It's easy to see the attraction that Kent Mackenzie’s 1961 film The Exiles—a jazzy cinéma-vérité portrait of 14 hours in the life of a band of Native Americans living in a picturesquely downtrodden Los Angeles neighborhood—would have for Milestone, as it marries the socioeconomic concerns of their re-releases like Mikhail Kalatozov's I Am Cuba with a similar brand of bravura Southern California underground auteur style seen in Charles Burnett's Killer of Sheep. Although Mackenzie's work will probably never attain the kind of totemic stature of those films—being not as stylistically driven or showy—it certainly deserves to stand alongside them as one of the great under-seen cinema gems of the 1960s.
While ahead of its time in some ways, Mackenzie's film certainly shows its age at times, such as in the poorly synched dialogue and most particularly the main titles, which portray the filmmaker’s sincere sociological interests. Here, a quick succession of iconic Edward S. Curtis photographs of 19th-century Native Americans is followed by a sonorous male narrator's voice announcing that what we are about to see "is not typical of all Indians" but assuring us that it does indeed reflect the reality of the lives of many "Indians." What follows is fortunately much less a well-meaning and message-choked melodrama about a social ill than it is cinematic reportage about this small group of alienated young men and women banging about in the city with few thoughts for the future. While the mood comes straight from the great postwar Italian neorealists, it’s given an American kick by the pin-sharp cinematography plumbing the depths of the night city and the raucous rockabilly soundtrack (all songs done by The Revels, lost to history but for their then-hit song “Comanche,” used here and in Pulp Fiction).
The characters are drawn in only the barest strokes: Yvonne (Yvonne Williams) is pregnant and unsure about the prospects of continuing to be with her guy, the spectacularly aimless Homer (Homer Nish), who doesn’t seem to know what to do with himself except to pal around with his Mexican buddy and hellraiser Tommy (Tommy Reynolds). Homer and Tommy drink and carouse through the night, while Yvonne kills time at a movie theatre and then a friend’s apartment; eventually the men and their dates for the night end up on a hill overlooking the city. There, they drink more, fight, and drum and chant the old tribal songs from the reservations where most of them grew up. When the night is done, they straggle home, ready to do it all over again. All the while, the characters narrate in fatalistic voiceovers about their drifting lives: “Time is time. I can do it inside [jail], I can do it outside.”
The history of The Exiles is about as episodic as the film itself: Mackenzie spent about a year and a half shooting the film in bits and pieces, raising money where he could, losing cast members to jail and cinematographers to the draft. A 1961 premiere at the Venice Film Festival was followed by a trickle of screenings, but a theatrical release never quite happened. The Exiles was left to linger in poor video transfers until Thom Anderson’s 2003 documentary Los Angeles Plays Itself brought new attention to the film and inspired this excellent UCLA restoration, now finally in American theatres after playing at the 58th Berlin International Film Festival.
It’s a long-overdue presentation of the film, but one that may actually have more resonance now than in the 1960s. The long-since-razed Bunker Hill area where the film was shot, with its roomy old boarding houses, bustling market and creaky Angels’ Flight funicular, appears here like something out of a different era altogether, one in which Los Angeles had actual organic neighborhoods. Similarly, the wide-open spaces of Hill X (where the film’s climax takes place) were later lost to the construction of Dodger Stadium—a fact that gives The Exiles a crystalline time-capsule quality that’s almost as heartbreaking as the dead-end lives it portrays.