Monday, April 11, 2011

Los Angeles Plays Itself

Thom Andersen's magnum opus, Los Angeles Plays Itself, is a thoughtful, methodical consideration of Los Angeles as a city of the movies — not only as the city where the movies are made, but the city that appears onscreen in those movies, the most photographed city in the world if not always the most photogenic. It's a fantastic, wide-ranging work of criticism, a film that hones in on specific moments, specific shots, from countless movies, expanding upon isolated glimpses of Los Angeles as it is, as it was, and as it only ever could be onscreen. It's an examination of the relationship between the Los Angeles of the movies and the Los Angeles of reality, and of the the many different ways in which this city has been represented in the cinema. It's a work of film criticism that delves into the implications of various types of cinematic representation, but it also deals with history, with the social context in which the movies are made and in which a city changes, with architecture, with race and class, with the nature of urban identity and the specific image that Los Angeles projects of itself.

It's always Los Angeles for Andersen, never L.A., as he lambastes the shortening of the city's name as a mark of disrespect and laziness. Notably, he takes his own film's name from a 70s gay porn flick called L.A. Plays Itself, which he characterizes as a trip from the almost-rural idylls of Los Angeles' outskirts to the urban blight of its center: as the locale gets more urban in the film, he says, the sex gets rougher. Andersen's expansion of that title is a way of restoring the city's full name, rescuing it from the curse of shorthand. Towards the beginning of his film, a montage of movie titles that start with "L.A." suggests that this diminutive nickname is one source of the movies' reduction and simplification of Los Angeles, a sign that the Los Angeles that appears in the movies only flirts with the reality of the city.

Andersen's film examines, in three parts — the city as background, as character, and as subject — the role of Los Angeles in the history of the movies. His film is a collage of scenes from numerous movies, from old Hollywood classics and noirs to more modern blockbusters and disaster movies to the avant-garde work of Warhol and Deren. He mixes in a smattering of his own footage, juxtaposing various city landmarks from the movies with their modern incarnations, along with newspaper headlines that bring the city's real history into contact with its movie counterparts, particularly when talking about the true stories that provided the inspirations for Chinatown and L.A. Confidential. Andersen couples these borrowed and recontextualized images with a lucid, sophisticated commentary (read by Encke King, in a similar flat tone to the one employed by Dean Stockwell in Andersen's earlier Eadweard Muybridge, Zoopraxographer) that pulls out the subtext from all these images of the city, fitting each movie, each image, neatly into Andersen's critical framework. Andersen is credited with "research/text/production" rather than as the director, an acknowledgment of his special role as an archive-trawler and critic. What he's doing here is assembling a critical essay where his evidence, his examples, are readily available as onscreen footnotes to the text.

One of Andersen's central ideas here is the gap between reality and screen representation. He identifies many ways in which Los Angeles on screen differs from Los Angeles as an actual city, tracing the city's cinematic history from its early days, when in its anonymity it often stood in for Chicago or New York or any number of other cities, to the much more specific visions of later years. There's Los Angeles as a site of disaster movie destruction, the home town that moviemakers seem to take special delight in tearing apart. There's Los Angeles as a city of cops, and Andersen's deconstruction of Dragnet as a fascist version of the precise, minimalist aesthetics of Ozu and Bresson is especially potent. And also very funny. Andersen has a sharp, biting sense of humor, and he mingles seemingly genuine admiration for Dragnet's robotic technical precision with contempt for its exaltation of an "ideal" cop who tramples all over the pathetic, kooky, corrupt people he encounters in the course of his job. It's similarly hilarious when Andersen uses a shot of Charles Bronson literally exploding a bad guy as the punchline to a sequence in which Andersen laments the movie convention of staging chase scenes that leap from locale to locale with little regard for physical reality: "silly geography makes silly movies," the voiceover says, and with Bronson as evidence it's hard to argue.

That's a throwaway gag, though, and Andersen's critical commentary ultimately has much more serious aims. One of his most interesting insights is the idea that Los Angeles, as presented in the movies, is a city of perpetual nostalgia for a time that never was. "At any time in its history, Los Angeles was always a better place a long time ago than in the present," the narration says, speaking especially about movies like Chinatown, Blade Runner and L.A. Confidential. It's Andersen's contention that movies about Los Angeles are often period movies, rarely movies about the present, at least not in the modern era. He takes as one telling example the rather startling absence of the Watts riots from most films; it was only long after the riots had faded a bit that movies could portray the events, Andersen says, and then only with a comforting and ironic use of banal 60s oldies tunes to place the events safely and securely in the past. There seems to be widespread discomfort in really engaging with Los Angeles' present, even in the futuristic Blade Runner, which presents a dystopian Los Angeles that is actually, perversely, rather attractive, a glossily beautiful if frightening vision of the future that Andersen contrasts against the much plainer, uglier possibilities that are likely to shape the real Los Angeles of the future.

Architecture is another of Andersen's big concerns. He teases out how the modernist architecture of the 20s and 30s — and by extension the utopian ideals often motivating the movement — have in the cinema been co-opted as a signifier of suave evil, to the point that a modernist villa in the hills overlooking Los Angeles, with the inevitable large glass panels and angled lines, is sure to provide a base for some corrupt businessman or gangster, a pornographer or a drug dealer, a cop on the take or a gang of kidnappers. In contrast, he traces the origin of the Spanish revival style's status as a signifier of bourgeois pretensions to Double Indemnity, and to screenwriter Billy Wilder's distaste for the style's fake appropriation of the past and of another culture. This is perhaps the film's most fascinating current, this emphasis on how different types of buildings, and different neighborhoods, provide cinematic shorthand for different types of people. Later, Andersen will unearth the history of the Bunker Hill neighborhood, from its status as a comfortable middle class suburb to its descent into seedy film noir environs in Kiss Me Deadly to its 70s desolation presaging its complete destruction and reconstruction as a generic urban area, with little trace remaining of its distinctive past. The only reminders of the old Bunker Hill are in the movies, in the various onscreen incarnations of the neighborhood that mirrored, over the years, the changing nature of the neighborhood. For Andersen, there's a documentary quality to even the most fictional of movies, a tendency he'll explore again in a sequence that chronicles the evolution of gas station style from the 40s to the 70s.

Andersen's central thesis — the gap between reality and Hollywood fictions — could easily result in facile conclusions about how fake the movies are. Sometimes, in his more tossed-off observations, there's a hint of this, as when Andersen complains that Robert DeNiro's book store employee girlfriend in Heat could never afford her gorgeous hillside house with a spectacular view of the city proper. But such observations, though bordering on the banal in isolation, are tied together in Andersen's later emphasis on the socioeconomic subtexts and political blind spots in Hollywood depictions of Los Angeles. A big part of it is white male privilege, which Andersen brings up by way of Woody Allen, a tourist in Los Angeles whose famous putdowns of the city from Annie Hall obviously get Andersen's back up. "I don't want to live in a city where the only cultural advantage is that you can make a right turn on a red light," Woody says, and it's easy to see why Andersen, who loves Los Angeles so intensely, is put off. (Sorry, it's still funny anyway.)

The film ends with a consideration of an alternate cinema of Los Angeles, the discovery of a kind of Californian neorealism by black filmmakers like Charles Burnett, Haile Gerima and Billy Woodberry in the 70s and 80s. Andersen's sudden turn into these movies at the end of his cinematic history of Los Angeles suggests that for all of the movies that purport to show Los Angeles from various angles and perspectives, so few of them really focus on the people of the city outside of the privileged milieus of the upper class, the police, the movie industry itself. Los Angeles might be the most photographed city in the world, Andersen suggests, but large portions of its population are very much under-photographed, a point he underscores by comparing the 70s and 80s black independent films to various Hollywood comedies and melodramas in which privileged white people shuffle around Los Angeles without ever encountering much if any sign of the city's ethnic and socioeconomic diversity. Andersen's commentary closes on a note of irony, accompanying images from Woodberry's Bless Their Little Hearts of a closed tire factory. Once people could take tours of the factory to see how tires were made, the narrator deadpans, just as now they can take tours of movie studios to see how movies are made.

The voiceover suggests a progression from a concrete product — and concrete jobs for working class, ordinary people who struggle to provide for their families — to the abstract dream factories of Hollywood, an image that has colonized the popular perception of Los Angeles, largely through the self-projection of the movies, in which the city and its people are inevitably dwarfed by the movie industry. Just as the movies have largely created and reproduced an artificial image of Los Angeles with little relation to the lives of most of its people, those same people, denied representation on movie screens, are increasingly marginalized from real life as well, their jobs taken away, their neighborhoods demolished and replaced by skyscrapers. In the end, Andersen's criticism is socially and politically oriented as much as it is rooted in cinematic or aesthetic concerns. His film, in documenting what films about Los Angeles show, is also very conscious of what they, generally speaking, do not show.


Michaël Parent said...

Interesting review Ed! I haven't seen this one but I will surely check it out soon. Since I've been to Los Angeles last year I'm intereted to see Andersen's view on the city. On the other hand, I also adored how David Lynch made his Mulholland Dr. and his Inland Empire around the city of Los Angeles. Is there a link to make between those two and Andersen's?

Dean Treadway said...

As always, a precise overview of this unusual masterpiece. I can honestly say I've never seen a film like it. I still have to wonder if it was produced illegally, without the obtainment of thr rights to have the endless number of clips Andersen features. I guess this is why the movie, despite being recent, is still hard to see (I saw a bootlegged VHS copy of it). Still, it's a marvel on so many levels and, at three hours in length, speeds right on by. Good stuff!

Ed Howard said...

Thanks, Michaël. Andersen doesn't quote from Lynch's Los Angeles films — I think they came out too late to make the cut, as did Michael Mann's wonderful Collateral, another great film about the city — but it's a worthy comparison. Lynch's approach is more poetic, rooted in dream visions of Hollywood, while Andersen is more concerned with Los Angeles as it exists beyond Hollywood, what he considers the "real" Los Angeles as opposed to the movie image that Hollywood cinema projects. Both Lynch and Andersen, of course, are responding to that projection, but while Lynch revels in it and expands upon it, Andersen seeks to undermine and re-interpret it.

Ed Howard said...

Dean, there's definitely nothing else like it, and it really does speed by despite its length. I found myself thinking I could enjoy much more of the same.

I have to object to your classification of the film as being produced "illegally." Andersen certainly didn't acquire the rights to the clips he uses, which is why it hasn't appeared on DVD and probably never will, sadly. But what he's doing can and should, by any reasonable definition, be unambiguously considered fair use, a legal concept intended to protect exactly this kind of quotation of small excerpts for purposes of criticism, academics, etc. He never quotes a substantial portion of any of these films, and his work couldn't be said to reduce the value of the original works, another criteria used to judge whether a quote is protected by fair use. If anything, Andersen's film makes one want to see many of the works he quotes. His quotations here are, essentially, the same thing as a book reviewer quoting from the book under review to illustrate a point. Obviously, the book critic doesn't have to pay to excerpt from books. Of course, most major media companies simply fail to acknowledge the idea of fair use in other contexts and have often waged war against works that should be considered fair use. That fear is why I doubt Los Angeles Plays Itself will ever appear on DVD, and it's a shame.

Troy Olson said...

Ed, you made me aware of the Muybridge film that Andersen made, which I just so happened to watch this weekend and found quite fascinating, so I'll definitely be hunting this one down as well. Sounds like a great mix between documentary, film theory, and admission of love for a city by Andersen.

DavidEhrenstein said...

L.A. locales are quite haunting. I'm particularly taken with Bunker Hill -- on view in Losey's severely underrated M, Kent Mackenzie's The Exiles and of course Blade Runner.

William E. Jones has been devoting much of his enbergies lately to a video project about Fred Halsted -- the Marie Curie of fist-fucking.

JeanRZEJ said...

I've heard great things about this one, and it sounds pretty expansive. I'm sure much of the film is dictated as much by the films chosen to illustrate his theses as the theses themselves, as there may be a number of counter-examples to any preponderance of mis-use that he documents. Does he take any time out, aside from the final section, to single out superficially similar films to those which are the worst 'offenders' that happen to 'get it right'? Burnett and co. don't seem like they belong on the same spectrum as films made within the studio system, and there's a certain benefit to working independently when it comes to documenting things 'as they are' - because you can't afford to change them. For a studio film it can be difficult to create things 'as they are' because they cordon off reality and create some facsimile. Of course, Hollywood filmmaking doesn't exactly tend toward banal realism, so it may be doubly unlikely to find a reasonable depiction, but I'd be interested in seeing which filmmakers work within the system without completely distorting the sense of place, at least in Anderson's eyes.

Ed Howard said...

David, I love Bunker Hill too, at least as it appears in old movies - quite a beautiful and unique neighborhood.

Troy and Jean, it's obviously well worth tracking down. Jean, I do remember that Andersen points out a few examples of Hollywood films that do a good job of documenting "things as they are," almost incidentally in the course of their narratives, but I can't remember offhand what films he was referring to. He makes essentially the same point that you do, though, that Hollywood films aren't suited to the kind of realism he's talking about here, which is why he has to turn to Burnett and similar filmmakers as examples of his ideal.

Kate Coe said...

I don't think it's the licensing that curtailed a DVD release--I've worked with two lawyers who handle Fair Use cases, and they've both said he'd have no problem. But, as the film has been put together from readily available formats--DVDs, even VHS's--any commercial release would need original masters and the studios don't give those away.

And there's a limited audience, which might make a commercial release less attractive.

I wish he'd added the San Fernando Valley.

Ed Howard said...

Thanks for the input, Kate. So it sounds like Andersen would want to redo the film from better source material if he could, interesting. I thought the rough, VHS quality of it all was perfectly fine - the point is not crystal clarity for the clips, but the ideas that Andersen weaves around them. I'm sure he could put together a decent quality version using only DVDs rather than studio masters - much of the film as is seems to be sourced from VHS.

I'm sure you're right that there's a limited audience, of course, but that's true of any number of obscure, foreign, and/or avant-garde films that are available on DVD nonetheless.

iain said...

And now, of course, the DVD is available. And the film is itself streaming (see what I did there?) on Netflix.
And we have the magnificent Nightcrawler (Dan Gilroy) which seems to have absorbed all of Andersen's ideas, mixed them with Powell's Peeping Tom and Wexler's Medium Cool, and come up with a Los Angeles movie sans pareil.