The greatest benefit of Thom Andersen's video-essay Los Angeles Plays Itself (2003) has been the historic rediscovery of a remarkable, hitherto virtually unknown American film: Kent Mackenzie's The Exiles (1961).
This astonishing work, roughly contemporaneous with John Cassavetes' similarly groundbreaking Shadows (1959), is a glimpse into the daily lives of a now lost community: the Arizonian Indians who lived on Bunker Hill. These citizens 'play themselves' within a lightly fictionalised framework.
One doesn't need to forever evoke the ghost of Italian neo-realism to value the amazing sense of place, space and daily ritual evoked by this film.
Mackenzie was a figure who died in obscurity, unable to realise any of his major projects subsequent to The Exiles. In 1961, he was already far ahead of his time.
His film effortlessly shunts from one character's voice-over narration to another, as Martin Scorsese would do twenty years later.
And Mackenzie's melancholic but clear-eyed vision of the different existences of men and women in this community – on parallel paths from heady dusk 'til sad dawn – bridges Cassavetes and many modern portraitists of gender-despair, such as Neil LaBute or Mike Leigh.
The Exiles is a film to hunt down and savour – the kind of movie that instantly redefines our sense of cinema history.
© Adrian Martin September 2004