Setting the scene in L.A.

Special to The Times

Thom Andersen believes that his hometown has often been misrepresented on screen, and his film “Los Angeles Plays Itself” is his attempt to set the record straight. The nearly three-hour “video essay” depicts how movies have portrayed Los Angeles over the years.

“Los Angeles Plays Itself,” which will be shown at UCLA on Wednesday, is made up nearly entirely of feature film clips from the silent era to the present. There are easily recognizable images, such as the skyscraper that gets blown up in “Die Hard” (1988); obscure B-movies from the 1950s; and low-budget independent works, such as “The Exiles” (1961).

Los Angeles is “just a place like any other,” Andersen contends, but few if any other places have been so extensively committed to celluloid immortality -- and much of this is in evidence in the clips he’s chosen.

Andersen initially envisioned the project as a lecture he would give once to his students at the California Institute of the Arts (CalArts), where he has taught film history and directing since 1987. “When I first got interested in the subject, I thought it would be something that would be interesting only to people who lived in Los Angeles,” he said during a recent interview at his Silver Lake home. But as he told more people about it, it became clear that there was an audience beyond the CalArts classroom. The film is divided into three sequences:


“The City as Background” focuses on specific buildings and instances where Los Angeles-area locations have stood in for other parts of the world. Calabasas passes for China in “Dragon Seed” (1944), the newly opened Bullock’s Wilshire shows up on a Chicago avenue in “The Public Enemy” (1931). Downtown’s Bradbury Building is featured in many films, serving a different purpose each time. Andersen’s point here is that Los Angeles is often stripped of its identity and left only to serve as a series of anonymous backdrops.

“The City as Character” looks at films that have used Los Angeles, and all that the city implies, as a notable presence within the narrative. This sequence begins with the trenchant narration from Billy Wilder’s “Double Indemnity” (1944), one of several films noir that were set in Los Angeles. The “Character” segment also shows how movies have preserved images of vanished neighborhoods and landmarks such as the Pan Pacific Theatre and Ships Coffee Shop.

“The City as Subject” looks at movies in which Los Angeles is itself as significant a character as the individuals walking its streets, such as “Chinatown” (1974), “L.A. Confidential” (1997) and even “Who Framed Roger Rabbit” (1988); in fact, Andersen believes the cartoon is closer to the truth in its postwar telling of the end of public transportation in the city than is “Chinatown” in its depiction of how Los Angeles got its water supply. Each clip in “Los Angeles Plays Itself” is identified by title and year and generally runs long enough to establish some context. But Andersen has not acquired the rights for the majority of the clips, meaning that his film can so far only play at festivals (it recently won a Canadian Film Board Award for best documentary feature at the Vancouver International Film Festival) and other noncommercial venues such as UCLA. Andersen says he is working on a wider distribution arrangement.

The film’s narration was written by Andersen and is voiced by filmmaker Encke King. It is both emotional and intellectual in stating its case and at times sounds like a doctoral dissertation. But sometimes it gets personal, as when Andersen takes aim at the acronym “L.A.,” which he considers “a diminutive way of putting down Los Angeles, an intellectually sloppy way to denigrate it.” When the film brings this up, the narration quips that “only a city with an inferiority complex” would allow such an appellation.


Despite the comprehensive overview offered in “Los Angeles Plays Itself,” Andersen still feels that “there’s a certain part of Los Angeles that tends to get reproduced over and over again in movies.” It seems appropriate, then, to note that on the morning Andersen spoke with a reporter, no parking was allowed on a portion of the off-the-beaten-path street on which he lives. A movie was being shot there that day.


‘Los Angeles Plays Itself’

Where: James Bridges Theater, Melnitz Hall, UCLA


When: Wednesday, 7:30 p.m.

Price: Free

Contact: (310) 206-8013 or

Running time: 3 hours