Recently watching the mindless masterpiece Speed—in which, famously, a bus must stay above 55 miles an hour or else get blown up by a deranged Dennis Hopper—I became fascinated with how its creators perfectly situated the action in Los Angeles, with its labyrinthine freeways floating almost detached from the city center. Say what you will about the mostly superfluous Speed, but there’s no denying its brilliant synthesis of a unique urban layout, machinery, death-defying stunts, movement, and the cinematic medium. Or, as Thom Andersen puts it in his film Los Angeles Plays Itself, "the best films about Los Angeles are, at least partly, about modes of transportation. Getting from place to place isn’t a given."
A nearly three-hour essay film reminiscent of the work of Chris Marker, Los Angeles Plays Itself (opening at the Film Forum on July 28) consists almost entirely of found footage—footage lifted from other sources—and explores the relationship between the eponymous city and the movies that, for better or worse, represent it. Andersen’s written narration (as voiced by Encke King) guides the viewer through constructed, reimagined versions of Los Angeles, schizophrenic for housing the motion picture industry and for continually placing itself in front of its own funhouse mirrors. Los Angeles, Andersen points out, is the most photographed city in the world, and surreal intersections of art and life, history and myth, and geographic and filmic space within the City of Angels find their nesting ground in the movies, those dream worlds concretized in phantasmagoric light and shadow.
According to Andersen—a CalArts film and video professor and director of experimental films such as short line long line (1966) and the blacklist documentary Red Hollywood (1996)—trying to understand what the movies tell audiences about his native city is an act of "watch[ing] with our voluntary attention instead of letting the movies direct. If we can appreciate documentaries for their dramatic qualities, perhaps we can appreciate fiction films for their documentary revelations." Los Angeles Plays Itself is revelatory in deconstructing how the city, unlike New York, is "elusive, just beyond the reach of an image," from its love-hate relationship with Hollywood, to its legacy of effacing traces of its own history, to its fantasy image of itself regularly informing and altering its reality: Sets built for films become functioning structures, buildings appearing to be functional are actually sets, and obscure landmarks and eclectic architecture often allow Los Angeles to play other cities or else cities with no name. Using clips from hundreds of films—among the most prominent Blade Runner, Chinatown, Double Indemnity, and Point Blank but also costarring The Terminator, Zabriskie Point, Earthquake, and The Long Goodbye—Los Angeles Plays Itself surveys and evaluates the ways individual filmmakers in particular, as well as Hollywood in general, attempt to articulate this complicated city into an onscreen background, character, and subject.
Few films get it right, as non-Los Angelenos (including myself, tried and true New Yorker) find out. "We might wonder if the movies have ever really depicted Los Angeles," King intones in the deep, wry monotone that acts as a sort of bass line to the inventive, sometimes digressive montage structures. Andersen finds the abbreviation "L.A." alone an insult that could very well have been created and spread by Hollywood as a typical condescending backslap at the city it sees itself as standing apart from. The worst crimes, however, are committed by the plethora of movies that demonize the city’s rich heritage of modernist architecture—these sites usually become symbolic trophies for decadent criminals, such as the Lovell House as featured in L.A. Confidential.
Other films create completely false—even ludicrous—geographies of the city, usually from filmmakers too lazy to care. And, as displayed in evidence from Cobra and Death Wish 4, "silly geography makes for silly movies." For Andersen, "literalist" films like Double Indemnity, Kiss Me Deadly, and The Exiles pay close attention to urban detail, bringing into the foreground the overlooked streets, buildings, and districts that make Los Angeles the complicated, almost impossible, city it is. But beyond specific instances of cinematic accuracy or lack thereof, Los Angeles Plays Itself also brings to light how film history is also civic history, documenting the rise and fall of neighborhoods (Bunker Hill), public spaces (the Pan Pacific Auditorium), and transportation (Angel’s Flight, the shortest rail line in the world). Films great and awful become linked over time, painting a portrait of a city that usually serves as background to the stories that engage our immediate facilities.
As can be seen, Los Angeles Plays Itself’s project concerns a leftist reevaluation of film and the public record. This partly involves Andersen calling out Hollywood’s proclivity for disingenuous appropriations and interpretations of Los Angeles history. Chinatown, L.A. Confidential, and Who Framed Roger Rabbit? sell a "history written by the victors…written in crocodile tears," using nostalgic re-creations of the postwar era as settings for fatalistic "secret history" plots. While digging up "the truth" about waterworks and freeway development scandals, they also promote the cynical idea that civic engagement is ultimately futile, politics being too overwhelming in its innate corruption. Reality is usually too complex—decentralized urban development and the use of Red Scare tactics for political maneuvering easily become car chases and cartoon slapstick.
In the last section of Los Angeles Plays Itself, Andersen falters when gauging Hollywood films that attempt to capture contemporary Los Angeles life—do we really need mini-reviews of Hanging Up and Grand Canyon? (And besides, isn’t that the critics’ job?) But he hits home with a final montage of films from neo-realist African American directors like Billy Woodberry (Bless Their Little Hearts) and Charles Burnett (Killer of Sheep). The contrast may be too obvious—understated, black-and-white portraits of lower-class minorities versus their polished, privileged big-budget counterparts—but Andersen’s work here verges on cinematic excavation, not taste making. It’s a matter of showing that the real Los Angeles—not the glitzy show biz L.A. that has been displayed on screen ad nauseam—can be represented. In a city where history piles up and goes forgotten like so much accumulated stock footage, sometimes it takes a Thom Andersen with an eye for poetic truth to make us see this.
ContributorMichael Joshua Rowin
MICHAEL JOSHUA ROWIN has written for Film Comment, among other publications.