Los Angeles Plays Itself
Dir.: Thom Andersen
NR, 169 min.
Jan. 28-30 at the Belcourt
Thom Andersen loves Los Angeles, but he's not so sure about the movieseven though he makes them. The éminence grise of the city's independent and experimental filmmaking, Andersen teaches directing and film theory at CalArts and has chronicled the Hollywood blacklist. In Los Angeles Plays Itself, he takes on a subject of larger scope: how the movies have depicted their capital, "the least photogenic" but "most photographed city in the world."
The film Andersen made is 169 minutes long, repetitive, smug with insider Los Angeles trivia, and trashes artists whose work I like: Woody Allen, Roman Polanski, Joan Didion. But I couldn't take my eyes off it. Watching it is like taking a looping tour of the freeways with three hours' worth of gas in the tank. You see a lot of the same stuffthe Hollywood sign, Union Station, Frank Lloyd Wright's Ennis House, Griffith Planetariumup close and far away, front and back. Even sites glimpsed for the first time look familiar, because Andersen knows one large thing (in addition to lots of small things) about Los Angeles: so many films are made there that the city supplies the basic alphabet of our visual culture. The ABCs are gas station, strip motel, burger joint, grocery store and the wide road. In fact, as the deadpan noir-ish narrator tells us, there's a McDonald's in City of Industry and a roadhouse in Palmdale that exist only as movie locationsthey've never sold a single meal, happy or otherwise.
Los Angeles Plays Itself is addictive on several levels. Classics such as Blade Runner, Chinatown and Zabriskie Point are given multiple exposures to illustrate the several themes that organize the film: the city as background, as character and as subject. For junkies constructing personal film seminars and retrospectives on their Netflix queues, we have Point Blank with Lee Marvin; Dragon Seed with German actress Luise Rainer imported to play a Chinese laborer in rice paddies constructed on the spot in Compton; the not-too-laundered Mickey Spillane adaptation Kiss Me Deadly; and the best L.A. car chase in the original Gone in 60 Seconds. And then there are the movies so horrible you can't not watch: hippie zombies stalking Charlton Heston in The Omega Man, zombies stalking blondes in stalled cars in Night of the Cometand for novelty, Messiah of Evil, in which an albino zombie stalks a gas station attendant after ordering "$2, No Knocks." Zombies never hit the unemployment lines in L.A.
Andersen's deep feeling for Los Angeles, his adopted hometown, makes this film more than an encyclopedia of personal favorites. He's thought a lot about the ways movies function as an alternative to "real" history, and he doesn't like them. He criticizes Chinatown's achieved status as docudrama and does a "Ken Burns" (showing newspaper headlines and archival footage) to historicize the events that screenwriter Robert Towne manipulated from public scandal to private conspiracy. In real life, the newspapers reported that the water deal was a swindle to enrich insiders while screwing the farmers in the Owens Valley, and the public voted for the bonds anyway. Andersen proposes that what Chinatown really illustrates is the struggle to get around Los Angeles without a car: Jack Nicholson's Jake Gittes loses his way when he loses his vehicle, a situation he shares with William Holden's Joe Gillis in Sunset Boulevard.
Movies explain movies; it's a self-contained knowledge system. Andersen is correct when he shows us the "real" history that movies tellthe urban renewal of downtown's Bunker Hill, or race relations before, during and after Watts. But seldom is the telling of that history the point of the movie he's discussing. More often, he points to the cityscapeshowing, for example, how the movies have made modernist architecture the setting for "epicene evil," or how the pseudo-Spanish Colonial home is metaphor for the false life of the petit bourgeois living in it. But Andersen mistakes background for foreground; he accuses movies of lying when they reinforce the stereotype of the City of Angels as the place where the idea of the city has gone to the devil.
Forget it Thom, it's Chinatown.
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