Scott: The personal-essay film isn’t something new—see Marker, Chris—but Thom Andersen’s Los Angeles Plays Itself is the brightest example of a form of video essay that has become more prevalent in the user-friendly YouTube era, when critics have been able to assemble clips and voiceover with the ease of putting pen to paper. (Okay, maybe not that easy, but without the technical and budgetary restrictions of the past.) When it’s done as well as Andersen’s film, it can be extremely effective: Points made in direct reference to images and scenes—or a montage of images and scenes from multiple films—have an advantage over even the most evocative piece of writing. You can read about, say, the various uses of the Bradbury Building throughout the decades, but seeing the changes in its interior architecture and the attendant changes onscreen naturally makes a cleaner and more persuasive point. The structure of Los Angeles Plays Itself, neatly divided into sections (The City As Subject, The City As Character, etc.), also helps make the 169-minute running time more digestible, with each discreet unit building brick-by-brick into a larger whole. I rewatched the film via 12 YouTube parts, and it went down as easy as something a third the length.
So what does everyone think of the narration? Given its flat, unemphatic monotone, I had assumed Andersen recorded the voiceover himself, but in fact Encke King did the reading. But I think my original assumption justifies the strategy: This sounds like Andersen’s dyspeptic voice, and it would have been distracting to have a Martin Sheen or a Morgan Freeman give a false warmth to it.
“I think I’d enjoy the film more if there were more of a sense that Andersen enjoyed Los Angeles films at all, ever.”
Nathan: Film is a profoundly visual medium, so an epic cinematic essay like Los Angeles Plays Itself has an innate advantage over a written essay. The film shows and tells in equal measure; words and images have a symbiotic relationship that enhances both. I for one liked the flat, unemphatic narration. We’ve talked a lot about how the same locations appear over and over again in movies, subconsciously conveying the message that they represent the real and only Los Angeles. In the same respect, we hear the same voices in documentaries—soothing, authoritative, gentle yet compelling, and more often than not, Morgan Freeman—so often that it can seem like that’s the only documentary voice out there. So it’s refreshing to hear someone who deviates from that voice so dramatically, both in terms of the actual quality of his speaking voice, and Andersen’s wonderfully cranky and dyspeptic voice as a critic and a writer.
Tasha: King’s narration didn’t do much for me. I’m much more visually than aurally focused, and over the course of three hours, the lack of affect or emphasis meant the content started to blur together for me. It felt like sitting in a college lecture, in one of those damnable four-hours-once-a-week courses: The flood of information and the lack of audio variety became overwhelming. (It also reminded me strongly of a hypnotically droning experimental film I saw back in college.) I had more luck parsing it all when I found a transcript of the film, and was able to take in all the narration separately. I’ve never had to do that with a film before, and it was an odd experience, but probably an indication of just how much information is being conveyed. While the narration is contextualizing, the film clips themselves are providing so much corroborative visual detail that after a couple of hours, I couldn’t focus on both simultaneously. Probably a recognizable character actor as narrator would have been just another distraction, but frankly, just as I preferred college professors with some life in their voices, I would have preferred a more expressive narrator here.
Nathan: In Los Angeles Plays Itself, Andersen sneers at the widely held notion that “nobody” walks in L.A or takes public transportation. He dismisses that idea as the myopia of a privileged class for whom the underclass—the people who walk and take public transportation and do the jobs no one else wants to do—is so unimportant and irrelevant that it might as well not exist. To Andersen, the lives of the working class and the poor are of so little interest to Hollywood films and the people who make them that they are all but invisible.
In the film, there’s a moral as well as political component to whose stories are told. Not surprisingly, film stories tend to reflect the lives of the people who green-lit them and made them (i.e the concerns of upper-middle-class white people), rather than the culture at large. This is a running thread throughout the film that pays off at the end with Andersen hailing filmmakers like Charles Burnett for telling the stories of the invisible Los Angeles, and doing so completely outside the studio system. I agreed with much of Andersen’s argument, but there were other elements I found more questionable, like his assertion that once they achieve a certain level of success, wealth, and power, filmmakers often lose the ability to authentically tell stories that occur far outside their specific frame of reference. Did that bother anyone else? Do you think that’s true?
Scott: I found the section of the film where Andersen delves into underground movies enormously persuasive, and reserving it for the end, following a litany of false or synthetic takes on the city, gives it extra power. For one, I’d never heard of many of these movies, save for Charles Burnett’s Killer Of Sheep, so that was a revelation in itself, but you get such a radically different picture of what Los Angeles looks like from those clips. Hollywood movies so frequently start with an assumption of conditions—white characters, middle-class or above, with plenty of disposable income—that it’s easy enough to accept those conditions without thinking about it, but footage from films like Bush Mama or Bless Their Little Hearts suggest that this is the true Los Angeles, and the place we’ve been seeing all these years, in so many movies, is an alien landscape.
Keith: Los Angeles Plays Itself was released—as far as it can be said to have been released—in 2003, as was Masked And Anonymous, a little-seen satire starring Bob Dylan and directed by Larry Charles. It’s a bizarre film, one I liked better on second viewing than I did at the time. It could also almost be a companion piece to LAPI. The film is set in an unnamed near-future dystopia where society has clearly frayed at the edges. I spent much of the movie wondering where it was filmed. Tijuana? Mexico City? Then the credits reveal it was filmed entirely in Los Angeles, though it used no parts of Los Angeles I’d ever seen on film. It helps prove Andersen’s point: Filmmakers—not all, but many—use the same upscale stretches because that’s the world they know. I’d almost forgotten about the Diane Keaton movie Hanging Up, but it’s a great example of this practice taken to an extreme: Public space gets limited to the world passing by from the windows of one’s car. Who needs to step out into the wider world?
Nathan: That is an excellent observation, Keith, and it’s worth noting that Larry Charles specializes in intermingling documentary and narrative film in his Sacha Baron Cohen collaborations like Borat and Bruno. He’s all about juxtaposing fact and fiction. In Masked And Anonymous, which I found bewildering at the time (it’s intentionally so, though it’s lingered provocatively in my mind in the intervening years), he has made a ramshackle dystopian science-fiction movie that, in the spirit of Los Angeles Plays Itself, captures something authentic and compelling about the city. It’s a Los Angeles seldom chronicled in film or television, though it only extends to the film’s background. And Los Angeles Plays Itself is pathologically obsessed with uncovering the real lurking behind the fake. It’s all about foregrounding background.
Tasha: Los Angeles Plays Itself in many ways comes across as a scholarly essay, dissecting the presentation of a city, then narrowing the focus to broad geographical features, specific buildings, and ultimately specific professions within it. It’s thoughtful and analytical… except when it’s subjective and personal. Thom Andersen makes a number of highly idiosyncratic claims, including that films that don’t respect the city’s real layout are inherently specious. (“Silly geography makes for silly movies.”) And that movies have “systematically denigrated” Los Angeles’ “modernist residential architecture… by casting many of these houses as the residences of movie villains.” And that moviemakers really enjoy seeing Los Angeles destroyed. And that “L.A.” is a “derisive diminutive” that could only be permitted by a city with an inferiority complex.
I’m fascinated by the persecution complex Andersen manifests on behalf of his city, particularly when he goes out of his way to take offense at what seem like entirely explicable things. “L.A.” is short and punchy, and (as he shows in a montage) works well in titles. Putting villains in modernist houses is praising those houses, by holding them up as status symbols for the rich and powerful elite. Bad geography in a car chase is a simple matter of creating an exciting milieu, not of sniffily dismissing a city’s real layout. The problem with all this for me is that when Andersen gets subjective, he seems to engage in willfully poor logic, and watching him deliberately take offense at things that seem inoffensive to me undermines his more scholarly arguments and makes them similarly suspect. Did his subjectivity bother anyone else watching the film?
Nathan: On the contrary, I loved the subjectivity of Los Angeles Plays Itself. I love that it’s an intensely personal, cranky exploration of one strange man’s brain and psyche as much as it is an intensely personal, cranky exploration of a city and its complicated relationship with motion pictures. The film acknowledges, implicitly, that our relationships with movies and geography are deeply personal, and that criticism often doubles as autobiography. To me, what makes Los Angeles Plays Itself so fascinating and messy and alive is that it doesn’t delineate between scholarly analysis and cranky opinions. Andersen is throwing ideas out to the audience and leaving it up to us to determine which ones are sincere and which are tongue-in-cheek, or whether the difference between the two has any meaning whatsoever. I love how messy and ambiguous the film is. I don’t think I would have responded to it as passionately as I did if it weren’t so unapologetically personal.
Scott: Because Los Angeles Plays Itself is primarily an act of criticism—and one of the most significant in recent decades, in my view—I accepted Andersen’s jaundiced point of view about how his city has been presented onscreen, even if his persnickety point of view about the acronym “L.A.” is a bridge too far. I’m much more receptive to his point about the movies associating advances in modernist architecture with villainy than you, Tasha, but even if you don’t agree with his conclusions, it’s fascinating just to think about the relationship between movie characters and the spaces they occupy, and how we associate certain types of spaces with the moral integrity of a particular human being. I also think that not respecting geography in car chases has a cumulative effect that does denigrate the city, because it figures into Andersen’s overall beef about Los Angeles being so cherry-picked by the movies that the real city is fragmented and distorted. It’s important to step back and consider how all these arguments—“L.A.,” modernist architecture, bad geography—figure into Andersen’s larger thesis about the distance between the movie Los Angeles and the real thing. The movie invites you to argue the finer points, of course, but don’t miss the forest for the trees.
Keith: I think a more objective (or objective-seeming) Los Angeles Plays Itself would be kind of a dud, honestly. I’m imagining a film that simply showed where movies were shot, and what movies were shot there, and I’m already falling asleep. Andersen coming at the film as a passionate defender of his city against the offenses of the movies is what gives the film its charge. It also gives it a healthy serving of contradictions, starting with the premise that Andersen largely hates depictions of Los Angeles, and yet the film could only be the work of someone also obsessed with depictions of Los Angeles, and finding in them a richness unknowable to mere hatred. I found the three hours I spent living inside that contradiction enlightening—learning a lot about Los Angeles I never knew before—but also compelling. I’m not sure I’ll be able to watch a movie shot in Los Angeles again without hearing Andersen—or, more accurately, King—in the back of my head.
Tasha: I can understand the appeal of the personal approach over the dry, objective lecture, but I think I’d enjoy the film more if there were more of a sense that Andersen enjoyed Los Angeles films at all, ever. He huffily dismisses so many things over the course of this doc: the way directors use L.A.’s space, its architecture, its name, its iconic settings, its flexible settings, its specific neighborhoods. When he admitted he resented Jacques Demy’s Model Shop for daring to be “a westside movie [whose] vision of the city didn’t extend east of Vine Street,” I hit a point of exasperation. It is entirely okay to limit a story to one part of a city and not try to take it all in. I really enjoyed Andersen’s frank assessment of his own judgmental attitude at the beginning of the film: “Movies have some advantages over us. They can fly through the air. We must travel by land. They exist in space. We live and die in time. So why should I be generous?” But the idea that cherry-picking locales for a car chase somehow fragments the real, actual city is akin to believing that a film adaptation of a book retroactively destroys the book. To paraphrase the old James M. Cain quote about adaptations, the city is still right there. It’s fine.
Nathan: I got the sense, watching the film, that Andersen does in fact enjoy Los Angeles films. To me, Andersen’s richly cultivated hatred for the way filmmakers have misused and distorted Los Angeles as a setting, a background, and a character is just the flip side of his intense love for movies about Los Angeles. If he didn’t love movies and Los Angeles and the complicated interplay of the two, he wouldn’t spend three hours venting his frustrations over it. Los Angeles Plays Itself is powered by obsession and emotional intensity, and to me, part of what makes it so fascinating and dense and complex is its thorny, tricky combination of love and hate.
Keith: One of the strongest aspects of Los Angeles Plays Itself is the way Andersen shows how films can accidentally double as anthropological documents, capturing ways of life as they existed at a particular moment—and before they faded away. One unexpectedly poignant passage edits together images of gas stations and grocery stores of the sort that used to be ubiquitous in Los Angeles. What Andersen’s talking about isn’t particular to Los Angeles; I know one reason I respond so powerfully to Dawn Of The Dead is that it preserves what shopping malls looked like when I was a kid; the glimpse of an old-style cereal box is like a Proustian madeleine to me.
But it’s maybe a little more true of Los Angeles, given how much has been filmed there. That allows Andersen show the rise, fall, and plastic rebirth of the Bunker Hill neighborhood, as seen over the course of several films. And it allows Los Angeles Plays Itself to illustrate a point about the persistence of the past—in his words, “the pastness of the present”—he makes while covering L.A. Confidential: “In reality, we live in the past. That is, the world that surrounds us is not new. The things in it, our houses, the places we work, even our clothes and our cars, aren’t created anew every day. So any particular period is an amalgam of many earlier times.” What’s come before is all around us, even if it’s become invisible to our eyes.
Tasha: One of my favorite parts comes when Andersen talks about how the Watts riots “loomed over movies about Los Angeles,” even though few films addressed the events directly. In that segment, he says Los Angeles is a young city with no history, but it always had a certain air of upbeat optimism, until Watts, at which point “the endless boom was ending… no one seemed sure of the future any longer.” As he explores the new era of downbeat, cynical L.A. films that followed, it made me think about what film scholars 20 years from now are going to say about the post-9/11 era of filmmaking, both in films about New York and in films set in America in general. Los Angeles Plays Itself does a terrific job of exploring the many ways in which films deliberately or unwittingly provide time capsules of their eras, to the point where a montage like this can piece together a cultural geography of the city, though it takes a little distance to really make things clear.
“The film acknowledges, implicitly, that our relationships with movies and geography are deeply personal, and that criticism often doubles as autobiography.”
Nathan: One of the things I found most fascinating about the film was how it explored how movies have created complex and convincing mythologies for Los Angeles that compete with the city’s real history and acquire so much cultural currency that it’s easy to mistake them for real history. I know that when I think of Los Angeles’ history, the complex conspiracies of Chinatown, L.A. Confidential, and Who Framed Roger Rabbit spring to mind more readily than what I’ve learned in history books, because they are burned so indelibly in my imagination and in our collective imagination. This fake history of Los Angeles, as chronicled in film after film, is destined to blur in viewers’ memories until it’s damn near impossible to delineate it from reality. There’s the real and the fake, and it can be tricky business telling the difference between the two.
Tasha: Here’s a sentence that stuck with me from the film: “A movie studio is a cruel court where everyone is subject to the most wayward whim of its mogul, but the backlot is an enchanted village of accidental surrealism.” There were a few moments in the film like that, where scholarship gives way to a lyricism just short of silliness. Did anyone else end up caught on a particularly memorable line or moment?
Keith: “The local architecture is kitsch. But it is transcendent kitsch.” I’m not sure what the distinction is there, or even if it makes any sense outside of Andersen’s head. But I love the idea of architecture pushing past self-parody to the point of beauty.
Scott: If we’re talking about notable bits of narration, how about that killer last line? “Once upon a time, visitors could take a guided tour and see how tires were made, just as today, they can take a studio tour and see how movies are made.” Ouch. Andersen ends Los Angeles Plays Itself with a series of clips from underground movies that capture Los Angeles as we never see it—as a place where people are poor, of color, and working somewhere other than in the entertainment business. With this line, he brings us back to the idea of Hollywood manufacturing products, like tires on an assembly lines, and just as synthetic.
Nathan: This isn’t a favorite line, but Andersen’s love-hate relationship with the way his hometown is depicted in movies reminded me of how I felt whenever a film was shooting around the office where I used to work. Whenever saw a film crew or cameras, my initial, knee-jerk response was always, “Oh fuck. Those Hollywood assholes better not tell me where I can or can’t walk.” As a lifelong movie lover, I suppose I should have been flattered that movies were being filmed in my hometown, and that our office building was coming into contact with bonafide movie magic. Instead, I saw it as an inconvenience at best, and a headache at worst. So I can understand how someone can passionately love movies, yet have a profoundly ambivalent-to-hostile attitude toward filmmakers re-creating their hometowns however they see fit.
Our Movie Of The Week discussion concludes here. Don't miss Monday's Keynote on Los Angeles Plays Itself as an act of criticism. Next week, we'll be discussing Wong Kar-wai's impressionistic double-pronged romance, Chungking Express.