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Arts

The Lens: 'Exiles' on Hill Street

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, Dec. 3, 2009 - The first remarkable thing about Kent Mackenzie's "The Exiles," a small but powerful film about rootless Native Americans living in the Bunker Hill section of Los Angeles at the end of the 1950s, is that it was somehow completely overlooked by even the most thorough film historians for nearly half a century: I pulled a dozen books off of my shelves and found only one reference to Mackenzie or his film, a vaguely affirmative review in Pauline Kael's 1968 collection "Kiss Kiss Bang Bang."

Finished in 1961, the film never received a theatrical release and fell into obscurity quickly, saved only when historian/filmmaker Thom Andersen asked to include footage from it in his eccentric history/collage "Los Angeles Plays Itself." Andersen's film created new interest in "The Exiles," leading to a handsome restoration under the sponsorship of the UCLA Film Archive and Milestone Films.

The result may well set the standard for film preservation; and the DVD edition, just released, gives it a treatment that most filmmakers dream about. The two-disc edition includes earlier short films by Mackenzie, historical footage of the Bunker Hill area (itself mostly gone now due to gentrification and the construction of the Walt Disney Concert Hall), historical material about L.A.'s Native American community and, on CD-ROM, additional writings by Mackenzie, who died in 1980. It's about as comprehensive a package as any film has ever received.

The second remarkable thing about "The Exiles" is that the film is in many ways a harbinger of trends that would shake up American cinema in the early 60s. It's not a documentary, but it's bare view of life, combined with the narration of its almost painfully ordinary subjects, suggests the pioneering cinema-verite work of Pennebaker, Leacock and the Maysles brothers, while its lively recreation of L.A. night life and the off-the-cuff filmmaking certainly suggest that Cassavetes' "Shadows" was a big influence. The film is astonishingly realistic, and until you notice that a few scenes are edited from conventional multiple angles, the film is so ragged and honest that you could be forgiven for believing that this is a documentary account of a night out on the town for its characters.

And the third remarkable thing about "The Exiles" is the film itself, a stunningly bold-faced look at a subculture so far off the radar that the film seems almost like the discovery of a new world. Mackenzie lived among the Native American community, understood their problems but remains almost ambivalent.

He doesn't glamorize the footloose young men and women on the town as they drink and ramble through a single night, nor does he present their behavior through the condescending frame of a "problem" picture. Ahead of its time, "The Exiles" simply takes the mundane events of an urban milieu (the night photography, as nearly every recent review has noted, is excellent) and draws the viewer into the thick of it. This is raw, honest movie making, without a false moment.

The Lens is provided by Cinema St. Louis.

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