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Monday, Sept. 15, 2008

The Exiles

Exiled in America

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   One of the most perfect films to be shown in a Milwaukee theater this year receives its local premiere this weekend. Completed in 1961 after several years of sporadic filming, The Exiles is a documentary about young American Indians in the Los Angeles slums, living day by day and hand to mouth. But to boil it down to such a short description is to cut off its legs and cut out its heart. The Exiles is neither pedantic nor didactic. It's not a social-problem picture. The Exiles shows much but seldom tells the audience what to think.

  Filmmaker Kent Mackenzie may have been influenced by the social realism coming out of Europe, but when watching The Exiles one suspects he found many of those films a little dull. He was a contemporary of the French New Wave but without their irony or occasional glibness; he was closer to John Cassavetes but seemed to be after a finished product that stood a chance in the commercial milieu of the day.

  Mackenzie's film was never given that chance, and after occasional appearances on the spotty film festival circuit of the 1960s, disappeared into classrooms, where it was sometimes shown for educational purposes. The Exiles was almost forgotten until recently, when a restored 35 mm print was struck, revealing the crisp edges of its black-and-white cinematography and returning Mackenzie's lost gem to the public eye.

 a 12-hour journey through the end of the night. Mackenzie's cameras press them intimately and zoom into their conversations, never diminishing the realism yet polishing it to a dusky gleam.

  The Indians express several points of view. Yvonne, pregnant and living in a small apartment with her husband and a circle of his buddies, wants her child to speak good English, go to college, "become somebody." But for most of the guys in her world, the American Dream is more Jack Kerouac than Dwight Eisenhower. Hipsters with cool clothes and greaser hair, they seek their kicks around the jukeboxes of the city's underbelly and race with the wind in the one convertible they scrounge up between them. Rockabilly, gutbucket electric blues, doo-wop and New Orleans rock 'n' roll form the soundtrack to their lives, even as one of the men cuts away to reservation memories-his father chanting under the stingy shade of a gnarly tree and keeping hypnotic time with the rattling gourds of tribal tradition.

  Almost every scene is pitch perfect, the poker games, joy rides and bar fights illuminated by internal monologues from the major characters. The Exiles glances at so many themes that it becomes a 72-minute microcosm of its time and place. Like many of the era's married women, Yvonne's role is largely passive, resigned to being cook and laundress. Meanwhile, there was an easy air of sexual teasing and interplay in the bars between men and women. Hints of a gay subculture flit at the margins.

  One of the American-Indian men remarks, "White people got more trouble than Indians do," and would rather have lived centuries ago in a world closer to nature. But the uncertain world he inhabits is a place of film-noir beauty, with winking neon signs and streetlamps that surface from pools of shadow. The Exiles' Bunker Hill neighborhood, with its decaying gingerbread houses and sharp hillsides, will be a familiar backdrop to devotees of Kiss Me Deadly and other gritty L.A. crime films of the 1950s. One expects to find Tom Waits gazing from the window of the all-night diner, except that Bunker Hill was bulldozed in the '60s in favor of a characterless commercial zone. Among many other things, The Exiles is a superb record of a neighborhood lost to what once was called "progress."

  7 p.m., Sept. 19; 5 and 9 p.m., Sept. 20; and 7 p.m., Sept. 21, UWM Union Theatre.

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