directed by Kent MacKenzie. Starring Yvonne Williams, Homer Nish and Tommy Reynolds.
Yvonne shares two rooms with her Hualapai husband, Homer (Homer Nish), a beefy rounder with slicked-back Elvis hair and a sudden look of quizzical hurt; his wolfish mixed-Mexican buddy Tommy (Tommy Reynolds); and four other men who crash there and filch cigarettes. The guys ditch Yvonne at a double feature, then disperse like seeds into the night — Homer to a poker game for easy dough that doesn't pan out, Tommy to a joyride with a Choctaw bud and two thrill-seeking floozies.
Even in the city, there are reservations. The bar of choice, the Ritz, is a shrunken Native American nation where the displaced tribesmen meet before retiring to smaller groups and private spaces. (Their women serve as child-keepers and ATMs: MacKenzie watches without judgment as the guys habitually raid their wives' purses and split.) In MacKenzie's vision, no one here is beneath notice — not the grizzled regular reading a pamphlet at the bar, who's held for just a beat after the heroes leave; not the clerk who gives Yvonne a sullen look as she leaves Bunker Hill's Grand Central Food Market in the first scene without buying anything. We're left to wonder where their stories lead.
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Independent of the action on screen, the characters give the movie's semi-doc authenticity another layer of reality. "I haven't started drinking or hanging around Main Street yet," Yvonne says off screen, as the camera watches her make her way home through the neon mousetraps of Bunker Hill. The "yet" in that sentence typifies the movie's profound sense of the indefinite.
The most immediately striking thing about The Exiles, shot through with humor and nerve and keyed to the throb of Anthony Hilder and the Revels' thrillingly seedy garage rock, is its look. The black-and-white camerawork (by Erik Daarstad, Robert Kaufman and John Morrill) is so starkly high-contrast that the outdoor shots have the muscular definition of a graphic novel. The black has surprising depth, catching hard edges within shadows; the white burns a halo around every liquor-store sign or streetlight.
"You could call [The Exiles] independent," Andersen wisecracked, slinging an elbow at the deep-pocketed Miramax "indie," "but you couldn't call it 'pulp fiction.'" And yet the area that Yvonne, Tommy, Homer and their many friends wander is a literal film-noir neighborhood: Its crooked angles and night-splitting neon also served as the backdrop for the atom-age apocalypse of 1955's Kiss Me Deadly. It's also film-noir in that the city is inevitable, inescapable. As in Mean Streets and American Graffiti, two films about the confinement of community that seem influenced by The Exiles' incidental sprawl, every night out or stroll away circles back to the neighborhood. Even when Tommy gets behind the wheel of a car — in a sequence that's pure foot-to-pedal exhilaration, all whipping hair, cranking tunes and gear-jamming low angles — he's back by daybreak. And the cycle of mooching, scuffling and hanging starts all over again, on to the next dawn.