There’s a scene in The Exiles of Native Americans stumbling out of an L.A. bar at closing time. It’s 2am. The fluorescent and neon bulbs are pulsating white lava. We are watching from across the street. As the revelers file out onto the sidewalk, overhead lights frost their pomade-slicked hair and bulky shoulders, kiss the concrete. All else is gun metal gray and the black of night. Religious.
Martin Scorsese and master cinematographer Robert Richardson attempted something like this (but in color) in the Hell’s Kitchen night exteriors of Bringing Out the Dead. In fact, Richardson’s signature lighting scheme is the hot crown/halo of overexposed toplight seen in his work for Scorcese, Oliver Stone and Quentin Tarantino; imitated, gorgeously, in Spike Lee’s Clockers.
And here is that ethereal effect, so often the product of hotshots like Richardson with their armies of lighting techs, but in a microbudget indie made by a tiny band of UCLA students and Native Americans in the late 1950s. Is beauty really all that expensive?
The Exiles is sort of big news because Milestone Films, the distribution company that resurrected Killer of Sheep last year, has similarly pulled this one from the obscurity graveyard. Director Kent Mackenzie, a tragic American never-really-was in the mode of Dudley Murphy, Bill Gunn and Wendell B. Harris, pulled off this feat but never got around to the subsequent Cassavetes-like maverick output it hinted at.
The Exiles is a simple story of aimless Native Americans living in Los Angeles’ Bunker Hill neighborhood. They drink, fight, party and bullshit their troubles away, taking life one night at a time. Mackenzie homes in on a married couple in trouble: Homer (Homer Nish) drinks all night with the fellas while his pregnant wife Yvonne (Yvonne Williams) goes to the movies by herself. Both of them are miserable and sick with longing—Homer for his similarly fading loved ones back on the reservation; Yvonne for Homer. All she wants is a little attention and affection to give the listless hours some meaning.
Mackenzie gives us their despair in plain and simple images: an insert shot of a family photo (mom and dad back at the reservation, an epic history written in their cracked-desert faces); a long take of Homer withdrawing into himself amidst a scene of nonsensical barroom merriment. Another breathtaking visual we’ve seen a thousand times before: Yvonne walking the lonely streets, window shopping after yet another solo night at the movies. But note the way the street lamps highlight her magnificent cheekbones while coaxing us to look into the shadows under her brow, where two soft, dark orbs sit, waiting, pleading, losing hope.
The film’s stripped down visual blues are so stirring and pleasurable, it’s easy to forgive what in less inspired movies would be a fatal flaw: a loosely post-dubbed, looped, and generally stiff-sounding dialogue track. The dialogue in The Exiles sounds terrible, not because of the writing (a delicious vernacular stew culled from improvs and material from the actors’ real lives) or any excessive distortion or noise, but from its stiff, studio-closet falsity. Milestone’s rationale for not improving the sync or giving the voice tracks more of an atmospheric, less mannered feel is that they were trying to preserve the work as it was. Understandable, but beefing up the audio to match the exquisite picture doesn’t seem as great a crime as allowing minor flaws to distract from a truly worthwhile story.
Well, never mind. For a film about Native Americans depleting what’s left of their lives in skid row haunts, The Exiles is a groovy visual experience. A streetcar descending a steep hill at night, lit up like a box of starlight. Mid-century Los Angeles architecture given the texture of gray flannel, leather, supple skin. Studies of Native American faces and bodies done over in the rock and roll pompadours, denims and poodle skirts that offer a quick fix sense of release/re-invention through assimilation.
The film’s conclusion left me longing for a sequel, or some once-a-decade check-ins. Whatever happened to Homer and Yvonne? I mean the real ones as much as their characters. It’s that kind of movie.