Los Angeles Plays Itself

Dir: Thom Anderson
2003
On Thursday night I rushed down to L.A. after work to meet Jon for the one-time screening of Thom Anderson’s three-hour opus, “Los Angeles Plays Itself.”
This film, made entirely out of shots from other movies, took something like ten years to make, and, like Fahrenheit 9-11, is so densely packed with information and ideas that it feels like a book. (Moore’s film has one central idea, Anderson’s has several).
Anderson’s main thesis–and as a professor of film at CalArts for decades (Jon took some of his classes) he thinks academically–is that Los Angeles has failed to receive the sort of representational respect that is reserved for cities like New York and Paris.
You wouldn’t shoot Grand Central Station in New York and then call it “Grand Central Station, Phoenix,” would you? But that’s what often happened through the years to many Los Angeles landmarks, as Hollywood seemed to use the city as one big backlot, cultural importance be damned.
In the first half, Anderson explores how architectural landmarks and modernist architecture in general are misused in the movies, and sometimes celebrated. Modern homes that were once examples of a bright future always seem to wind up cast as the lairs of villains and drug lords. To illustrate his points, Anderson has at his hands all of Hollywood’s output, copyright be damned (this may explain its small release, its succes as a film, and a case for ‘fair use’). It’s fascinating to watch the same interior pop up over the decades, sometimes as a hotel, sometimes as an apartment, set in the past, set in the future–like watching an actor’s reel.
Anderson also talks about “high tourist” and “low tourist” directors, the high ones being someone like Hitchcock, who, for example, created such a portrait of San Francisco for “Vertigo” that the city is a character in the film. A “low tourist” director avoids landmarks but tries to get the city right, and of these there are very few. Billy Wilder is one–Anderson lauds “Double Idemnity” and “Sunset Blvd” as being very faithful to the geography and feel of Los Angeles. He also praises the original “Gone in 60 Seconds” and “Kiss Me Deadly.”
The second half devotes itself to more indepth discussions, including the similar “secret histories” on show in “Chinatown” and “L.A. Confidential”. Not so secret, is what Anderson says of these histories, the issues were front page news, but Polanski and Towne’s film coincides with Los Angeles developing a self-awareness, and creating a “secret history” to please that which wants cynicism to rule is the order of the day. Finally, Anderson looks at the true “secret histories” of Los Angeles–representations of its Black and Hispanic populations, which are usually invisible.
Anderson admits in interviews to coming to favor a traditional Bazinian realism in his films, and it parallels his leftist leanings (the sardonic voice over–by Anderson’s friend standing in for the director–makes this clear almost from the beginning.) The film will make you appreciate architecture in film and have you glancing more at the backgrounds of films next time you go to the cinema. It will also be a must-own film when it comes out on DVD, for it can act as a reference work on top of a statement about representation. There’s even talk of an accompanying book to contain all the material the director couldn’t include.
Film fans will also want to debate Anderson’s omissions (no David Lynch? no Kenneth Anger? Only a glimpse of Tarantino?) and also hunt down some of the more obscure but intriguing films he shows (on the intelligent side, “Killer of Sheep” by Charles Burnett; on the dumb side, “Death Wish 5″ and Stallone’s “Cobra”).
Made for peanuts, it’s no small irony that this is one of the most thoughtful and straight out beste films of the year.
Also: Interviews with Anderson here (with Steve Erickson)here and here (with Andrew Tracey).

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