Kent McKenzie's "The Exiles," a 1961 documentary about American Indians living in the Bunker Hill section of Los Angeles, plays just three times this week at the Charles: at noon tomorrow, 7 p.m. Monday and 9 p.m. Thursday. And that's a shame because it's more beautiful and invigorating than any film in town except "The Curious Case of Benjamin Button."
An unheralded milestone in independent filmmaking, it achieves the nuances and sardonic vitality of Edward Hopper's paintings -- and this film does so without the benefit of color, in exquisitely gritty black and white. Its status as a period piece increases its contemporary allure. The nonactors in McKenzie's lens don't present themselves to the camera like the participants in today's reality shows. Their obdurate individuality and spontaneous expressions allow McKenzie to make us feel as if we're catching privileged glimpses of their hidden characters.
The achievement is all the more remarkable because McKenzie scripted and staged the scenes in collaboration with his subjects, using recorded interviews to provide interior monologues on the soundtrack. The movie is a set of pungently staged vignettes as well as voice-over ruminations that, in context, are eloquent even when they're halting.
With heartbreaking simplicity, the movie contrasts the sullen dignity of a pregnant Apache woman, Yvonne Williams, with the giddy, frenetic night life of her Apache husband, Homer Nish, and their Indian-Mexican apartment-mate Tommy Reynolds. After eating the pork chop dinner she prepares for them, they drop her off at a double feature while they go out for a night of carousing.
McKenzie brings to the movie more than a touch of the poet. Without any editorializing or underlining, McKenzie opens up a world in which men and women live separate, unequal lives.
Whatever identity the dislocated Indian men forge for themselves derives more from camaraderie than from work or family; the women make do with their fleeting attentions, whether they're party girls out on the town or long-suffering mates caring for children and doling out cash that the fellows drink or gamble away.
McKenzie sees this male chauvinism in the context of Indian cultures uprooted from their native land. As the men binge and then brawl drunkenly, you can't help feeling that, as in frontier days, liquor is a huge part of the Indians' undoing.
But the movie has a universal urban lyricism that makes you feel the Indians' plight as your own. Reynolds is content to fuel high spirits with feckless running around. Nish bottles up the kind of loneliness you can experience only in a crowd (that's why you believe, despite everything, that he may be the right man for Williams). And Nish provides the movie with its deceptive power. The energy behind his enigmatic smiles and general wariness intermittently explodes, whether he leaves a poker game in disgust or instigates a bar fight out of exasperation and self-loathing.
McKenzie has a rare gift for capturing how male bonding turns shared weaknesses into an illusion of strength. (The one female friendship we see seems to foster resignation.) I can't think of another movie, not even John Huston's "Fat City," that captures so well the end-of-the-line feelings just beneath the surface of a round of drinks at a bar.
And "The Exiles" has a texture and look all its own. When the bars close, the men zip away to a vista point overlooking the sprawling city. They fight and drink some more, but they also take up their old tribal chants and dances. "Indians like to get together where they're not gonna be bothered or watched or nothing like that," Nish says. "Want to get out there and just be free."