Los Angeles Plays Itself

Los Angeles Plays Itself, Thom Andersen, 2003, video, 169 min., color/b&w, sound

“Los Angeles Plays Itself is a video essay about how movies have portrayed the city of Los Angeles.  The first section (The City as Background) is about buildings and places, famous and obscure, and how they get typecast and transformed by movies.  The second section (The City as Character) considers shifting attitudes toward the city expressed in the work of film-makers who have self-consciously made the city an important presence in their films. It begins with Billy Wilder’s Double Indemnity, about which Richard Schickel wrote, ‘You could charge L.A. as a co-conspirator in the crimes this movie relates,’ and it ends with Jacques Demy’s Model Shop, in which the protagonist declares, ‘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.’ Along the way, it recalls how movies have documented vanished landmarks and neighborhoods.  The third section (The City as Subject) considers movies that take the city itself as their subject, beginning with Chinatown in 1974.

Movies about Los Angeles have been, for the most part, period films, set in the past or in the future, and they replace the public history of the city with a secret history, opaque to its citizens. This urban legend is not innocent. It serves to dissuade naive viewers from political engagement by telling them that they are condemned to ignorance and powerlessness, no matter what they do. In fact, the truth is the opposite: the public history is the real history, as the treatments of Chinatown, Who Framed Roger Rabbit, and L.A. Confidential demonstrate.  The notable exceptions to this pattern are some low-budget independent films about ethnic minorities made in the tradition of neorealism, and it is with these that Los Angeles Plays Itself concludes.” –TA

“It may be difficult to detect upon first viewing that Thom Andersen’s Los Angeles Plays Itself is in fact a manifesto, but not every manifesto is written in a torrent of typefaces, categorical statements and exclamation points… By examining the storied history of shooting on location in what may be “the most photographed city in the world,” Los Angeles Plays Itself reveals not only the various attitudes that filmmakers and their films project upon their hometown, but the ideologies contained within each mode of looking. Andersen argues that the most celebrated “films about LA,” including Chinatown, Blade Runner and LA Confidential, are in fact cynical visions of the futility of resistance. Against this entrenched myth of a fallen city forever paying for the sins of its city fathers, he posits an alternative history, one that the movies themselves recorded, if sometimes inadvertently. […]

Speaking in person, Andersen is apologetic about the appearance of his work. Unauthorized and independently made, it is culled from various video sources, which at times does detract from the quality of the image. But the beauty that Los Angeles Plays Itself offers is the beauty that comes from clarity. The text, read by Encke King, delivers complex arguments with such precision that they seem self-evident; and while repeated viewings allow one to enjoy the economy with which these arguments are crafted, one can appreciate and comprehend the essay in a single sitting. Like a well-designed building, its structure is both logical and graceful. A modernist, Andersen relies on the inherent qualities of his materials to prescribe form, letting a minimum of material carry maximum weight. Witness the introduction: the words, ‘Movies bury their traces, choosing for us what to watch, then moving on to something else,’ are spoken over a crane shot from 52 Pick-Up wherein our eyes are directed from a car crash in the background to a figure approaching in the foreground. The figure eventually fills the frame and we have no choice but to look at him. Rather than obvious or pedantic, this strikes me as luminary. Over the course of 169 minutes, Andersen reveals what continuity editing has cleverly concealed for years: not only do films have ideas, but images in themselves are ideas that communicate directly with the viewer.” – Madison Brookshire, Bright Lights Film Journal