The American Society of Cinematographers

Loyalty • Progress • Artistry
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Return to Table of Contents February 2010 Return to Table of Contents
The Wolfman
Chris Menges
Presidents Desk
Post Focus
DVD Playback
Angel Heart
The Exiles
Il Divo
ASC Close-Up
The Exiles (1961)
1.33:1 Full Frame
Dolby Digital 2.0
Milestone, $29.98

In the late 1950s, University of Southern California film student Kent Mackenzie began work on The Exiles, a hybrid of fiction and documentary that followed a night in the lives of Native Americans from the Bunker Hill neighborhood of Los Angeles. Although the film was scripted, Mackenzie’s intention was as much to record a specific time, place and culture as to tell a conventional story; in this way, his movie shared a great deal in common with John Cassavetes’ Shadows, which was made at around the same time and similarly broke new ground in combining documentary, fiction and improvisational techniques. Yet where the Cassavetes movie went on to become a classic of the American independent-film movement, The Exiles fell into obscurity almost immediately after its completion in 1961. Although the film had a few successful screenings, including a triumphant premiere at the Venice Film Festival, it failed to receive significant distribution and remained virtually unseen for decades.

Then Thom Anderson’s acclaimed 2003 documentary Los Angeles Plays Itself included a brief section on The Exiles and reignited interest in the movie among film buffs. The distributor, Milestone, in collaboration with the UCLA Film & Television Archive and preservationist Ross Lipman, embarked on a painstaking restoration of the film, and it was released theatrically in 2008 to widespread acclaim under the sponsorship of director Charles Burnett (whose 1977 masterpiece Killer of Sheep was also released by Milestone and shares much in common with The Exiles) and Native American filmmaker and author Sherman J. Alexie Jr. Viewed today, The Exiles is a remarkable time capsule; its simple story of a group of friends who go out cruising, drinking and gambling is similar to George Lucas’s American Graffiti, and it plays like a Native American version of that film in its accurate depiction of the rituals and behavior of a specific culture. Yet American Graffiti is nostalgic, but The Exiles is harsh and unsparing in its presentation of a poor people about to be displaced by gentrification; Mackenzie stated he wanted to avoid “the romance of poverty,” and this goal is achieved with stark power.   

Much of that power comes from a dreamlike visual style that reinforces the characters’ desperation by presenting it with an aesthetic beauty that acts as ironic counterpoint. Mackenzie worked with three cinematographers on the film, all fellow USC film students: Erik Daarstad, Robert Kaufman and John Arthur Morrill. Although a great deal of their work on the film was done separately, the directors of photography created a stunningly cohesive look consisting of sumptuous black-and-white images — images all the more impressive since the film was shot entirely on location, with a minimal lighting package and without the benefit of today’s fast stocks. The photography operates fascinatingly on a number of different levels. On the one hand, the black and white give the piece hallucinatory distance from reality and represent a kind of perfection the characters themselves cannot attain in their own lives; on the other hand, the black and white strip all artifice away from the surface to reveal unblinkingly the characters’ alienation and poverty.   

Milestone’s special edition DVD is, quite simply, flawless: UCLA’s restoration has left The Exiles looking and sounding like a movie made in 2008, not 1961, and the transfer on this disc does the archive’s work full justice. The disc features two exemplary audio features, a commentary track by Alexie and critic Sean Axmaker, and a 51-minute interview with cast and crew (including Daarstad and Morrill) recorded on the opening night of the restoration at UCLA. A 2008 theatrical trailer, a clip from Los Angeles Plays Itself that focuses on The Exiles and Mackenzie’s 1956 short “Bunker Hill,” also photographed by Kaufman, are included.   

A second disc contains three more short films by Mackenzie, as well as several supplements by other filmmakers that relate to the subject matter of The Exiles. Greg Kimble’s “Bunker Hill: A Tale of Urban Renewal” is an excellent 22-minute documentary on the history of the neighborhood in which The Exiles takes place. This documentary mentions Angels Flight, the trolley car that took local residents up and down the hill; that transportation system is also the subject of Robert Kirste’s brief (two-and-a-half minutes) but fascinating “Last Day of Angels Flight.” The disc also includes James Youngdeer’s early silent film White Fawn’s Devotion, alleged to be the first movie by a Native American director, and a wealth of DVD-ROM features from Mackenzie’s archives, including scripts, publicity materials, a funding proposal and Mackenzie’s USC master’s thesis. Audio features include an 18-minute radio interview with Alexie and Burnett and an additional 37 minutes of conversation between Alexie and Axmaker. All of these supplementary features offer additional insight into The Exiles, the culture it depicts and the filmmakers who created it; taken together with the pristine transfer, they make this DVD a must for any serious follower of independent cinema.

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