Play It Again

Nick Pinkerton on Thom Andersen’s Los Angeles Plays Itself

Thom Andersen, Los Angeles Plays Itself, 2003, video, color, sound, 169 minutes.

THE VIDEO ESSAY has become an increasingly popular critical approach in the past decade, but we’re still catching up with Los Angeles Plays Itself. Thom Andersen’s “city symphony in reverse”—an essay movie clocking in at just under three hours—first appeared in 2003, when the CalArts professor and filmmaker was sixty years old. Andersen had spent most of those years in Los Angeles, and his intimacy with the city, as well as his grudgingly proprietary relationship to it, is evident in his narration text, laconically read by filmmaker Encke King. King’s narration interprets and interrogates the accompanying images, original footage of Los Angeles filming locations, and, principally, excerpts from some two hundred different movies shot in the city.

The announced intention is to search “fiction films for their documentary revelations.” The clips are drawn from the breadth of cinema, although with a pronounced emphasis on films made in the years immediately preceding the completion of Los Angeles, when the idea was presumably percolating. (That many of these featured titles have since been practically forgotten doesn’t do much to disprove Andersen’s apparent dismissal of industrial filmmaking.) The high-definition remaster of Los Angeles that will be playing for a week at New York’s IFC Center is a 2013 “re-edit,” replacing the VHS-dubbed clips of the original with higher quality sources, but there have been no additions to account for the decade of film that has intervened since the film’s release, and most of the cuts are cosmetic in nature.

Andersen approaches his subject from a number of novel angles. The filmographies of certain landmark buildings—the Bradbury Building, Frank Lloyd Wright’s Innes House, Union Station—become cross-sections of film history. Andersen is very good on architecture, analyzing for example the tendency of Hollywood to turn Los Angeles’s treasure trove of Utopian modernist residences into villain’s lairs. As Andersen sets about extracting such unconscious agendas from the margins of fiction plotlines, it is tempting to call his reading of the history of Los Angeles as seen in films a “secret history”—though he disdains the very idea of a secret history of the city’s betrayal, as most famously represented in Robert Towne and Roman Polanski’s Chinatown (1974), much as he disdains the surrender of that film’s famous final line (“Forget it, Jake. It’s Chinatown.”), noting that “Cynicism has become the dominant myth of our time.”

Andersen has disdain to spare, and few idols of the Los Angeles pantheon are left untoppled. He slags the diminutive acronym “LA” and brushes aside “The mystical blatherings of Joan Didion and company about the automobile and the freeways.” The word “masterpiece” occurs only twice in Andersen’s text—and not in the expected contexts, but in reference to Fred Halsted’s 1972 gay porn epic L.A. Plays Itself, from which Andersen adapted his title, and 1974’s Gone in 60 Seconds, with its materialist cinema of “conspicuous destruction.” “Condescension” occurs several times, however, and Andersen is constantly on the lookout for it. For Andersen this is the cardinal sin, the sin of movies that despise the city in which they are made without even knowing it. By debunking the claims of industrial moviemaking and “their betrayal of their native city,” Andersen is in effect defending Los Angeles from “Hollywood”—not a physical place like Los Angeles, but “a metonym for the motion picture industry.” Andersen is arguing for his own Los Angeles cinema, opposing geographic and historical license with Neorealism, opposing a commuter cinema that drives through with a pedestrian cinema that lingers. (Andersen’s follow-up to Los Angeles was 2010’s significantly-titled Get Out of the Car.)

Andersen’s proposed alternative canon includes many of the “high tourist” films of European filmmakers passing through Los Angeles: Antonioni’s Zabriskie Point (1970), the works of the Jacques Demy and Deray (1969’s Model Shop and 1972’s The Outside Man). Of native talents, Andersen singles out “Toby” Halicki for the geographic fidelity of his Gone in 60 Seconds car chase, as well as John Cassavetes, for whom he composes a piquant eulogy: “Suffering is self-evident, and its promise of wisdom is illusory. For Cassavetes, happiness is the only truth. So he drank himself to death.”

Andersen is also enamored of those pedestrian filmmakers who have documented the lives of Los Angeles’s pedestrian classes. We see much of Kent MacKenzie’s The Exiles (1961), about displaced southwestern Native Americans living in the since-bulldozed Bunker Hill neighborhood, and Los Angeles concludes with a discussion of the films produced by a generation of African Americans in Los Angeles: Haile Gerima’s Bush Mama (1979), Billy Woodberry’s Bless Their Little Hearts (1984), and Charles Burnett’s Killer of Sheep (1979). As was the case with Killer, Los Angeles has long been prevented from wide release because of copyright issues, but that hasn’t diminished its influence. In the years since Los Angeles first appeared, there has been a touring retrospective of the films of the black “LA Rebellion” filmmakers, and both The Exiles and Killer have enjoyed well-received revivals. If the measure of a work of criticism’s potency is the success with which it argues for a particular view of film history, Los Angeles Plays Itself must be considered one of the most persuasive critical works of the young century.

Thom Andersen’s Los Angeles Plays Itself runs January 3–7 at the IFC Center in New York.