The Exiles(Oscilloscope Laboratories, 11.17.2009)
A couple years back, Milestone Films re-released Charles Burnett's little-known, would-be seventies classic Killer of Sheep. Partly financed by Steven Soderbergh, that re-release brought the film considerable acclaim, landing it on many best-of lists at the end of the year (including sixth place on Film Comment's prestigious critics' poll). Burnett has followed in Soderbergh's footsteps, offering his name (and possibly some money) to Milestone's re-release of Kent Mackenzie's similarly hard-to-see ethnographic gem, The Exiles. While this film didn't make quite the same impact as Killer of Sheep, it still cracked FC's top twenty.
Shot between 1957 and 1960, The Exiles has remained relatively unseen for nearly half a century. Spawned from authentic interviews, the film chronicles one day and one night in the lives of several young Native Americans dwelling in Los Angeles’ Bunker Hill district. Like a mix between George Lucas' American Graffiti and John Cassavetes' Shadows, the film allows to watch (or rather experience) them drink, drive, flirt and fight in almost real time. But what is most captivating about the film is its docudrama-like naturalism. Stylistically, Mackenzie offers up something remarkably raw that is essentially his own.
The gorgeously gritty black-and-white cinematography gives a unique view of a fleeting L.A. subculture that had never been accurately represented onscreen before. Thankfully, the transfer on this release is nothing short of astonishing and one of the best illustrations of how far we have come in terms of film preservation and restoration. Audio is equally pristine, particularly Norman Knowles' rock 'n' roll score and The Reveals' fabulous songs.
Native American author Sherman Alexie and critic Sean Axmaker provide detail-heavy commentary and they also appear in two interviews (one with video, one without) on the second disc. Burnett also makes an appearance alongside Alexie in a WNYC public radio session (also on disc two).
Sadly, Mackenzie never went on to make any other theatrical releases, but this set contains four of his shorts, including a 1956 USC-made doc (Bunker Hill) and several public awareness films.
Rounding out the extras is Bunker Hill: A Tale of Urban Renewal, Last Day of Angels Flight and clips from Thom Anderson’s acclaimed, but hard-to-see 2003 film Los Angeles Plays Itself. Tossed-in for good measure are some DVD-ROM "textras" in the form of PDF files. The most intriguing of these is Mackenzie’s master’s thesis on the making of The Exiles and a lost, incomplete screenplay he wrote before passing away in 1980.
Not only is The Exiles a long-lost cinematic milestone (pun indeed), but it's one of the key entries in the American independent canon and should be required viewing for all film students and fans. Better late than never, Milestone and Oscilloscope's spectacular DVD is one of the finest home video releases of 2009. -- Neil Karassik