"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 50-year-old film about a Los Angeles neighborhood on the skids and its barely tethered dwellers stands as the freshest movie in theaters.
By the standards of The Incredible Hulk or Wanted — buzzing CG pixel storms in which lives, locations, and bodies exist in perpetual zero gravity — The Exiles may not seem that exciting. An account of 14 dusk-to-dawn hours in a community of scuffling Native Americans — the once-prosperous Bunker Hill — it unfolds without artificial urgency or hyped-up climaxes; it's acted with unpolished conviction by neighborhood residents the British-born director met in the mid-'50s while researching a documentary. But MacKenzie (who died in 1980 at age 50 after making just one other feature) had an ear for the poetry of ritualized interaction and an eye for the glint of hard light on city streets. The movie walks a nightworld so crackling with unfocused energy — so alive with threat, promise, and raw honking rock 'n' roll, yet so limited in any sense of a future — that to enter it is to feel your blood surge. Even so, after its premiere at the 1961 Venice Film Festival, it never received an official release.
Like mostly forgotten features such as Willard Huyck and Gloria Katz' Messiah of Evil (1973) or Jacques Deray's The Outside Man (1972), The Exiles was plucked from obscurity by a shout-out in Thom Andersen's 2003 essay film Los Angeles Plays Itself. In that expansive meditation on cinematic geography and the coded history lessons of film, Andersen held up The Exiles as a particularly evocative example of location shooting, the spiritual forebear of Killer of Sheep and Billy Woodberry's Bless Their Little Hearts — films about the "outside" told from the inside. "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.
Started in 1958 and completed in 1961 — a period encompassing the nouvelle vague's initial shock waves a world away, and roughly coinciding with the similar efforts of John Cassavetes, Lionel Rogosin, and Morris Engel at home — The Exiles offers possibilities for semidoc narrative feature-making that extend beyond miserabilism or Andersen's derided "low-tourist" rubbernecking. Mackenzie conceived it as a film about the relocation of late-generation Native Americans from the reservation to the city. Starting with a bluntly sociological prologue — the one dated element — the movie charts a diaspora in microcosm. 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 childkeepers 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 is 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.
Deepening our involvement with the characters are the voice-overs they deliver on the soundtrack: documentary interjections that float above the street noise, music, and dialogue below. Independent of the action onscreen, they give the movie's semidoc authenticity another layer of reality. "I haven't started drinking or hanging around Main Street yet," Yvonne says offscreen, 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.