dir. Kent Mackenzie
Fri-Thurs April 8-14 at NW Film Forum.
Of the hundreds of films excerpted in Thom Andersen's riveting intellectual treatise Los Angeles Plays Itself, none stuck out quite as boldly as The Exiles, a long-forgotten vérité document of Native Americans in post-beatnik, pre-hippie Southern California. Though many of Andersen's sources were obscure and tantalizing, The Exiles--shot in 1961, in glorious, high-contrast black and white, in a hypernatural style that instantly evoked early Cassavetes--was the one that seemed most Grail-like: a lost film of a lost tribe in a lost city from a lost time.
And now, thanks largely to interest stirred by Andersen's film, The Exiles has been exhumed, and treated to a beautiful new print. Unfortunately, aside from its obvious sociological interest, and the staggering cinematography, The Exiles in its entirety is nowhere near as exciting as it was in brief. Part of this is due to the problematic nature of independent cinema before it became a fashionable "movement."
The visuals are dazzling because of their roughness; a portrait of expat Arizona Indians on the prowl in the pre-gentrified West L.A. neighborhood of Bunker Hill, Exiles is a documentary-narrative hybrid, enlivened by uninflected images of a now-demolished city. The only lights come from neon bar signs and fluorescent overheads in all-night dance halls--the perfect means to illuminate the sinister allure of alcohol as a pacifier to the dislocation and slow dissolution of the young Natives the film follows. Seeing their young, happy faces shot in the visual style we associate with the time period offers a gripping disjunction; you certainly haven't seen this side of urban America before.
The sound, however--a combination of voice-over interviews with the cast/subjects and badly dubbed "dialogue"--is so clumsy as to be distracting, a flaw which severely undercuts the film's broader appeal. The Exiles was conceived when its director was a USC film student enamored of a subculture he could only sense was on its way toward extinction. The irony of the film's reemergence is so satisfying that it's easy to overlook the fact that the film itself is not.