Last night I finally had the opportunity to watch Thom Andersen’s superb meditation on the politics, public relations and naivete of filmmakers who have used Los Angeles as a backdrop or a character in their movies. Andersen who grew up in Los Angeles, was associated with the USC film school and now is a professor at Cal Arts, created Los Angeles Plays Itself in 2003. The two-hour film is apparently “unplayable” outside of personal screenings because it makes use of clips of more than 200 copyrighted works to demonstrate Andersen’s points about what is and is not in the frame. Obtaining the clearances for these beautiful images (including some from my personal favorites: from Kiss Me, Deadly to Zabriskie Point to The Long Goodbye) apparently would require a very large budget (perhaps AFI could step in and foot the bill?), so you have to find a time and place where Andersen might want to show the film privately if you want to enjoy it on the big screen.
However,the film is available on YouTube either as a single video, or in a series of 12, with an index to the set provided on the Open Culture website, which is the way I saw it. After watching you can see also find the complete list of films referenced in a posted copy of the script or in a Letterboxd list. All that remains is for the book to be published, with footnotes to further reading on the history of Los Angeles’s studios, city politics and events.
Andersen covers the Los Angeles built environment in the first half of the film but then gradually shifts focus to the social. In his view of the history of movie-era Los Angeles, there are a series of earthquake-like events that have occurred decade after decade and that reveal how the public image of Los Angeles as portrayed in just about every Hollywood production (as well as in the movies of artists and European outsiders) has become ever more distant from the reality on the ground. He also goes to other well-know critics of Los Angeles’s built environment, David Gebhard and MIke Davis, to support his argument of the social decline of Los Angeles.
Chronologically, he relates these damaging events:
The 1920’s consideration and subsequent rejection of a regional, municipal trolley system that would have been a complement to the ever expanding influence of suburban development and the dominance of the automobile.
The Zoot Suit riots of 1943, that exposed the cruel victimization of the Los Angeles Latino community.
The 1949 Los Angeles City Council rejection of a light-rail plan, in favor of postwar freeway expansion.
The debate over public housing in 1951-53, where newly appointed police chief William Parker conspired with media and business interests in the McCarthy era to portray the public housing movement as Communist-influenced. The program was abandoned, prefiguring the further decline of poor areas of Los Angeles.
The Parker era’s step-by-step deepening of a climate of paranoia (coinciding with the Film Noir years), where the L.A.P.D. strove to meet the idea robotic, all-powerful, all-seeing ideals of Jack Webb’s Dragnet.
The Watts riots of 1965.
The destruction of downtown’s Bunker Hill neighborhood, unleashed by real-estate deals set up by the Richard Riordan administration from 1973-86.
Coincident with the sterility of downtown redevelopment was a planned further deteriorization of public transit. Andersen gives examples that were brought in a class-action suit: reductions in routes, de-publication of route maps, etc.
The Rodney King riots of 1991.
Andersen carefully observes how “enlightened” filmmakers from the Hollywood tradition realized how Los Angeles’ dream era has ended and that the social fabric is torn, but could not work outside of their privileged viewpoint and their scant knowledge about the vast plain of the Los Angeles basin, confining their protagonists’ psychological problems to the white suburban motifs of Raymond Carver (as in Altman’s Short Cuts). Finally, Andersen finds praise in the film’s last segment for the more truthful people- and family-focused work of African-American neo-realist filmmakers working in the 90s in the films Bush Mama, Killer of Sheep and Bless Their Little Hearts. He also returns again and again to the rarely seen Kent MacKenzie neo-realist picture about Native Americans in downtown, The Exiles, made in 1971, at a time when the dream mirror was really cracked.
Parallel to the main line of social commentary, Andersen does bring up the treasure trove of film stock that can be mined for archeological and historical purposes. For me, an outsider who arrived in Los Angeles in 1973 to study its architecture, and remained there until 1982, watching the film was a beautiful nostalgic journey, and the concept of nostalgia or period-piece films is a large theme in Los Angeles Plays Itself. In particular, I now need to find a copy of Jacques Deray’s 1973 film The Outside Man, which Andersen describes as an almost perfect snapshot of the city at that moment in time. He separates the non-Hollywood films of the 70s and 80s as either “low-tourist” or “high-tourist”. The distinction for me is that “low-tourist” films play Los Angeles for laughs or thrills through stereotypes, and “high-tourist” films attempt to reveal the kitsch, the ugly and the dysfunctional parts of the basin with more sublety, using art-film techniques.
I found a few of Andersen’s grind-axes a bit humorous. He is a consummate East sider and mocks the gilded movie-industry that can’t bear to locate a movie east of Vine St unless the location is in the hills, at landmarks like Griffith Park or Union Station, or downtown with its dead-world skyways and office towers. He does admit to overcoming his East-sider prejudice against Jacques Demy’s exquisite Model Shop, on subsequent rewatching, at least. And he is repulsed by the acronym “L.A.” That kind of crankiness is widespread in the Bay Area, too, where “S.F.” and “Frisco” and “San Fran” are looked down on. I love L.A.
I had a few great flashbacks while enjoying Los Angeles Plays Itself. And I will be adding some of these great and not-so-good films to my Letterboxd watchlist, thanks to Andersen’s teasers: D.O.A., Detour, The Night Holds Terror, The Street With No Name, Love Streams, Messiah of Evil, and Gone in 60 Seconds (the 1974 H.B. Halicki original, that Andersen describes as the best car-chase movie ever made). I don’t think I will be watching these however (you have to draw the line somewhere): The Glimmer Man, The Omega Man, Earthquake, Escape From L.A., L.A. Story or Hanging Up.
If you love or hate Los Angeles (Andersen delights in showing quite a few apocalypse-L.A. film clips), don’t miss this film.