Still from documentary footage of the making of Swordfish (2001) as seen in Thom Andersen’s Los Angeles Plays Itself, 2003, color video, 169 minutes.
THOM ANDERSEN’S film essay Los Angeles Plays Itself—which opens in New York, at Film Forum, in July—would seem to confirm a view that many of us who’ve lived all or part of our lives in Los Angeles have held as a matter of course: to wit, that LA’s a great place to live if you have nothing to do with “the Industry,” in which thirty-nine out of forty Angelenos are neither employed nor especially interested.
The film’s opening sequence illustrates the bogus and silly qualities of “Los Angeles on film,” with footage from B movies like The Crimson Kimono (1959), He Walked by Night (1948), Pushover (1954), Out of Bounds (1986), and The Strip (1951). These blatant duds unfortunately contribute the few moments of humor to be found in Andersen’s film, which relies largely on clips from the worst sorts of films using Los Angeles as a setting, and uses better ones to illustrate “fakery” of an ostensibly sinister and misleading type. (A minor portion of the film is original footage shot by Andersen and cinematographer Deborah Stratman.)
The fact that a character exits a door in Long Beach and emerges at a location thirty miles away doesn’t really “denigrate” Los Angeles as a city; yet in Andersen’s mind, the exigencies of location shooting are cause for considerable indignation and, frankly, an unmerited elegiac tone that readily segues into whining. The filmmaker, whose monologue (delivered by Encke King) is overlaid on the flow of images, even finds, and illustrates at all too considerable length, an offensive diminution in the term “LA” as a substitute for the city’s full name.
Despite some compelling examinations of the cinematic use of Los Angeles’s architectural treasures and of the “neorealist” school of filmmaking exemplified by extraordinary movies like Kent MacKenzie’s The Exiles (1961), Edward James Olmos’s American Me (1992), Charles Burnett’s Killer of Sheep (1977), Haile Gerima’s Bush Mama (1979), and Billy Woodberry’s Bless Their Little Hearts (1984), as well as fruitful forays into the less exploited regions of LA cinema by Maya Deren (Meshes of the Afternoon ), Andy Warhol (Tarzan and Jane Regained . . . Sort of ), and Jacques Demy (Model Shop ), Andersen is far more obsessed with movies that “get it wrong” than with ones that get it right, and he’s willing to split infinitesimal hairs to show how films ignore, misrepresent, banalize, and stigmatize the city he loves.
Perhaps the most jejune assertion Andersen makes occurs in an emphatic contrast between “films shot in New York” and “films shot in Los Angeles.” To his way of thinking, any film shot in New York, any scene, “announces itself” as part of New York: a place of clear-cut outlines, well-focused streets and buildings, absent the eternal haze of LA’s smog. But this is flagrantly ridiculous: A great majority of Hollywood films depicting New York are shot in Los Angeles or Toronto, New York serving merely to supply some of the exterior shots.
Andersen’s prolonged lament for the disappearance of LA’s Bunker Hill neighborhood strikes a nerve. It would have been nice if he’d included, besides footage from lousy movies, some documentation of extrafilmic devastations of the urban landscape to support his belief that LA is, or at least was, a pretty special place. Andersen might have cited the razing of the old Nickodell’s outside the gates of Paramount, the metastasis of strip malls all over the city, the simulacrum effect of the cleaned-up Hollywood Boulevard, the mall-ification of the once blessedly fallow real estate around the now-shrunken Farmer’s Market, and the transformation of so many of the city’s quiddities into Disneyfied tourist traps; alternatively, he could have highlighted the venerable landmarks that remain—like Boardner’s bar, Musso & Frank’s, H.M.S. Bounty on Wilshire, Victor’s Deli down by the railroad yard, the Rose Bowl Flea Market, Cantor’s, the Pantry on Eighth Street.
Andersen decries the movies’ frequent casting of Los Angeles’s unsurpassed, innovative domestic architecture as the residences of drug dealers, pimps, and other unsavory types, like the Pierce Patchett character in L.A. Confidential. He feels that these locations, thus used, reflect the contempt both the movies and local architecture critics feel for architects like Richard Neutra and John Lautner. There is no mention of R.M. Schindler, whose buildings have appeared in many less “negative” representations than ones Andersen cites; moreover, despite a genuine-feeling riff about LA’s dispossessed—slum dwellers, bus riders, the black family without hope—his architectural survey chooses for especial sarcasm the theme restaurant situated on the grounds of Los Angeles International Airport, virtually the only structure in the film designed by a black architect, Paul Williams.
A film made up mostly of clips from other films, Los Angeles Plays Itself stacks the deck against uncountable excluded movies that have gotten key elements of LA right; even several Andersen does include reflect “real Los Angeles” far better than he claims. Among the ignored: Allison Anders’s Mi vida loca, Stephen Frears’s The Grifters, Tim Burton’s Ed Wood, Barbet Schroeder’s Barfly, David Lynch’s Mulholland Dr., and Joseph Strick’s The Savage Eye. And these constitute the tip of a very large iceberg. Among the films Andersen excerpts and finds picayune quibbles with: Chinatown, Double Indemnity, Mildred Pierce, City of Industry, and The Long Goodbye.
To give Andersen his due, Los Angeles Plays Itself is a personal essay, and despite something mushy in its structure and unassuageably smart-ass in its tone, it’s at least quite watchable and lights up now and then with moments honorably impassioned on behalf of a city the director loves, the inexorable ruin of which he resents and mourns. Unique among LA filmmakers, Andersen actually sees the underclass and its hideous poverty and treats the slums’ usually invisible inhabitants with the dignity and compassion they deserve. It’s true Los Angeles and Hollywood aren’t the same thing. On the other hand, LA wouldn’t be much of anything without Hollywood.
Gary Indiana, a novelist and critic, divides his time between New York and Los Angeles.