Kent Mackenzie's magnificent, long-undistributed, unclassifiable first feature, "The Exiles," stands as a rare consideration of the inner and outer lives of American Indians in a big American city. Shot in Los Angeles' shabby Bunker Hill in haunting black-and-white, the 1961 film is a neorealist drama with noir undercurrents. It's like something out of Raymond Chandler or John Fante: a cinematic piece of urban observation - arresting, strange, depressed, and, until this year, virtually unseen.
"The Exiles," which starts a run at the Museum of Fine Arts today, begins with a series of still photographs of American Indians. They're the classic images of stoicism and strength that tend to typify the culture: wise, weathered faces, feathered headdresses, people dwarfed by enormous mesas. The beauty in the pictures is matched by the seriousness of their subjects. But Mackenzie uses them to create a historical distance between those ancestral figures and the generation of kids who've descended from them. They've never known the reservation; Bunker Hill, bound for gentrification, is their home.
Mackenzie made audio recordings of his cast - Yvonne Williams, Homer Nish, and Tommy Reynolds - and shaped a narrative out of what they told him about themselves. We survey the markets, visit the bars, and see the homes inhabited by dapper men and hard-working women. There are lingering shots of storefronts, street traffic, and tenements, some caught from bewitching angles. Life is small and sad, but Mackenzie captures something grand in the loneliness. More than once the paintings of Edward Hopper crossed my mind.
"The Exiles" is never the work of an interloper. It's far more pitilessly watchful than it is interpretive, capturing characters as they carouse and erupt, not as stereotypes but as aching people. In a sense, the movie is about two pasts, that of a neighborhood and that of displaced people, both in a state of unhappy, inexorable demise.
A graduate of the University of Southern California and the well-off British-born son of an American and an Englishwoman, Mackenzie finished the film at the beginning of his 30s (he died in 1980 and completed only two features). He didn't want to be a moviemaker working in Hollywood, he said; he wanted to be a "film author." The movie he made contains the purity, artistic devotion, and ingenuity you'd expect from a man content to toil independently in the literal shadows of film industry.
The movie's spiritual cousin is Charles Burnett's 1977 masterpiece "Killer of Sheep," another neorealist black-and-white film about the down-and-out in a Los Angeles enclave. Both films happen to have been resurrected and restored by UCLA Film & Television Archive preservationist Ross Lipman, a hero to believers in true independent moviemaking. And both films show us worlds we may see in the light but rarely, if ever, in the dark.