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Exiles, The
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by Lybarger

"So revolutionary, you might not notice."
5 stars

Kent Mackenzie’s 1961 movie ‘The Exiles’ was so revolutionary that even now it seems gutsy. While it never received a wide release on the big screen, the movie either influenced a wide group of filmmakers or had themes that didn’t show up in movies until filmmakers like Martin Scorsese or Barry Levinson made "Mean Streets" and "Diner." Thanks to a new DVD release from Milestone films, the late Mackenzie’s formidable achievement has finally received the reverence it deserves.

“The Exiles” doesn’t fit easily into any type of genre. It blurs the lines between documentary, drama and even black comedy. The English-born Mackenzie had befriended some members of the American Indian community in Los Angeles’ now-defunct Bunker Hill neighborhood and convinced them to recreate their experiences for the film, which took from 1958 to 1960. None of these folks were trained actors.

That was hardly a problem. Mackenzie made his novice performers so comfortable that they give wonderfully unguarded portrayals. As a result, viewers get a look at American Indian life in a way that’s radically different from the way it’s usually presented. For one thing, nearly all of the people in the film are American Indians who live urbanized lives. You can count the number of white people in the film on one hand, and only one scene (a visual representation of a letter that one character reads) takes place on a reservation. As gloomy as “The Exiles” gets, the scene of the squalid life on the Rez is bleak, too.

There’s no plot to speak of, but one is hardly needed. Viewers experience a single evening in Bunker Hill from a half-dozen different points-of-view. A pregnant but unmarried woman named Yvonne Williams plays herself wandering through Bunker Hill because her beau Homer Nish is off carousing with his pals. Both say little about themselves when they’re with others but open up to the audience in voiceover.

One of the most astonishing aspects of the film is that Mackenzie does nothing to romanticize his subjects. He unflinchingly presents some despicable behavior the same way that Levinson did in Diner. A pair of male partiers stick a young woman with the bill at a gas station. She leaves to go to the bathroom, and then the revelers abandon her just as she’s walking out of the room. Nice guys, huh? Mackenzie figures that viewers can decide for themselves when characters are misbehaving.

Despite its short running time and technical glitches (the voices don’t quite match the lip movements because the cameras were too noisy for live sound), “The Exiles” takes a couple of viewings to appreciate. There are tiny details that don’t leap out at a viewer but become obvious once you get past the story. You can spot a gay couple pouring each other drinks in a bar scene or notice that traditional blankets cover the seats of a hot rod.

The restoration through Milestone and the University of California Los Angeles allows some truly gorgeous night shots of LA come through, and the rock score played by a band called The Revels is versatile as it is scorching. Interestingly, a song they recorded for “The Exiles” called “Comanche” became a hit and is featured in “Pulp Fiction.”

The extras on the new DVD are worth exploring as well. In particular, check out the lively commentary track by critic Sean Axmaker and novelist/filmmaker Sherman Alexie, who hails from the Spokane/Coeur d'Alene tribes. The former provides some juicy behind the scenes information, while the latter explains what a revelation “The Exiles” was and still is for an American Indian audience.

One of the great things about DVD is that wonderful films that flew under the radar can finally receive proper recognition. In its re-release, “The Exiles” earns a well-deserved reprieve from obscurity.

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originally posted: 11/19/09 15:35:26
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  13-Jul-1961 (NR)
  DVD: 17-Nov-2009



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