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Imagining a celluloid city

'Plays Itself' is a melancholy love song to a misrepresented town

“Los Angeles Plays Itself” might be called the “Grey Album” of documentaries.

Like the popular underground album by Danger Mouse, it’s a broad sampling of movie scenes involving Los Angeles and the ways they depict the city, intentionally or not.

Mostly, it’s a melancholy love song to a misrepresented town. Plenty of films can’t even be bothered to get the geography right. Car chases go from the Valley to the South Bay. Characters leave a building in one neighborhood; when the camera angle switches, they’re in another.

After a brilliant 15-minute opener — “This is the city. … They make movies here. I live here,” begins the narration — filmmaker Thom Andersen breaks the film into three parts: “The City as Background,” “The City as Character,” and “The City as Subject.”

Each chapter is illustrated with clips from everything from “Double Indemnity,” “Dragnet” and “Chinatown” to lesser-known surprises like “The Exiles” and “Demolition Man.” This cinematic walking tour makes one feel closer and closer to the truth about Los Angeles.

Andersen, who has lived in the city almost continually since 1947, finished the film last summer, and it premiered at the Toronto film festival in September.

It will be self-distributed theatrically at Manhattan’s Film Forum July 28. Andersen, who is fielding interested calls from distributors, expects playdates in L.A. and other major U.S. markets.

Daily Variety contributor Strawberry Saroyan sat down with the filmmaker in his Schindler-remodeled bungalow in Silver Lake to talk about his intentions, the reactions, and where he’d like to see portrayals of Los Angeles go from here.

Variety: One thing I got curious about watching the movie is who you are — your words are omnipresent, yet we never see you.

Thom Andersen: Yeah. I teach filmmaking (at CalArts). … One class I teach is called Film Today — it’s designed to keep students aware of what’s going on in current movies (because) a lot of movies don’t play in Los Angeles, or maybe play once or twice at a festival. A lot of movies kind of get buried here. A movie like “Since Otar Left.”

V: I don’t know that film, which I suppose is your point. It makes me think of the end of your film, when you show clips from neo-realist pictures by people like Charles Burnett and Billy Woodberry. They’re the ones you feel portray Los Angeles in the most real and comprehensive way, but for many viewers that will be the first time they’ll say, ‘I don’t know this clip.’

TA: I think that’s an interesting point. … (One of the neo-realist films shown in the documentary,) “The Exiles,” was shown in the early ’60s and then I guess it did kind of disappear, and oddly, people are rediscovering it now. I mean, they showed it at UCLA last Friday (May 14, in a) series inspired by my movie, called “Los Angeles: Site Unseen.” They began it with “The Exiles” and Kent MacKenzie’s short film, “Bunker Hill 1956.” … The theater was packed and people were really tremendously moved.

V: How would you describe your film?

TA: It’s a way of cutting up movies to show people things that are there that are perfectly obvious but somehow the forward movement of movies kind of obliterates. Like places. In a way, (my movie is) like trying to construct a whole movie out of establishing shots.

V: You’ve said the movie is humorous, and audiences respond to a lot of the humorous moments. But it also has a lot of gravity.

TA: I started out kind of inspired by the notion of fake documentary. Like Michael Moore. That’s real, I guess, but … in Michael Moore’s films, what his character is saying isn’t necessarily what the film means. I thought I could write a text that was kind of extreme and that wouldn’t necessarily represent what I actually believed, so that gave me a certain amount of freedom. In the end, it turned out that everything I say in the movie I could actually stand behind. But I’m aware that some of it might seem a little, let’s say, extreme.

V: Like the idea that you’re annoyed with the acronym “L.A.,” which you feel reflects an ambivalence about the city by its inhabitants.

TA: Yeah, which is a little hard to defend. But I can defend and I would defend it, and I’m more and more convinced that I’m right about it.

V: At the festivals, have there been any extreme reactions — or surprising or funny ones?

TA: One writer accused me of playing to the home crowd when I said Toronto was a more glamorous city and had more glamorous people than L.A. But it’s true. I don’t think of Los Angeles as being particularly glamorous.

V: But you like it, right?

TA: It’s not really a matter of liking or disliking. It’s just … home.