Charles Burnett's Killer of Sheep remains one of the best films I have ever seen. A stark, meditative slice-of-life portrait of blacks living in Los Angeles, Burnett's film recalled the neo-realism of Italian cinema, and the cinema verite of France. What I did not know when I first saw Killer of Sheep, was that it also recalled the work of Kent Mackenzie's film, The Exiles, which had predated Burnett's seminal work by almost a decade, but had sadly lapsed into near-forgotten obscurity. Released now on DVD, The Exiles has been given a richly deserved new lease on life, bringing with it the opportunity to explore an era that has long since passed.
Set in the Los Angeles community of Bunker Hill and shot in the late 1950s, The Exiles offers an intimate portrait of Native Americans that have relocated to the big city from the reservation. Spanning a little over twelve hours--just before sunset and shortly after sunrise--Mackenzie follows a small group of Indians as they go about the sad business of their lives after dark. There is not much of a story to speak of, beyond the pursuit of drunken thrills and looking for some deeper meaning to a life that is empty and meandering. Homer leaves his pregnant wife alone as he traverses the city in an alcohol-fueled sojourn that by his own admission has been going on for years. His wife, Yvonne, ponders her life and her marriage, recalling how she dreamed of something better while she was growing up on the reservation, but has yet to find whatever that something is. Rico wanders around, hoping to earn money by gambling with what little cash he has, while Tommy, who loves to just get drunk, is looking for action, be it a fight or making time with a woman. And therein lies whatever may pass for a story in The Exiles. That's to say there isn't much in terms of exposition or even character development.
Written by Mackenzie with the aid of his cast, The Exiles certainly has some of the same tone of neo-realist cinema, where real people essentially played themselves in films that sought to capture life as it was. The Italians had it down, but in America, where studio-produced films dominated both the industry and the market, the seemingly voyeuristic stories that unfolded as if the camera were simply filming real life have long been relegated to student films and arthouse cinema. As both, The Exiles came along just as John Cassavetes was first beginning to shake things up in American film. In many ways, Mackenzie's film was ahead of its time, while also sadly being all but lost to time.
The Exiles is, among other things, an incredible historical marker of a Los Angeles that no longer exists. Watching the film through the beautiful cinematography of Eric Daarstad, Robert Kaufman and John Arthur Morrill, this is a Los Angeles that is unrecognizable, forgotten and replaced by the sprawling metropolis we now know. But it is not just the city itself that is captured in a vivid portrait of a past era, so too are the faces of the people who wander in and out of frame, serving as reminders of another culture in another place at another time.
As the events of the film unfold in an almost organic flow of random encounters, we see the cast of The Exiles as lost souls searching for some sort of salvation in a city with none to offer. Yvonne sits lonely and alone in a movie theater while her husband Homer carouses with his friends. And everywhere there is a disconnect from true humanity, lost in a haze of booze and inexplicable melancholy, making The Exiles a depressing movie of crumbling hope giving way to listless despair. This nearly tangible sadness, balanced by characters that are either pitiable or despicable--and sometimes both--makes Mackenzie's film difficult to watch at times, in that it seems shrouded in hopelessness. But at the same time, that hopelessness provides a sorrowful beauty that gives the movie a special life all its own. The end result is a movie you don't watch to feel good about the human condition, but you do watch for beautiful cinema.