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‘Los Angeles Plays Itself’ a mastery of visual essay and love letter to cinema’s greatest city

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Los Angeles Plays Itself

Written and directed by Thom Andersen

USA, 2003

It comes as no surprise that film sets and locations have been reused throughout the history of the movies. The fact that many of these locations are within or around Los Angeles, a city whose very ontology includes Hollywood and film business, is equally predictable. Yet these locations, distorted to us through the magic of movie production and narrative engagement, hold significant value to the residents of Los Angeles, particularly California Institute of the Arts film instructor Thom Andersen, using what he saw as the denigration of his beloved city on screen to begin a lecture and, ultimately, a film: Los Angeles Plays Itself. “I live here,” he begins his narration through Encke King over a series of establishing shots of the city from various films. “Sometimes I think this gives me the right to criticize the ways movies depict my city.” Andersen’s tone throughout the film is rigid, engaged in a serious discourse, only to be accented and grow coarse when becoming increasingly pissed off. There are no talking heads, no special guests, no interviews, and apart from a few up-to-date shots of the Los Angeles architecture, no film outside the select movie scenes Andersen uses to illustrate his points. Los Angeles Plays Itself is Andersen’s erudite, formalist Hollywood tour — a be-all and end-all conversation about the city so packed with endless love and toil, research, and involvement, that any review would be like recounting the lecture of a famed guest speaker: the passion may be evident, but you had to be there.

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“Los Angeles is the most photographed city, yet the least photogenic,” Andersen recounts. The magic of New York is evident from nearly any shot of Woody Allen’s films, yet Los Angeles’s body feels overexposed, its locations being Anywhere, USA, easily translatable to period picture or set in the distant future. The city wears many masks, yet we are rarely privileged to see its face. This lamentation begins Andersen’s architectural exploration of the city’s most famous and most ill-treated landmarks, “The City as Background”. Los Angeles can never quite play itself when its epicenters, the fragments of its identity, are less like home and more of a destination or vacation. Los Angeles can play Chicago as it does in The Public Enemy; its extraordinary Bradbury Building can play a hotel in Burma or a London hospital; Frank Lloyd Wright’s Ennis House can be a perfect location for informercials, music videos, and The House on Haunted Hill. Rather than celebrating Hollywood’s ingenuity at reuse and reconceptualizing space to fit their needs, Andersen condemns this as misconduct by the studios, a form of dishonesty only present in the depiction of his city. An audience cannot imagine the Empire State Building outside its context of a New York icon, yet the nation’s cultural experience of John Lautner’s modernist master-crafts of space is through their existence as crime lairs in The Big Lebowski, Body Double, and Lethal Weapon 2. It is hard not to be on board with Andersen’s extensive knowledge of Southern Californian architecture, and subsequently his remarks of Hollywood’s perversity upon their cultural image. In other cities, the buildings are the spatial representations of what the city really is; part of what made 9/11 so tragic is the loss of the buildings themselves, a loss of part of the identity of New York City. Los Angeles, outside a few exceptions such as City Hall, TCL Chinese Theatre, and the Hollywood sign, identifies with its buildings through the many roles they have played.

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Andersen’s criticisms come from a very formalist perspective: the amount of respect each film gives his city is found through the process in which the scenes are shot, just as well as what the buildings themselves may represent. While ranting that a particular car chase may be cut in a way for the cars to appear thirty miles further into the city through one turn (“Geographic license is an excuse for laziness”), he praises the car chase respectful and literal to Los Angeles’s geography in Gone in 60 Seconds. Further, in the second segment, “The City as Character,” Andersen reveals films whose techniques of shooting Los Angeles locations for the purpose of giving them their own space and meaning to its inhabitants, picked up from the “city as co-conspirator” attitude of the James M. Cain novels on which these early films are based. Rebel Without a Cause also managed to evoke the character of the city through, as Andersen puts it, creating a world strictly seen through teenage eyes, one of noir darkness with baby-boom car-owning freedom. When the city is treated as character, the settings become repurposed, still as Los Angeles, yet now serving as symbols of youth or urban decay rather than India, England, or Chicago. In this fashion, film history can serve as a documentary of the evolution of the real Los Angeles settings — the collected documentaries being the focus of Andersen’s editing, constructing and prodding into the decay of Bunker Hill, first as a middle-class idyll in light dramas, becoming painted as more crime-ridden as the district itself loses face, only to end as a post-apocalyptic setting for The Omega Man. In efforts to set apart which of these depictions of the districts retain verisimilitude to the tone of his city, Andersen sets a pantheon of “High Tourist” sensibilities of foreign filmmakers shooting the city with genuine curiosity, commenting on Maya Deren’s serene stare out of her Spanish-villa-like house onto the Los Angeles streets below or a character from Jacques Demy’s Model Shop commenting on the beauty of the city even when in its midst — Flareup and Chinatown are only willing to grasp at its beauty from a distance.

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The films given the highest recognition are those which treat the city as a focal point, wishing to engage with its citizens, geography, and remnants of candid history. In “The City as Subject,” Andersen never shies away from the economic realities and histories surrounding the districts of Los Angeles: much of the sullen architecture is used when filming “slummy” or “dangerous” aspects of the city, the truth being that these districts are just as reverent as the others, often housing the majority of the city not working in the film industry, victims of the failure of public housing initiatives. Chinatown is crowned as an achievement in the field of covering the city as something tangible, a living thing with its own history apart from its movie documentation and its own “big city problems”. Despite never shooting for top-down accuracy (the actual story being much more frightening), Polanski molded Chinatown around the city, not as backdrop, nor as character, but as the MacGuffin of its characters, as something finally desired and sought to be preserved. Strangely enough, Who Framed Roger Rabbit seems to accomplish this just as well, only with a higher attention to a detail Andersen has consistently brought up — the act of getting around Los Angeles without a car. In Rebel Without a Cause, car ownership is a sign of a country in good economic shape, but the characters are white and middle-class: the teenagers owning cars is new but not unexpected. Rather, in Chinatown, Jack Nicholson relies on friends; in Who Framed Roger Rabbit, Bob Hoskins relies on a public transit in danger to fail (in a biting satire of GM’s ownership of Los Angeles’s red cars), yet the true purveyors of this great city walk and take the bus. These are the characters of the visionaries who best know the city. Haile Gerima and Charles Burnett’s characters live in the South Central district where economic disparity has hit a nearly fatal blow. As the threat of unemployment looms over the families in these stories, we finally see the true characterization of these districts, so woefully glossed over as crack kingdoms when under the reins of Hollywood. As his Hollywood tour comes to a close, Thom Andersen reminds us that the majority of Los Angeles life once had tourism, too: one could just as easily tour a tire factory, observing as the blue-collar citizens commandeer what makes them important — their force stronger than the Hollywood that hates its own home.

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Los Angeles Plays Itself has been updated, its VHS-quality images transferred to HD with small editing alterations. Andersen is committed to the notion that it need not be updated to include the last ten years of the depiction of Los Angeles — his original 3-hour behemoth of a visual essay being the product he would like to continue discussing. What would an update do other than offer a few more examples to his triptych of appreciation? The new format has, as of last Friday, begun its screening in Los Angeles with hopes that its licensing issues with the film clips included may be alleviated to further distribution. As it stands, Los Angeles Plays Itself has been watched by far too few, yet always met with superlatives and hyperbole when thoroughly absorbed (myself included). Beginning another run, a ten-year victory lap, Andersen will continue winning respect for sending the greatest love letter and hate mail to cinema. May another generation come to understand why you don’t call it “L.A.”

Zach Lewis


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