Filmmaker and CalArts faculty member Thom Andersen — whose Los Angeles Plays Itself debuted to great acclaim at this year’s Toronto Film Festival and premieres Wednesday in its namesake city — probably takes issue with the name of the very publication in which this article appears. As his film’s wry voice-over narration makes clear early on, the abbreviation L.A. is, for Andersen, less an affectionate foreshortening of our city’s name than a derogatory bastardization of it — a Los Angeles moniker for people who don’t much like Los Angeles. Not that Andersen, who was born in Chicago but who has spent most of his life as an Angeleno, is an uncritical booster for his adopted city. If Los Angeles Plays Itself is Andersen’s valentine to L.A. (oops), then it is one with a crack running through its candied heart. Consisting of excerpts from more than 100 feature films made in or about Los Angeles, the movie is Andersen’s exhaustive, but never exhausting, attempt to reconcile the real and reel identities of the world’s most photographed metropolis.
It’s not an easy task Andersen sets for himself, given how much, and for how long the actual and cinematic destinies of Los Angeles have been so closely intertwined — a seemingly inseparable double helix of dreams and desires. And, as he did in his superb 1995 documentary Red Hollywood (co-directed with the film historian and theoretician Noël Burch), Andersen has further complicated matters by resolving to let the movies speak for themselves, to back up every argument he makes with an array of related scenes and images from Los Angeles–shot films old and new, from grade-A prestige pictures (Mildred Pierce) and mega-budget Hollywood actioners (Die Hard) to unrepentant, grade-Z schlock (Messiah of Evil, A Passion To Kill) — and from the neon-encrusted, futuristic cityscapes of Blade Runner to the arid, pre-apocalyptic desert of Zabriskie Point. (May no one accuse Andersen of being anything other than an equal-opportunity archivist.) If we can appreciate documentary films for their narrative qualities, Andersen persuasively proposes, mightn’t we likewise appreciate dramatic films, regardless of their genre or artistic qualities, for their documentary aspects? For what they tell us about the places in which they were filmed?
So it is that Andersen embarks upon a breathless three-act structure (with roughly one hour of screen time devoted to each act) in which he first explores how Los Angeles has been employed by films and filmmakers as background, not always playing itself; then as character, the real culprit behind the shady goings-on in the films and books noir of James M. Cain and Raymond Chandler; and finally, as the subject of the film, in Chinatown, Who Framed Roger Rabbit and L.A. Confidential. At each step along the way, Andersen pauses to consider how the films at hand represent (or, more often, misrepresent) the Los Angeles he knows from personal experience. And he is tough on the way that many Los Angeles movies have characterized the city as a haven for freaks and miscreants, where everyone lives next door to an oil derrick and is either in the Industry or trying to be; on how they have denigrated the city’s modernist residential architecture by transforming the signature creations of Wright, Lautner et al. into horror houses (Wright’s Ennis-Brown mansion in William Castle’s House on Haunted Hill) or digs for drug dealers and other villains (Neutra’s Lovell Health House in L.A. Confidential); and, most of all, on how they have overwritten Los Angeles history with fictional movie history (as in Chinatown and its recollection of the city’s infamous water scandals) until the latter has nearly supplanted the former in the public consciousness.
There are also fascinating, extended digressions into the back story of Los Angeles landmarks present (Union Station, the Bradbury Building) and past (the Pan-Pacific Auditorium, destroyed by fire in 1989, and the long-shut-down Ambassador Hotel, which also recently starred in Andersen contemporary Pat O’Neill’s The Decay of Fiction); reminiscences of long-forgotten neighborhoods (like Edendale, where Mack Sennett operated his first movie studio, now “lost somewhere between Echo Park and Silver Lake”); and an intriguing distinction made between “low tourist” filmmakers (like Clint Eastwood and Alfred Hitchcock), who disdain Los Angeles in favor of Northern California vistas, and “high tourist” filmmakers (like Roger Corman, Maya Deren and the gay porn director Fred Halsted, whose L.A. Plays Itself was the inspiration for Andersen’s title), who manage to transfigure the city’s ostensibly un-photogenic landscape into everything from an LSD wonderland to a modern-day Garden of Eden.
But what may be most remarkable about Los Angeles Plays Itself — beyond the sheer organizational rigor that has gone into selecting and placing the film clips — is Andersen’s rediscovery of a host of rarely revived movies from the ’60s, ’70s and ’80s that reveal a hidden Los Angeles of immigrants and minorities, of bus riders and the unemployed. Such movies, he insists — movies like Kent Mackenzie’s The Exiles (1961), about a bustling Native American Indian community on the old Bunker Hill; Billy Woodberry’s Bless Their Little Hearts (1984), which sets the Sisyphean struggles of a black, working-class family against a wailing blues soundtrack; and Gregory Nava’s El Norte (1983), in which Guatemalan émigrés struggle to make it in Los Angeles — give us a truer picture of the city, of the real Los Angeles, than anything presented by such purportedly realistic films as Robert Altman’s Short Cuts or Lawrence Kasdan’s Grand Canyon.
It’s one of the unspecified goals of Los Angeles Plays Itself that, by incanting the names of these and other neglected films, such films may come to live again and be seen by new audiences — a task one hopes will soon be taken up by one of our local festivals or revival venues. (Though it’s worth noting that Bless Their Little Hearts is scheduled to screen later this year in CalArts’ new REDCAT cinema space inside the Disney Concert Hall downtown.) In the meantime, Filmforum, Los Angeles’ oldest extant exhibitor of avant-garde cinema, has stepped up to the plate and made a retrospective of Thom Andersen’s own earlier films the debut program of its fall season (and the first under its new director, Adam Hyman). In addition to the extraordinary Red Hollywood — which boldly upturns the conventional wisdom that the Hollywood Communists persecuted by the HUAC didn’t succeed at introducing Communist ideals into their films — the program also includes Andersen’s Eadweard Muybridge, Zoopraxographer (1974), a thorough canvassing of its subject’s career as a motion-picture pioneer and his use of ingenious animation techniques to give new onscreen life to his celebrated zoopraxography (whereby a series of still photos taken in rapid succession are used to document a moving subject). There are two early Andersen shorts on tap as well: the curiously titled “— ———” (1967, co-directed with Malcolm Brodwick), a desultory collage of color, shapes, movement and nonstop rock music; and “Olivia’s Place” (1966), in which a single 200-foot load of film and the Big Jay McNeeley recording of “There Is Something on Your Mind” are used to casually evoke the space and mood of a nondescript Santa Monica diner. All evidence of an extraordinary career in need, much like those films spotlighted by Los Angeles Plays Itself, of wider acknowledgment.
Los Angeles Plays Itself screens on Wednesday, November 5, at 7 p.m. at UCLA’s James Bridges Theater and again on Thursday, November 13, at 7 p.m. in the Lucas 108 screening room on the USC campus; admission to both screenings is free. Filmforum’s Thom Andersen retrospective runs November 2–9 at the Egyptian Theater. See Film & Video Events for more information.