Los Angeles Plays Itself
April 26th, 2006
Like Thom Andersen, the gentleman who created the unique documentary “Los Angeles Plays Itself,” I too am a Los Angeles native who often finds himself at odds with the way the movies portrays my hometown. And despite its often idiosyncratic presentation, bouncing around from thought to thought within sets of clearly defined definitions, Andersen’s film is arguably the best movie about movies ever made. It’s a shame most of the people who would be interested in such a film will never get the chance to see it.
You see, Andersen, a professor at one of the local arts colleges, cobbled his movie together mostly from clips of more than 200 other movies, often without permission from the rights holders, so the chances of it ever coming to a multiplex near you or showing up on Netflix is slim to none. In fact, the only places I know that have screened it thus far are at non-profit venues such as New York City’s Film Forum and Los Angeles’s American Cinematheque (where the film is screening the evening this review is being published). I guess as long as one is not personally profiting from any public exhibitions, it’s okay to show it. Maybe someday, Andersen and the entities who own those films can work out an agreement to let all profits from the film go into some kind of charity, so this beautiful, schizophrenic work can be enjoyed by the masses.
”This is the city. Los Angeles, California. They make movies here,” Encke King’s droll, detached and highly effective narration begins. “I live here. Sometimes, I think that gives me the right to criticize the way movies depict my city.” As it very well should be. Over the course the nearly three hour running time, we are witness to hundreds of film clips, almost all from filmmakers who are not from Los Angeles, which for all intent and purpose indict our city as a willing accomplice to alien invasions, police corruption, gaudy architecture, rampant and vapid consumerism and racism, amongst its many crimes. Broken down into three main sections, Andersen attempts to right many of the wrongs foisted upon the area by those who cannot appreciate her for what she is but instead scorn her for what she is not. Starting with “The City as Background,” Andersen shows us how the people of the world have come to form certain viewpoints (read: prejudices) about Los Angeles. How it seems that how any white person who has any kind of job here either lives in a house in the Hollywood Hills or at the beach. How many of the most beautiful and unique housing structures ever created, from the likes of John Lautner, Richard Neutra and Frank Lloyd Wright, are often cast at the homes of the decadent and evil. How our once famous train station is now often used as the site of some kind of kidnapping or drug deal gone bad. Or how our city was, at first, regularly a place where people visited instead of lived, and when people did live here, it was often someplace else. (Such examples include our Arrowhead Lake, seventy miles to the East, standing in for Switzerland in the Deanna Durbin musical “Three Smart Girls,” or one of our suburbs as the city of Zenith in the 1934 adaptation of Sinclair Lewis’s “Babbitt.”) When the city finally did play itself, it was regularly depicted as a smog-covered modern Sodom and Gomorrah, the birthplace of all of society’s woes.
Andersen has particular scorn for those who abbreviate the city’s name to the “slight derisive diminutive” acronym L.A., which has become second nature even to many of the city’s natives, wondering if we’ve come to accept L.A. as a way of immunizing ourselves against the implicit scorn. “Only a city with an inferiority complex would allow it.” And he’s right. Andersen also chides those filmmakers who take great geographical license with their locations, where a car chase that begins at the canals of Venice all of a sudden winds up, after a quick turn, in the shipyards thirty miles to the South. (Ironically, one film Andersen does praise for getting it right is the early 1970s car chase classic “Gone in Sixty Seconds,” which Andersen calls “stubbornly, almost perversely, literalist,” while completely ignoring the 2000 remake, which might possibly be the most geographically inconsistent film made in the area.)
"The City As Character," the second portion of the program, continues the theme of a city wronged by those who photograph it, while the final part, “The City as Subject,” shows how, while Los Angeles has had more than its fair share of socio-economic problems, it is often the minority filmmakers, working under guerrilla conditions, who truly capture the overall essence of the city.
There are many factors that make “Los Angeles Plays Itself” so fantastic. As Andersen’s vocal stand-in, Encke King’s monotone narration delivery gives the film the right balance, being neither too sarcastic nor too emotional. The information presented throughout the film is informative without being boring. Best of all, “Los Angeles Plays Itself” gives us not only a fresh look at familiar films (you’ll probably see “Blade Runner” differently after hearing Andersen’s argument for that film as an urban planner’s dream) and a pictorial history of the city over the past one hundred years (from 1913’s “A Muddy Romance” to 2001’s “Swordfish”), but exposes us to a number of films most cineastes would not be familiar with. From films by complete unknowns (1961’s “The Exiles” by then-USC film student Kent MacKenzie, and 1979’s “Bush Mama” by Ethiopian filmmaker Haile Gerima) to forgotten films by the likes of Jacques Demy (“Model Shop”) and Samuel Fuller (“The Crimson Kimono”), there are a veritably cornucopia of movies which aren’t available on video and aren’t shown on Turner Classic Movies or AMC, which might pique one’s interest.
I can’t say whether one must be a native of the City of Angels, or at least a long-time resident of the area, to appreciate “Los Angeles Plays Itself.” I’d like to believe that Andersen’s movie is just as accessible to those who have never stepped foot in California or have an aversion to the area based on what they’ve seen in the cinema, but this might also be a case where the topic at hand is personally too close to my heart and soul for me to give a right and fair assessment. No matter how many times I’ve left Los Angeles, I’ve always come back, and I always find myself drawn back to the same Hollywood community I’ve lived in before. Considering how the film not only won an award from the Los Angeles Film Critics Association but also from New York’s Village Voice 2004 Critics Poll (where, in winning Best Documentary, it topped such hot button films as “Fahrenheit 9/11” and “Super Size Me”) and from the Vancouver Film Festival, it’s probable the film does travel. All I know is that Andersen filmic treatise does a damn good job at destroying many of the myths about the city and allowing the reality of Los Angeles to shine forth. This really can be a wonderful town, and there is no better ambassador than “Los Angeles Plays Itself,” especially as, with every passing year, more of the city is destroyed and built over.
My rating: A