Yvonne, sweet-faced and wrapped in a white coat that throws an ethereal glow over her, wanders the floor of the Grand Central Market. She is enchanted by the abundance of the place, walking dreamily, idling over a bottle of pop as commerce swirls around her, lingering as long as she can before climbing back up the hill, walking alongside the Angels Flight funicular to the ramshackle apartment she shares with her man Homer and an assortment of men who crash in various corners. Inside, the men rouse themselves from afternoon slumbers, she quietly cooks up some meat and serves it to them, eyes darting at Homer as he gets ready for an evening on the town, seemingly oblivious to her presence. This girl is our entrance to Kent MacKenzie’s The Exiles, eyes wide, taking everything in, silent. But we are party to her internal monologue – the voiceover track lets us in as an immediate confidante. She tells us she is pregnant, that she can’t wait to have a little baby all her own, that she wishes Homer would straighten up, that she knows they’re just going to drop her off at the movies and leave her there all night. It’s a mixture of dreamy naievete and resignation.
Through the night, we tag along with different members of this group from the Bunker Hill apartment. Homer goes with a friend to a card game, then joins a 49 party on Hill X (where Dodger Stadium now stands). Tommy tears drunkenly through the night, picking up some girls in a bar and desperately trying to make it with them. Yvonne stays all night at the movies just as she anticipated before walking back towards home to stay with a friend. By turns raucous, dangerous, lonely, and bound in by communal circumstance, the night that MacKenzie captures in The Exiles is just like any night out. The same ground is covered over and over again, our subjects crossing the same intersections, walking the same tunnels, going in and out of the same dive bars. The city on display doesn’t exist anymore, but the feeling captured has survived. Los Angeles is a city that’s made up of dozens of small towns, and each hamlet’s residents tend to stick close to home base, mostly out of convenience. Leaving the zone qualifies as an adventure – cars snaking up to the summit of Hill X for a party, a moving microcosm of the Downtown scene we just left. This sequence, as we are transplanted to an unfamiliar location, offers the first indication both narratively and visually of the sprawl of the city. Raised above the warren of everyday neighborhood life, watching the blanket of twinkling lights rolling out to the distant ocean, it’s the only time in the movie where there’s room enough to breathe.
The Exiles does an admirable job of conveying the different scales of Los Angeles. Through kinetic camerawork and editing, we fly with Tommy and the broads in a convertible (top down), while still, long takes follow Homer and his friend through the same location on foot, their steps and voices echoing off the walls. The scale of individual experience is handled with similar finesse. Conversations unfold on a prescribed number of topics- girls, more beers, more cash, cool songs. There’s not a deep exchange to be found on the surface, but the overlaid interview audio is candid and confessional, delving into the philosophical at times. Juxtaposed with the performative social rituals, a sense of yearning, yet almost hopeless, melancholy coagulates, and that’s the prevailing tone of the film, walking a woozy line between hazy introspection and the the hard-line immediacy of the moment.
Kent MacKenzie’s document of a group of young Native Americans who left reservation life behind to live in the Bunker Hill neighborhood of Los Angeles is less about the initial sociological premise or the unfolding action than the internal conflict each subject grapples with. Yvonne, Homer, and Tommy’s stories tangentially connect as they spend a night bouncing around the same few blocks as each other, but the confessional voiceover is only unity tying them together. They all talk about the same things: traditions they were raised with, modern thrills always at their fingertips, opportunities they dream of in a city they dreamed of, and what they know in their hearts to be the truth of the matter. They may be far from home, but they’re still a long way from the life they’re looking for.