The Exiles (1961) dir, Kent McKenzie
Starring: Mary Donahue, Homer Nish, Clydean Parker, Tom Reynolds, Rico Rodriguez
By Alan Bacchus
The reputation of Kent McKenzie’s “The Exiles” precedes it. The famous USC student film about aboriginal youths living in Los Angeles was often discussed as a landmark film in American independent film, yet its inaccessibility, and lack of a video release made the film kind of a myth. The expertly assembled special edition from Milestone Films does justice to this cinematic treasue.
Made and set in 1961, “the Exiles” is a time capsule of the era, without nostalgic hindsight and told with largely amateur actors and in real locations, the film becomes an authentic depiction of 1960's youth run wild.
McKenzie, with documentary-like realism, follows 12 hours in the lives of a group of aboriginals who have chosen to leave their reservation to live among the white people in the area of LA known as Bunker Hill. It’s a Friday night and the group of 4 or 5 youthful and rambunctious men decide go out for a night on the town. Their journey involves boozing, fighting, driving recklessly and doing whatever it takes to pick up women. Unfortunately poor Mary, the innocent and pregnant wife of one of the men is forced to stay home and wander in aimless loneliness throughout the night. In particular, McKenzie's cuts from the boys’ high speed convertible drunk-driving to Mary sitting alone in a movie theatre is earth shattering.
Narratively the film doesn't adhere to traditional character arcs or the needs of conventional storytelling. All McKenzie needs to do is observe the behaviour of his characters for us to figure out the 300-year long arc of despair of the aboriginal people. The effect of the city of Los Angeles on the youth in the film is embodied by Homer, the drunken gambler who left Mary alone at home, the energy of the nightlife acting like the inebriating and soul-sucking effects of alcohol on the Aboriginals’ society at large.
This blanket of sadness, clouds the entire picture, with a sense of inevitable doom. The effectively morose narration which reveals the characters’ inner thoughts sound like documentary voiceover - insightful and often unemotive revelations which don’t necessarily relate directly to the images on screen but expresses a contrasting tone of intelligent self-reflection against the drunken, testosterone fueled irresponsibility.
The high contrast black and white transfer is pristine and stunning. The night time exterior lighting is simply phenomenal capturing the bright lights of Los Angeles with authentic vibrancy - a look which echoes Haskell Wexler's great work on 'American Graffiti'.
The film is by no means as polished as Graffiti though and the rough 'indie' aesthetic aids in its gritty realism. McKenzie’s tone of New Wave authenticity is reminiscent of not only early Godard, but the great Canadian neorealist indie 'Nobody Waved Goodbye'.
It resonates best in the big picture - a powerful statement about Aboriginal socio-economic and racial politics, and a remarkably poignant story of the troubled integration of all marginalized people into the social fabric of white middle class-dominated American life.
“The Exiles” is available on DVD from Milestone Films.