The Exiles Review
At the start of this century the names of Kent Mackenzie and his 1961 feature The Exiles were practically unknown to all but a few. Fast forward to the present day and the film is now listed amongst the preserved titles on the US Library of Congress’ National Film Registry and available to the public at large courtesy of two definitive DVD editions, in Region 1 courtesy of Milestone and this Region 2 release (effectively a port of the US discs with a couple of additions) from the BFI. The definitive claim is far from hyperbole; here we find The Exiles restored and looking as good as new, not to mention the vast array of contextualising extras covering every conceivable angle. The care and attention lavished on the film, not to mention its NFR inclusion, all point towards to one thing: this really is a masterpiece.
The crux of The Exiles, and perhaps the key reason for its critical rehabilitation, lies in its honest portrayal of Native American Indians in then contemporary culture. The film is set in the Bunker Hill district of Los Angeles, prior to or at least in the earliest stages of its redevelopment, and restricts itself to a limited timeframe. Starting on Friday afternoon and closing Saturday morning, The Exiles is essentially a twelve-hours-in-the-life portrait, focussing in on a handful of characters and documenting their interactions and activities over this single night. Mackenzie’s approach is that of observation over narrative, his viewpoint being objective but never to the point that it lacks compassion. Indeed, there is a great kinship between the filmmaker and his subjects, each effectively playing variations of themselves as the fact that the characters’ names mirror the actors’ own ably demonstrates.
In this respect The Exiles is perhaps best termed as docudrama. The film was born out of interviews with many of its participants, some of which were reconfigured into voice-overs detailing, in candid fashion, what it was like to be an outsider in your own indigenous land. These ‘narrations’ serve as The Exiles’ glue, holding the film together and acting as a counterpoint to the onscreen images. They highlight the inherent loneliness of such an existence, even as they cling onto the potential the future holds in terms of prospects and a better life for their children. They also allow for the unfolding scenes to attain greater resonance - what better way to highlight this loneliness than to pay witness to a night involving listless meanderings from one bar to the next, spiced up only by the next drink to be consumed or a meaningless fight? Yet Mackenzie withholds judgement, his emphasis is on these characters’ vulnerabilities, the elements which make them human, the lack of smooth edges. Their behaviour may be akin to the youths who populated the contemporary Samuel Z. Arkoff teen movies of the time (dancing, driving, flirting, fighting) but it would difficult to level accusation of exploitation at Mackenzie. The overriding sensation is one of empathy and understanding, and of course this means a highlighting of the more hopeless aspects of these characters’ lives.
Yet there is another portrait within The Exiles that further enhances its newfound reputation as a snapshot of a disappeared era. This is a film as much about Los Angeles as it is Native American Indians. Indeed, it was the inclusion in Thom Andersen’s 2003 feature Los Angeles Plays Itself, an epic documentary meditation on that city’s cinematic representations, that spearheaded its revival. The docudrama elements edge more into pure documentary when handling L.A., the black and white photography, location shooting and use of genuine locals as inadvertent extras all conspiring to accentuate the realities of its characters’ existence. Reference has been made to John Cassavetes’ Shadows and Charles Burnett’s Killer of Sheep as films which share a similar outlook and execution to The Exiles, yet I was more greatly reminded of certain British ‘Free Cinema’ productions. (Though this is not to say that the Cassavetes and Burnett connections are somehow wrong.) As with Lorenza Mazzetti’s Together or Claude Goretta and Alain Tanner’s Nice Time, two works which also look at the experience of outsiders living in the big city, the contrast between the main protagonists and their surroundings is continually reinforced; the latter almost an uninviting giant to innocent or lost souls.
Furthermore, there is a retrospective fascination with such images. The two ‘Free Cinema’ films both presented a post-war London still showing the scars of the blitz. The Exiles, meanwhile, captures Bunker Hill right at the point before it underwent massive changes. Here we find the Angels Flight tramcars and slum-like dwellings, details which give rise to a sense of this film being an historical artefact. And yet there is also a beauty and a freshness to the manner in which they have been captured that keeps them alive. Indeed, if one word was to be used to sum up The Exiles, then alive would do very nicely. And perhaps this is another reason why the references to Shadows and Killer of Sheep have been so plentiful. As with the Cassavetes and the Burnett, Mackenzie’s film shows itself to be a vital piece of American cinema, fully deserving of its rehabilitation, place on the NFR and indeed this DVD release.
With the exception of English subtitles for the hard of hearing on the main feature and an additional booklet, this Region 2 release from the BFI is identical to Milestone’s two-disc from 2009. What this means is an exceptional presentation and a host of extras, all of which fully deserve their place. To begin with the picture quality, here we find The Exiles fully restored and looking as good as new. The sharpness of the image is superb, the print from which it has been taken is in wonderful condition (no damage or deterioration), and the contrast levels are excellent. There are occasional instances of combing, but never to the detriment of the viewing experience. Indeed, to see the film is a pleasure enough, and to see it looking so good can only enhance this. As for the soundtrack here we find the original mono spread over the front two channels and again demonstrating no major problems. It is worth mentioning that the dialogue was recorded in post-production (Mackenzie’s camera was too noisy to allow for live sound) and as such any issues here - most notably the occasional slip in synching the sound to the images - are solely inherent in the original production.
The various special features can be separated into three areas: The Exiles, Kent Mackenzie and Los Angeles/Bunker Hill. With regards to the first, here we find an audio commentary on the main feature from Sherman Alexie (writer of Smoke Signals, the 1998 feature that similarly took Native American Indians in contemporary society as its theme) and Sean Axmaster, three audio pieces (Alexie and Axmaster in interview, Alexie and Charles Burnett on The Leonard Lopate Show, and the panel discussion from the opening night of the restored print at UCLA), a stills gallery, and the theatrical trailer. The various Alexie pieces are all chatty and engaging, demonstrating his great love for the film as well highlighting just how realistic a portrait The Exiles was. The commentary, in particular, provides plenty of information on the film’s background and production, as well as its years in the wilderness as it were. Such elements are also touched on in the other pieces, most prominently during the panel discussion, resulting in some crossover. However, each piece offers its own rewards and as such merits inclusions. To contrast with portrayal of the Native Americans in The Exiles we also find the first known film to document their lives, White Fawn’s Devotion, from 1910. Presented with musical accompaniment, it makes for a slight piece, and most certainly a dated one, but also exerts a fascination owing to its history. Arguably not a film to return to time and again, though one that warrants at least a single peak.
Mackenzie is represented amongst the extras courtesy of four of his short documentary films and an overview of his life and career in the accompanying booklet. The first short, Bunker Hill, was made whilst he was still at the University of California, whilst the later pieces - A Skill for Molina (which also has a Native American focus), The Story of Rodeo Cowboy and Ivan and His Father - all benefited from industrial sponsorship. None quite matches the power of The Exiles, yet each is interesting in their own way with Ivan and His Father, a look at early seventies group therapy, being arguably the strongest. Of course, they also allow us to see what was the vast majority of Mackenzie’s output. He made one more feature after The Exiles, the little seen Saturday Morning from 1971, and as such documentary work was his main cinematic output.
The Bunker Hill short also ties in with the other pieces looking at Los Angeles and this particular area. Bunker Hill: A Tale of Urban Renewal, Greg Kimble’s 2009 short, presents the history of its redevelopment, whilst Last Days of Angels Flight, a 1969 amateur film, captures the tram cars just prior to their demolition. The three shorts in combination, plus The Exiles itself of course, all add up to a worthwhile representation, ably filling between them any gaps in the viewer’s knowledge, if indeed any knowledge of the area was there at all. We also find snippets from Andersen’s Los Angeles Plays Itself on the disc, specifically those moments which featured The Exiles. The quality is somewhat poor (looking to have been sourced from videotape, although it is unclear whether this relates to how Andersen sourced The Exiles or how Milestone sourced Plays Itself) but again inclusion is to be welcomed given how difficult it is to see this particular documentary, rights issues relating to the wealth of material it uses preventing it from showing outside of special performances.
Finally, the disc also plays host to various DVD-ROM content, presenting everything from press releases to Mackenzie’s drafts of the scripts and abandoned projects. There really is too much content to list here, though needless to say it is fully deserving of a complete perusal.
As a final note, please be aware that the English hard of hearing subtitles apply only to the main feature and not any of the extras.