Long forgotten by cinephiles and the general public alike, Kent Mackenzie's 1961 feature The Exiles was pulled out of obscurity several years ago when Thom Andersen used chunks of it in his documentary masterpiece Los Angeles Plays Itself.
Now, after an extensive restoration by Milestone Film and Video, the film's return to the screen is being treated as the rediscovery of a classic cinematic work. Cinematheque Ontario is giving it a limited run starting tonight.
Certainly, Mackenzie's faux-documentary look at the activities of several Native Americans over the course of one night in the Bunker Hill suburb of L.A. is a valuable historical document, inasmuch as it provides plenty of vivid black-and-white footage of a long-vanished section of the city.
It's also intriguing to watch the parallel development of the ragged, quasi-verité filmmaking style John Cassavetes was working with in Shadows - shot around the same time as The Exiles, but released two years ahead of it, in 1959.
As an artifact, The Exiles is indeed fascinating. But as a movie, it's not really all that interesting. The narrative is just a series of loaded interactions between a number of Native "subjects" as they stumble through the L.A. night in various stages of disconnection. The slim 72-minute running time manages to contain a great deal of filler - circular conversations padded out with borrowed hepcat jargon repeated ad nauseam, long shots of characters walking through the night, and so forth.
Mackenzie's documentary device, which sets up the action as a sociological study, puts us at a considerable distance from the characters - and the whole thing is so obviously staged that it's hard to see why Mackenzie thought he needed to present the action as non-fiction in the first place. Perhaps he was trying to compensate for the limited acting abilities of his non-professional cast, but I have a feeling that dispensing with the pretense of realism entirely could have freed him up to craft a much more effective portrait.
It shouldn't be critical heresy to suggest a long-lost underground classic is better viewed as an historical relic than as an actual movie, but that's just the way it is. Funny; I felt the same way about Milestone's last restoration, Charles Burnett's Killer Of Sheep, when it finally surfaced last year. Maybe it's me.