At Friday’s 10th anniversary screening of his documentary “Los Angeles Plays Itself” at the American Cinematheque’s Egyptian Theater in Hollywood, filmmaker Thom Andersen told the audience, “It’s not an update. I didn’t see the need.
“The way movies foreclose the possibility of emancipatory politics has not changed,” he added, and the gulf between an impoverished working class and a wealthy one percent — another running theme of Andersen’s film — is “even more of a truism now” than it was in 2003.
And yet, much is new about “Los Angeles Plays Itself,” Andersen’s encyclopedic, sardonic valentine to his adopted hometown and how it has been represented — for better and worse — by its most famous local industry. For starters, Andersen has remastered “Los Angeles” (which was made at the tail end of the analog video era) in high definition, replacing most of the thousands of film clips excerpted therein with HD source material. In addition, Andersen said, he’s done “a bit of re-editing” to fix “those things that were annoying me,” including moving up the intermission of the 170-minute feature from the 104-minute mark to 92 minutes in. A few clips have been extended, a few others removed.
In most other respects, “Los Angeles Plays Itself” remains very much what audiences first saw — or more likely, didn’t — a decade ago. Despite premiering to great acclaim at the 2003 Toronto Film Festival and playing extensively on the festival circuit for the next year, the film has maintained a largely clandestine existence ever since, circulated among cinephiles and architecture buffs on bootleg DVDs and YouTube links, and periodically revived by the American Cinematheque (where it had its first local screenings back in 2004). Due to copyright concerns over the unlicensed film clips, commercial distributors were understandably wary of Andersen’s magnum opus — a situation, the filmmaker noted happily at Friday’s screening, that may finally be changing.
As Andersen told this writer for a 2004 New York Times profile, “Los Angeles Plays Itself” grew out of a lecture he gave at the California Institute of the Arts (where he has taught film since 1987) about his objections to director Curtis Hanson’s Oscar-winning 1997 adaptation of James Ellroy’s “L.A. Confidential.” Among those quibbles was Hanson’s appropriation of Richard Neutra’s 1929 Lovell Health House on Dundee Dr. as the residence of the nefarious pimp Pierce Patchett (played by David Straithairn). This in turn becomes Exhibit A in one of “Los Angeles Plays Itself’”s most indelible arguments: that Hollywood filmmakers have persistently denigrated landmarks of modernist architecture by making them the domain of serial killers, drug dealers and other criminal heavies.
The situation has improved somewhat in the last decade, Andersen joked during Friday’s post-screening Q&A. “Now the rule is that gay men live in modernist houses and lesbians live in craftsman houses.”
Oh, and then there’s the matter of Ellroy’s title, with its insulting diminutive. As “Los Angeles Plays Itself” makes loud and clear, nothing raises Andersen’s hackles quite like the expression “L.A.” “Only a city with an inferiority complex,” the movie’s hardboiled voiceover narrator observes, “would allow it.” (Something else that really gets Andersen’s goat: car chases that employ “creative geography” from one shot to the next.)
But “Los Angeles Plays Itself” is far more than an architectural survey or illustrated walking tour. It’s Andersen’s highly quotable, fiercely political attempt to reconcile the multiple cinematic identities of the world’s most frequently filmed metropolis, a “city symphony reverse” about a place “where the relation between realism and representation gets muddied.” Whereas New York is always sharply in focus and instantly recognizable from almost any camera angle, the movie argues, Los Angeles is hazy and hard to get right, a series of neighborhoods “joined together by mutual hostility.”
Over the three hours that follow, Andersen traces the evolution of the city from a mere nondescript setting for movies (in the early days of film production) to a vivid character in ‘40s film noirs and melodramas and, finally, to a subject unto itself in the likes of “Chinatown,” “Who Framed Roger Rabbit?” and “L.A. Confidential.” In doing so, he engages and debunks many enduring Los Angeles stereotypes, from Joan Didion’s observation that “nobody walks” to the assumptions that all Angelenos live in the hills or by the beach, and are — or yearn to be — part of “the industry.” While “Chinatown” is criticized for proffering a liberal mix of fact and fiction as a “secret history” of Los Angeles water politics, the low-budget 1974 version of “Gone in 60 Seconds” is exalted as “the first manifesto for for a cinema of conspicuous destruction,” and the Hollywood Walk of Fame is excoriated for including supporters and enforcers of the McCarthy-era Blacklist but none of its victims.
As supporting evidence, Andersen showcases scenes from more than 200 Los Angeles-set feature films that run the gamut from high art to low schlock, and from the iconic to the virtually unknown, each positioned to provide just the right argumentative sting or wry comic punctuation. Indeed, as a result of its initial 2003 screenings, “Los Angeles Plays Itself” helped to spur the restoration and revival of several films cited by Andersen at length, including Jacques Demy’s “Model Shop” (1969), Charles Burnett’s “Killer of Sheep” (1979) and Kent MacKenzie’s “The Exiles” (1961), a docudrama about a day in the life of Native Americans living on Bunker Hill that had entirely fallen out of circulation.
Burnett’s film figures prominently in the deeply affecting third act of “Los Angeles Plays Itself,” as Andersen lauds a wave of independent filmmakers who emerged in the late 1970s and early ‘80s (also including Billy Woodberry, Haile Gerima and Gregory Nava) with a new, neorealist Los Angeles cinema focused on immigrants and working-class characters living in Watts, East L.A. and other neighborhoods rarely visited by the Hollywood mainstream. It’s powerful stuff that makes Andersen’s film, among other things, a palliative to the countless official clip reels of Hollywood’s greatest moments — and a far more penetrating study of the city’s race and class disparities than “Crash.”
At the screening, the filmmaker cited a few signs of social progress in Los Angeles in the past decade, including improved public transportation and an increase in union organizing. He’s also been working on a book inspired by “Los Angeles Plays Itself,” and hinted that the film’s long period of commercial unavailability may finally be coming to an end. thanks to the same “fair use” protections invoked by other clip-intensive documentaries like “This Film Is Not Yet Rated” and “Casting By.” “I was, am, and will be able to use [the clips] under fair use,” Andersen said. “No copyright owners were harmed in the making of this film.”