Toward the end of Los Angeles Plays Itself — Thom Andersen's magisterial index of the city as captured, mythologized and bastardized on-screen — one of Andersen's dyspeptic, despairing and unreliable narrators pours scorn on Joan Didion's famous line about how no one walks in Los Angeles. What of the poor, he asks — foot commuters and bus travelers, automatically marginalized in a city that loves its car culture?
That culture is protested in Get Out of the Car, Andersen's new 34-minute sketch of Los Angeles and a "response to my last movie," as he deems it in the 10-page essay that, along with an accompanying bibliography, constitutes the picture's press kit. The film depicts Los Angeles as wasteland, with lots of decaying or empty billboards, functional murals and ad hoc decorations but no visible human life. On the sound track, neighborhood residents and skeptical passersby question the value or entertainment factor of the emptiness being captured; others angrily lament the destruction of neighborhood landmarks like South Central Farm. Musical snippets — old soul and rock, gospel choirs, norteño — add their own allusions.
After world-premiering at a University of Cambridge two-day conference on "Urban Cinematics" and screening at the Locarno Film Festival, Get Out of the Car comes home to L.A. this Thursday, as part of a Cinefamily presentation of Andersen's work that comes full circle. Get Out of the Car marks his return to 16 mm film, and it will be shown with Andersen's rarer 1960s shorts of original footage of L.A.
After those, Andersen produced his first full act of annotation: 1974's deceptively calmly titled Eadweard Muybridge, Zoopraxographer proposes to offer a simple, Ken Burns–style biography of a protocinematic career. As the film progresses, though, chromatic music and Muybridge's bizarre life — both increasingly unsettling — expand a flat documentary into a disturbing portrait of dangerous creativity at work.
Andersen's subsequent works — the video history Red Hollywood, about films made by blacklist victims, and Los Angeles Plays Itself — similarly turn the ostensibly straightforward compilation-documentary format into something harder to pin down. The palette of those films was mostly limited to found film footage and narration, making Andersen's decision to return to both 16 mm film and rich original images a statement. In his essay, Andersen announces that the migration of avant-garde filmmakers to digital (a group as varied as Ernie Gehr, Su Friedrich and James Benning) led to "a decline not only in the image quality of their work but also in its rigor, which nobody was crass enough to acknowledge." Using film now, Andersen notes, "is slower than it once was, although nonlinear digital editing speeds up part of the process."
But the grain — an increasingly rare and expensive sight — sympathetically aligns him with an earlier, better L.A. history. The film's as much elegy as symphony.
In a city that doesn't take as much care of its history as it should, civic preservation falls to film. Where local landmarks are gone, Andersen sometimes hangs his own cheap marker, a shiny sign unceremoniously flapping on a fence. Get Out of the Car is a counterresponse to movies that distort Los Angeles by omitting whole neighborhoods, recording the nonspaces people drive through and the small neighborhoods that are able to preserve their small landmarks and visual character because they're unnoticed, thus avoiding development.
Get Out of the Car is a concrete act of preservation — much like the Yates House, a Rudolf Schindler building Andersen bought in 1996 and restored to its original color. In June, Variety writer Peter Debruge noted that movies like Greenberg, Cyrus and The Kids Are All Right used rarely filmed neighborhoods, such as Eagle Rock and Venice, for their specific long-established connotations, lending a more precise understanding of each neighborhood's ethos to an oft-generic backdrop. Andersen hasn't seen any of those movies, and he's skeptical Hollywood is getting any better at representing Greater Los Angeles. "I believe it is a matter of more privileged people moving into those neighborhoods," he e-mailed from Locarno.
Car accordingly curates its limits. "I did try to include a wide range of areas in the film so that people couldn't say it was partial," Andersen notes. "But it excludes fringes: There is nothing east of El Monte or west of Hollywood, nothing south of Lakewood or north of San Fernando."
The line between hallmarked and hackneyed is thin: The Virgin of Guadalupe is the film's most-repeated motif, showing up in infinitely tweaked and reimagined renditions. "The Virgin of Guadalupe is maybe the most resonant and polysemous symbol of Mexico," Andersen says, "and paintings of her can be found almost all over Los Angeles. It's one image in film that might be regarded as cliché."
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Get Out of the Car's Los Angeles is both familiar — brightly colored walls, strange creations built out of old tires, ornate neon displays for otherwise mundane stores — and gloomily dystopian. The feeling is accentuated by Andersen's off-camera voice — angrily fulminating, lamenting long-gone hamburger joints. Andersen has generally preferred someone else to speak: All three of his major documentaries (Eadweard Muybridge, Zoopraxographer, Red Hollywood and Los Angeles Plays Itself) are narrated by other people, allowing room for ironic distance and complications. Here, Andersen's on the record as himself, responding in angry real time to the city around him.
Car's title is a command, a corrective to a problem synthesized in Greenberg, when a woman stares at Ben Stiller in disbelief after he says he doesn't have a car, and sneers, "Have you ever driven?" Andersen's ultimate point is that to preserve the city in any meaningful form, Angelenos need to rethink their relationship to their cars. "I would note that a number of iconic Los Angeles artists and writers don't drive — Kenneth Anger, Ray Bradbury, D.J. Waldie," Andersen says.
Get Out of the Car alludes to what they might have seen, and suggests how little of it remains.
AN EVENING WITH THOM ANDERSEN, featuring the U.S. premiere of GET OUT OF THE CAR | Thurs., Aug. 19 | Cinefamily at the Silent Movie Theatre | cinefamily.org