Directed by: Thom Andersen.
Written by: Thom Andersen.
Narrated by: Encke King.
I have been hearing about Thom Andersen’s Los Angeles Plays Itself since it debuted on the festival circuit back in 2003. Unless you were lucky enough to see it then, it has pretty much been impossible to see ever since – yes, apparently it was on Youtube for years, but that isn’t the best way to experience any movie – especially a nearly 3 hour documentary about how the movies portray Andersen’s home city of Los Angeles. It took 11 years, but now the film is available on DVD – and Netflix – and it most likely took that long to get the rights clearances for all of the films shown in the movie. This is essentially 3 hours of movie clips, under narration written by Andersen, and read by Encke King, that challenges the viewer to see the films he is siting – mainly Los Angeles set crime films – in a new light. Andersen throws a lot of information at the audience during the runtime, and has a lot of controversial opinions littered through (he loves the original Gone in 60 Seconds, calling it a masterpiece, while he is not overly impressed with Chinatown or L.A. Confidential). You are not likely to agree with everything Andersen contends in the film – that isn’t necessary to make it a great movie. What he does do is challenge the audience to look a little deeper into the movies they see, and what they show us. Some will argue that he is looking too close here –that like the various commentators in Room 237, about Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining, where they don’t see the forest for the trees. The difference is that Andersen isn’t looking for something that’s not there – he’s seeing things that are in plain sight that most people don’t notice.
Andersen has a lot of opinions about the way his beloved city has been portrayed in film. He doesn’t like it when the city’s name is shorten to L.A. – he finds it disrespectful to the city – and doesn’t like how the city is often portrayed as being so corrupt that there is no way to fight back – that the entire history of the city is built on vast conspiracy theories. This is where his rejection of L.A. Confidential or Chinatown comes into play – both films take a little bit truth to spin their wild conspiracy theories about the founding on the city, and how violent it is. He challenges the assertions made in both films – as well as films like Who Framed Roger Rabbit – and wishes films would be a little more truthful about Los Angeles.
He also has issues with the way the films play with geography – hating the way that a film as silly as Sylvester Stallone’s Cobra has a car chase that goes from Venice Beach to the Los Angeles harbor in a matter of seconds, when in reality there are 30 miles apart from each other. He contends that “silly geography makes silly films”. I’m not quite sold on this assertion – Cobra is a silly film, but not because of the car chase. The original Gone in 60 Seconds, which Andersen loves, is also a silly film – even though it is scrupulously accurate in its depiction for the geography of the city. He’s on stronger ground on a film like Robert Aldrich’s Kiss Me Deadly (1955), which also is accurate to the layout of the city. That the film is grounded in reality, allows it to spin off more wildly into its conspiracy theories, while keeping the film believable. Or even a film like Robert Altman’s Short Cuts – a film I love, that Andersen clearly doesn’t, since while the film is supposedly set in different suburbs of the city, they all look the same – because Altman didn’t shoot in the different areas.
There are a lot of other points that Andersen makes in the film – the way he examines how the movies use different modern architecture is fascinating. It’s also fascinating to watch Andersen make connections to the movie industry itself, and the movies that they make. Andersen’s ultimate point, I think, is a good one. He says early in the film that while many people appreciate the dramatic qualities in documentary films, fewer appreciate the documentary qualities of dramatic movies. The movies that are shot in real locations around Los Angeles allow us a glimpse into the city’s past – a past that may not be viewable anywhere else.
As with any film like this, there are holes – or at the very least, some movies that are left out that I would have loved to see what Andersen thought of. While he delves into 1990s films like Michael Mann’s Heat (1995), he pretty much ignores the Los Angeles films of two natives who got their start in that decade – Quentin Tarantino (there is one, small clip of Jackie Brown) and Paul Thomas Anderson (who uses a variety of Los Angeles neighborhoods and people in Boogie Nights, Magnolia and Punch-Drunk Love, all made before Andersen made this film. I also would have loved to see what his take on more recent films – Michael Mann’s Collateral, Nicolas Winding Refn’s Drive and Dan Gilroy’s Nightcrawler for example (that’s not a flaw in the movie in any way, just a curiosity).
Overall, Los Angeles Plays Itself is one of the best movies of its kind that I have ever seen. It’s fascinating, funny, controversial, contentious and brilliantly edited. I don’t agree with everything Andersen says in the movie – but then again, I’m not a native of Los Angeles – I’ve never even been there. I just know the city from the movies – and as Andersen contends, that I means I probably don’t know it at all.