Establishing shot: Los Angeles, CA
It is a remarkable work, quite likely the best documentary on the City of Angels ever made, but it’s never had an extended run in Los Angeles -- until now. It’s played successfully in festivals worldwide, from Auckland to Thessaloniki, but unless you see one of its nine American Cinematheque screenings over the next six days, who knows when or if ever you’ll get another chance. If you love film and Los Angeles in equal measure, that would be a terrible shame.
The film is Thom Andersen’s 2-hour, 49-minute “Los Angeles Plays Itself,” a cinematic essay/meditation and labor of love on how this city has been depicted on the screen. Smart, insightful, unapologetically idiosyncratic and bristling with provocative ideas, it’s as sprawling and multi-faceted, fascinating and frustrating as L.A. (an abbreviation Andersen despises) itself.
For the record:
12:00 a.m. May 7, 2005 For The Record
Los Angeles Times Saturday May 07, 2005 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 1 inches; 39 words Type of Material: Correction
“Los Angeles Plays Itself” -- A review of the documentary “Los Angeles Plays Itself” in Thursday’s Calendar Weekend section said the film’s opening shot was from Sam Fuller’s “House of Bamboo.” In fact, it is from Fuller’s “Crimson Kimono.”
It took Andersen, who teaches at Cal Arts, four years to put “Los Angeles Plays Itself” together. As with his too-little-seen last film, a keen examination of the output of blacklisted screenwriters called “Red Hollywood,” the new work reveals Andersen to be a director with a constitutional aversion to conventional thinking.
As with “Red Hollywood,” the heart of “Los Angeles Plays Itself” (and the reason why a commercial release is problematic) is brilliant and extensive use of clips from a hoard of feature films.
Starting with a startling opening shot of distraught stripper Sugar Torch running on a downtown street, from Sam Fuller’s “House of Bamboo,” through a closing segment on the black independent films “Bush Mama,” “Killer of Sheep” and “Bless Their Little Hearts,” Andersen serves up segments of more than 200 films, from 1913’s “A Muddy Romance” through 2001’s “Hanging Up.” Truly, as the voice-over read by fellow independent filmmaker Encke King suggests, this has to be the most photographed city in the world.
These are not just any clips from any films. Andersen seems to have seen all movies made with a local connection. He’s familiar with everything from Laurel and Hardy’s 1932 classic “The Music Box” and the 1972 gay porn film “L.A. Plays Itself,” which gives Andersen’s work its name, to “Howling II: Your Sister Is a Werewolf” and “Death Wish 4: The Crackdown.” Working closely with editor Yoo Seung-Hyun, he also has impeccable taste in what to select.
With its tart, acerbic tone and politically progressive stance, “Los Angeles Plays Itself” was clearly made by a sophisticated insider, someone who loves the city, is capable of comparing “Dragnet” to the work of Bresson and Ozu, and has no tolerance for the reason its name got shortened in popular usage (“Only a city with an inferiority complex would allow it”).
The bulk of “Los Angeles Plays Itself” is divided into three sections that detail the different uses the city has been put to on-screen, sections that try to answer the question: Have movies ever depicted Los Angeles accurately?
The first of these, “The City as Background,” recounts how Los Angeles has been considered so visually malleable that it could play as anywhere. Though the James Cagney-starring “Public Enemy” takes place in Chicago, there’s a scene in it in front of Bullock’s Wilshire. And downtown’s Bradbury Building has been used as sites including a Mandalay hotel, in what was then Burma (“China Girl”), and a European military hospital (“White Cliffs of Dover”).
Because Andersen is architecturally sophisticated, familiar with the critical works of Esther McCoy, and David Gebhard and Robert Winter’s indispensable book “An Architectural Guidebook to Los Angeles,” he shrewdly points out the many ways that modernist architecture, especially the work of John Lautner, has been denigrated by Hollywood by being repeatedly used as the major villain’s home of choice.
The next section, “The City as Character,” deals with films that gave Los Angeles a personality. Here Andersen, among many other things, tracks down the house that was Barbara Stanwyck’s residence in “Double Indemnity,” a film he says convinced everyone that Los Angeles is the world capital of murder and adultery. He also has some kind words for the late, lamented neighborhood of Bunker Hill, urban renewed out of existence but living still in “The Glenn Miller Story,” “Criss Cross” and “Kiss Me Deadly.” He also admires “The Exiles,” Kent MacKenzie’s landmark 1961 independent film about Native Americans who lived up on the hill.
The final section, “The City as Subject,” shows what happened when Los Angeles became conscious of itself as a place a film could be about. Some of his most provocative comments come in relation to “Chinatown” and “L.A. Confidential,” films he says jointly promote the notion there is a secret history of the city that it is futile for ordinary citizens to even attempt to know.
As the director says in the press notes, films like this can serve “to dissuade naive viewers from political engagement by telling them that they are condemned to ignorance and powerlessness no matter what they do.” This politicized point of view gets more intense when “Los Angeles Plays Itself” closes with an examination of the work of black directors Charles Burnett, Haile Gerima and Billy Woodberry.
Brilliantly discursive, filled with intriguing detours that follow connections only the director’s mind could make, “Los Angeles Plays Itself,” will please natives of this city more than any other. Finally, the film agrees with the narrator in Jacque Demy’s “Model Shop,” who says, “It’s a fabulous city. To think some people claim it’s an ugly city when it’s really pure poetry, it just kills me.”
MPAA rating: Unrated
Times guidelines: Complex thematic material
Where: American Cinematheque, 6712 Hollywood Blvd., Hollywood
When: Today through Tuesday
Info: (323) 466-FILM
Director Thom Andersen. Producer Thom Andersen. Screenplay Thom Andersen. Cinematographer Deborah Stratman. Editor Yoo Seung-Hyun. Sound Thor Moser, Craig Smith. Narrator Encke King. Running time: 2 hours, 49 minutes.