Los Angeles Plays Itself

After extended runs in New York, Chicago, and London–among other places–Los Angeles Plays Itself (2003) has finally opened in Los Angeles at the American Cinematheque. Of course, this bit of irony is completely in tune with one of the documentary’s central theses, that despite being the host city for the film industry, Los Angeles–its people, places, and character–is virtually absent in the movies. Multimillion dollar productions by “tourist” directors, absurdly over-privileged and removed from the realities of the majority of Angelenos (less than 3% of whom actually work in the industry), continue to perpetuate myths about America’s second largest city.

Although I live in Los Angeles, I’m not a native–I moved here about four or five years ago. But I’ve experienced enough of the city that I can readily appreciate the divide between its popular image and everyday reality. Having only recently acquired a car, I spent several years commuting by bicycle and public transit through neighborhoods the SUV-clogged freeways completely elide. I’ve been systematically exploring the city’s rich plethora of authentic Asian, Mexican, and South American cuisines that remain off the tourist maps, in the process finding myself in unfamiliar suburbs where I’m a conspicuous ethnic minority. But even this limited experience has been fun and enlightening; every restaurant, bazaar, or cafÈ has revealed its own community and story.

Writer-director Thom Andersen, however, is a Los Angeles native who teaches at CalArts and has established a reputation for making thought-provoking documentaries. Los Angeles Plays Itself is his latest, a three-hour “video essay” told in two parts: the first catalogues the way movies have represented the city; the second looks at specific films more closely. I didn’t count but there seems to be well over a hundred films cited and several hundred clips, from films noir to feel-good comedies, independent productions to Joel Silver disaster movies. It’s catnip for film buffs, but it’s also a loving and iconoclastic tribute to what is often called “the most photographed city in the world.”

Like the essay films of Chris Marker, Andersen writes in the first person but enlists someone else (Encke King) to narrate, describing the ways the industry has marginalized the rest of the city. “Hollywood” is a place in Los Angeles, but the word is a metonym for the movie industry, an idea-word that obscures the surrounding diversity of Los Angeles. (Andersen suggests it’s no coincidence that the industry was the first to begin nonsensically abbreviating the city’s name.) The industry initially moved to Los Angeles to take advantage of its diverse terrain, making it Chicago or Switzerland, dismissing its unique identity. Movies commonly claim “geographic license” and erroneously connect locations in opposite parts of town, alter and rename sites, and provide the city’s few universally recognizable landmarks (like the Hollywood sign or Grauman’s Chinese Theater).

One of the documentary’s primary subjects is the filmic representation of Los Angeles architecture. Landmark buildings like the Bradbury, Union Station, or Frank Lloyd Wright’s Ennis-Brown house are routinely filmed to represent a variety of places, from hospitals to airports to haunted houses. And the city’s modernist residential homes have become shorthand for the greed and avarice of the countless cinematic villains and psychopaths who inhabit them. The gradual disintegration of public housing in downtown Los Angeles was documented by the film industry over the years as middle class affluence (’40s), shady and mysterious nightlife (’50s and ’60s), and postapocalyptic desertion (’70s and ’80s).

Chinatown (1974) opened the door to a mainstream discussion of Los Angeles history, including an idealization of its past and the search for its “original sin” in order to address the political failings of the present. But Andersen points out that Chinatown takes serious liberties with history. Further, its thematic postulation that it’s better not to know, or act upon, the truth reflects a history “written by the victors in crocodile tears,” promoting a deflating cynicism toward social issues. The water politics that sustained Los Angeles were no secret history, but a public history of political campaigns and popular votes. Similarly, the history of police brutality in Los Angeles (idealized in the TV series Dragnet) was no cover-up a la L.A. Confidential (1997), but scandals emblazoned on the front pages of the newspaper. The astonishing future of Blade Runner (1982) may impress with its dystopian excess, but it makes no effort to explain how or why such a society could come into being.

Such examples are cited by Andersen to illustrate the way genuine political engagement is commonly softened or redirected by movies in order to replace real conflicts with romanticized (sentimental or cynical) recapitulations. Race riots and public transportation battles are reduced to nostalgic spectacles and conspiracy theories rather than probing representations of history.

Andersen therefore concludes his film with an example of authentic, indigenous Angeleno cinema–the group of independent black filmmakers in the 1970s such as Charles Burnett, Haile Gerima, Billie Woodberry, and Julie Dash, who provided a neorealist wake-up call to everyday life far removed from Hollywood’s isolated dream factory. It’s a moving and poignant end to the film’s passionate plea for a more accurate account of the diverse struggles, hopes, and joys to be found throughout the city of angels.

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