Los Angeles Plays Itself (2003)
Thom Andersen

Los Angeles is where the relation between reality and representation gets muddled.


Los Angeles Plays ItselfThom Andersen’s exceedingly engaging Los Angeles Plays Itself (2003) apparently began as a project to illustrate the representation of the city of Los Angeles in Hollywood cinema to the director’s students. But, luckily for us, it went on to become this 168 minutes of unadulterated, deceptively simple, video store joy that presents us with multiple levels of cinematic and sociopolitical discourse. Accumulating an enormous amount of footage from over two hundred films (the director himself is credited for the research), ranging from rare silent films to direct-to-video duds, splicing them with a high degree of meticulousness (Editor Yoo Seung-Hyun is the first technician to be credited on screen) and providing a deliberate, hilarious and nearly atonal voiceover by Encke King (simply brilliant), Andersen, armed with an formidable knowledge of the city’s history, geography, architecture and cinema, writes a dense and trenchant video essay on filmmakers’ perception of Los Angeles, audience’s perception of cinema and Los Angeles’ perception of itself. Los Angeles Plays Itself has to be one of the most entertaining films of last decade. Not only does it serve as a throwback to the very many noir, crime and action films of yesteryear, but it almost always points out the things that we have missed or overlooked in those films.

Los Angeles Plays Itself is divided into three parts that examine, in order, the way the city has been used as a backdrop for the plot, as a character in it and as the subject itself. Before that, Andersen establishes the reasons why he feels this study is justified and his criticism valid. Following this, he also gives a brief synopsis of present day Los Angeles, where permanent structures have become exclusive movie sets and makeshift film sets have become public offices. In the first part, Andersen presents numerous films that have tried to pass off Los Angeles as other American cities (two films even use it as China and Switzerland!), thanks to its seemingly malleable geography. Andersen discusses how action scenes eschew realistic continuity and cut from one place to another separated by tens of miles in actuality. Gone in 60 Seconds (1974) is probably the only film that emerges unscathed here (Andersen sees the film as a materialization of Dziga Vertov’s vision of a cinema that is purely made of mechanical objects). This section certainly throws one off balance with its complaints and it is here that the film comes close, if at all it does, to whining (Andersen openly declares that he dislikes geographic license, that the abbreviation, LA, is derisive and that artistic license is only a euphemism for laziness!).

However, there is another thread in this first part of the film that examines the use of the Los Angeles’ architecture in films. Andersen exemplifies that the modernist office and residential buildings, which were built as platforms for a healthier way of living, have almost always been used as the lairs of the villains and of madmen. The sleek, predominantly glassy, well-ventilated structures have somehow been associated with insidiousness and inhumanity. Perhaps this is a modern way of representing Transylvanian castles and haunted mansions. Andersen calls this “Hollywood’s war with modernist architecture”. In this section, he makes it almost seem like there’s an identity crisis experienced by his city. The second part of the Los Angeles Plays Itself explores films that have used Los Angeles as a character, as an integral part of the proceedings. It is here that he makes a distinction between “low-tourist” filmmakers (Hitchcock, for instance) and “high-tourist” ones (the avant-garde directors). Quite a few films are shown in a positive light here, most notable of them being Wilder’s Double Indemnity (1944), Aldrich’s Kiss Me Deadly (1955) and MacKenzie’s The Exiles (1961). The third and final part deals with films that have used Los Angeles as the subject itself. These are films that have confronted the darker passages of the city’s history head on. Andersen’s film is at its most “serious” here and talks about how films starting from Chinatown (1974) have increasingly been searching for scandalous events and eccentric public figures to tweak the rosy image of Los Angeles and create new ones that are equally flawed.

Los Angeles Plays ItselfPerhaps the best thing about Andersen’s film is that it hints at new ways of watching and reading cinema. By ‘new ways’, I do not mean a radical realignment of our visual sense as Brakhage called for, but a more benign change in the way we receive and assimilate the cinematic image. In a typically Bazinian way, he says: “Movies bury their traces, choosing for us what to watch and moving on to something else. They do the work of our voluntary attention. So we must suppress that faculty as we watch. Our involuntary attention must come to the fore”. This may sound pretty intuitive, but it only goes on to show how submissive we have become to the totalitarianism of the pop-film image. Los Angeles Plays Itself strikingly and consistently segregates various planes of the film image for analysis and indirectly reveals how complacent we have become when it comes to observing an image. Almost always in Andersen’s film, our focus is made to shift from the plane of principal action – usually the foreground – towards the setting and backdrop of the action – the architecture for indoor scenes and geography for the ones shot outdoor. Moreover, Andersen presents us shot footage of the actual buildings and locations before unraveling their presence in older films. As a result, one feels a strange intimacy with these structures that enables one to identify as much with the film space as with the characters. The effect is noteworthy. By separating the foreground and the background of the shot and familiarizing us with the latter beforehand, Andersen’s film makes us notice the artifice underlying the shot’s construction and the sleight of hand behind its execution.

In many ways, as Jonathan Rosenbaum mentions too, Los Angeles Plays Itself is an extended piece of film criticism written in film form. Andersen stacks one insightful observation upon another, almost each of which transcends the particular context it is defined in and evolves into a starting point for discussion about cinema at large. Take the passage where he tangentially talks about the cinema of Robert Altman: “How can I say this politely? It’s hard to make a personal film based on your own experience when you’re absurdly over-privileged. You tend not to notice the less fortunate, and that’s almost everybody. If you ridicule your circle of friends, your film will seem sour and petty. If you turn their problems into melodrama, your film will seem pathetic and self-pitying”. What was made as an offhand comment about Altman’s films makes so much sense with respect to the works of many other filmmakers too. Lines such as these might give an impression that Andersen hates cinema. But a second look reveals that he makes these statements only in a descriptive sense and not a judgmental one (His qualms with Chinatown is more with its legend and its denouement than the quality of film itself). His stance is liberal (even socialist, one might say) and he seems to be championing films that reflect the realities of working-class lives in Los Angeles over ones that speculate about alternate histories and criminal underbellies.

The three parts of the film are not only arranged in an increasing order of importance given to the city by Hollywood cinema, but also in the decreasing order of attention the latter has given to the reality that makes up Los Angeles. By the time Andersen ends his film with a discussion of the UCLA gang of African-American filmmakers, the director’s resentment about the representation of his city in popular films becomes alarmingly clear. Not only have these films stripped the city of its identity to make way for a ‘vanilla city’, but they’ve also managed to overwrite its culture and history with a sensationalist view of the city that is far from the truth. Furthermore, as indicated by Andersen’s choice of closing his film with excerpts from the works of these African-American directors, this tendency has also sidelined personal, political, independent and honest cinema that genuinely cares for its subjects and the city. Hipster cynicism and conspiracy theories have replaced optimistic political discussions and concrete reality. It is only during these glorious final minutes of Los Angeles Plays Itself that it becomes evident that it is, first and foremost, an elegy for a lost world. Like Tsai’s Goodbye, Dragon Inn that released the same year, Andersen’s film is an elegy for the real people, the real buildings, the real locales and the real cinema of his city that have been virtually rendered nonextant by the tyranny of dominant forms of expression.