Kent MacKenzie’s forgotten indie basks in the retroactive glow of never having had a theatrical release—as if that somehow makes it a work of misunderstood genius. It captures gorgeous black-and-white images of the unglamorous side of Los Angeles and has a sympathetic eye toward that city’s Native Americans. But to praise The Exiles any further is to demean the truly landmark debuts of many other filmmakers: pioneers like John Cassavetes, who actually remembered to bring a boom mike to the set and record usable sound, or Charles Burnett, who turned poetic images into drama without resorting to manufactured “inner-thought” monologues.
Usually discussed in documentary terms, the movie isn’t one—but rather a staged re-creation of several events taking place over one night. MacKenzie, a well-intentioned USC student, was hanging around in downtown bars with several of the people who would become his cast; together they roughed out a script and made up their own lines. Yvonne (Williams), pregnant and lonely, zones out at a double feature; Homer (Nish) plays poker and later takes in the sprawl from a high vantage; Tommy (Reynolds) gets blitzed and hits on an amused girl in a bar. You’ll have to be capable of some pretty serious compartmentalization to be able to appreciate these characters’ mind-sets while ignoring the awkward acting, embarrassing slang and absent insight into the political status of post-reservation Indians. (They do like to drink a lot; how’d MacKenzie get away with that?)
That said, viewers nostalgic for shots of L.A.’s old Bunker Hill (mostly demolished in a controversial corporate-works project lasting more than 50 years) must make it a point to see the film. Every neon sign carries a retro thrill; the first few moments alone feature the “Angels Flight” funicular. The Exiles was namechecked in Thom Anderson’s fascinating 2003 meta-examination Los Angeles Plays Itself. But if we’re taking cues from Anderson’s doc, how about a revival of John Carpenter’s They Live—a film that says twice as much about L.A.’s underclass, and with “Rowdy” Roddy Piper?