Thom Andersen's Los Angeles Plays Itself is like a rite of passage for L.A. cinephiles. A nearly three-hour documentary about — and critique of — our fair city's portrayal on the silver screen, it has never received a proper release in theaters or on home video. The only way to see it (legally, at least) is by heading to either the Aero or Egyptian for one of its sporadic screenings.
Finally doing so in late September was a rush: Andersen was in person on the occasion of the film's 10th anniversary, and the Egyptian Theatre was at capacity. Remastered and re-edited, the movie changed the way I think about both the film industry and Los Angeles, and provided one of the most memorable experiences I've ever had at a revival theater.
It was far from the only highlight in 2013. This past year was an embarrassment of riches in repertory cinema, but looking over my experiences, I realized that I gravitate heavily toward the Egyptian and Cinefamily but make too few visits to the Aero, Echo Park Film Center or Downtown Independent. Consider it my New Year's resolution to visit these fine establishments more often.
Andersen's film screened on a Friday night, and I found myself back in the Egyptian two days later for D.W. Griffith's monumental Intolerance. Although the theater wasn't as packed, the movie certainly was — even (and perhaps especially) now, nearly a century later, it bursts with the weight of history both real and cinematic.
Later that same day, I made my way down the street to the newly renovated Chinese Theatre for The Wizard of Oz in IMAX 3-D. The new interiors took some getting used to — they're beautiful, if lacking the charm and character of the original — but the movie was as transportive as ever.
Seeing Two-Lane Blacktop — a 1971 road-trip movie starring James Taylor and the Beach Boys — at Cinefamily on a sleepy night in April was another treat, despite the movie not starting until 10 p.m. Something about the small audience, half of it dozing off on the almost-too-comfortable new couches, made the screening not just intimate but unique: The crowd there skews younger and more excitable, so the soporific atmosphere was strangely refreshing.
Six months later, Cinefamily was the site of my single busiest day at a theater that wasn't part of a festival: I attended a sneak preview of documentary Meditation, Creativity, Peace in the afternoon, Hands on a Hard Body that evening, and the ultra-rare VHS oddity Tales From the QuaDead Zone at 10 p.m. This last screening, part of Cinefamily's monthlong United States of Horror program, was the first time Chester Turner (whose prior feature, Black Devil Doll From Hell, played at midnight) had introduced his film since its original release in 1987. For years, rumors had circulated that Turner was either dead or otherwise MIA, and shot-on-video enthusiasts crammed into the theater like sardines. The 62-minute QuaDead Zone is utterly bizarre and hard to describe as “good” in the traditional sense, but it does evince a personal, unfiltered sensibility on the part of Turner. His fixation on the family unit expresses itself in three segments rife with murder and betrayal but also maternal love. The rest of the audience may have enjoyed it more than I did, but their energy was infectious.
The other crowds this year were more typical: scattered cinephiles seeing classics on evenings and weekends. Revival houses seem an ever more vital part of our cultural landscape as the screens on which movies are absorbed get smaller and smaller, and those who make it out for two- or three-hour films are fighting a good fight.
Robert Altman's sprawling, suburban L.A. ensemble piece Short Cuts, which played the New Beverly in October and is featured in Los Angeles Plays Itself, was received warmly by those in attendance; ditto The Servant, an almost suffocatingly intense depiction of a master-servant role reversal directed by Joseph Losey in 1963. Losey's film received a one-week run at the Laemmle Royal in September, courtesy of Rialto Pictures, which also brought Robin Hardy's wonderfully disturbing The Wicker Man to the Nuart in November. Seeing Hardy's horror benchmark on the big screen felt like checking an item off a cinematic bucket list.
Though it screened during AFI Fest in November, John Cassavetes' A Woman Under the Influence felt like a summation of the repertory year. One of several films Cassavetes made starring his wife, Gena Rowlands, it depicts a woman whose psychiatric illness tears her family apart, and is devastating from first scene to last.
Film director Agnès Varda, who selected the movie in her role as the festival's guest artistic director, described Rowlands as “the perfect actress” during her introduction at the Egyptian, and it's all but impossible to disagree. Her performance is towering, the kind you feel in your bones, even if you try not to — her pain becomes yours. Hardly the happiest experience I had at the movies in 2013, but one for the ages.