November 20, 2009
The ExilesReviewer: Jeffrey M. Anderson
Rating (out of 5): *****
directed by Kent MacKenzie
1961, 72 minutes, USA
Milestone Films Most people have probably never heard of Kent MacKenzie's historically and culturally essential film The Exiles (1961). Some clips of it surfaced in Thom Andersen's exceptional 2004 cine-essay Los Angeles Plays Itself—about the The City of Angels as depicted in movies—but unfortunately, most people have never heard of that film either. Andersen included it prominently because it managed to find vivid corners of the city that didn't actually look like set dressing. Now, thanks to Milestone Films (who also gave us the 2007 re-release and 2008 DVD of Charles Burnett's extraordinary Killer of Sheep), The Exiles has been released uncut on an outstanding two-disc set—presented by Burnett himself. It's difficult to argue the film as an artistic masterpiece; it seems to be influenced by the French New Wave films of the time, but also seems to have been put together in such loose-fitting fashion out of a sheer lack of resources. MacKenzie often repeats certain shots, and the audio doesn't always match the movement of the actors' lips. But the movie has an undeniable emotional punch and its historical place in cinema is indisputable; there's still nothing else quite like it. Shot in black-and-white, it begins with Edward Curtis photographs and introduces rock music by the Revels. We then follow seven American Indians over the course of a night. One man, Homer (Homer Nish), drops his pregnant wife Yvonne (Yvonne Williams) at a movie, while he and a buddy go off to play cards. Tommy (Tom Reynolds) and another pal pick up two women at a diner and go for a drive. Eventually, everyone ends up at the top of a hill for a late-night powwow, complete with drumming and chanting and incessant drinking—mainly Thunderbird wine. The three protagonists occasionally narrate with observations, thoughts and dreams, which MacKenzie recorded beforehand and synced up to the images. The men admit that they're mostly looking for happiness, or at least a good time, while Yvonne longs for some kind of simple stability. Beyond her beautiful, babyish face, she is by far the most fascinating character; she simply hopes things will be better for her baby. As for herself, she seems heartbreakingly caught between naïve acceptance and vague dissatisfaction of her place in life. Most revealing is the movie she chooses to watch: a 1957 Sterling Hayden western called The Iron Sheriff that is filled with white faces—and from what we can tell—no Natives. Imagine how she might have felt if she could have been dropped off to see The Exiles instead. Aside from the gorgeous new transfer, Milestone's two-disc DVD comes with a generous selection of extras. Author Sherman Alexie (Reservation Blues, screenwriter of Smoke Signals) and critic Sean Axmaker provide an illuminating commentary track. There are clips from Los Angeles Plays Itself, a theatrical trailer, stills gallery, and MacKenzie's student film Bunker Hill 1956, which inspired the feature. The second disc features three more MacKenzie short films—A Skill for Molina, Story of a Rodeo Cowboy, and Ivan and His Father—as well as three other shorts: Robert Kirste's Last Day of Angels Flight, Greg Kimble's Bunker Hill: A Tale of Urban Renewal, and the 1910 silent-era gem White Fawn's Devotion, considered to be the first American Indian film. There's even a selection of DVD-Rom bonus features, including the screenplay. Sadly, director MacKenzie died in 1980 and never saw his film get such a generous restoration.
Posted by cphillips at November 20, 2009 10:36 PM