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Los Angeles Plays Itself

Los Angeles Plays Itself

Thom Andersen

USA, 2003

Credits

Review by Jenny Jediny

Posted on 18 November 2009

Source VHS rip

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Los Angeles is a maligned city. This is obvious without viewing Los Angeles Plays Itself; for starters, the town’s received its fair share of knocks, captured in dozens of quotes by the verbally talented: Los Angeles is a void where “the only cultural advantage is being able to make a right turn on a red light” (Woody Allen); lacks urban identity (“Los Angeles is 72 suburbs in search of a city”—Dorothy Parker); and more often than not, is primarily associated with ubiquitous Hollywood, that wonderful world where “everybody’s plastic” (Warhol). To outsiders, Los Angeles – not L.A., unless you want to be recognized as a tourist – is simply a stopover for those desperately seeking Hollywood, and only noteworthy for its associations with it.

Yet Thom Andersen’s fragmentary take on such universally acknowledged contempt in Los Angeles Plays Itself is beautifully possessive of a city no one ever seems to love. Stripped of sentiment, the vastly described documentary/cine-essay/meditation was originally intended as classroom lecture (Andersen teaches at CalArts), but morphed into a full video piece that currently remains unavailable on DVD due to rights issues over the nearly 200 movie clips used in the film. There is an undeniably academic feel to the film, as the considerable slideshow is accompanied by the driest of voice-overs, but this is certainly not your Film 101 lecture, nor solely an attempt to convert the nonbelievers. Rather, the narrator (Andersen really, but using an actor’s voice), easily topping the sarcasm of Larry David in his irritation, mostly vents his frustration over his city’s misrepresentation, taking us along for the ride.

This kind of humor – droll and deadpan – is maintained throughout Los Angeles Plays Itself balancing out the philosophy as well as the film nerdom. Andersen’s intelligence is obvious, as well as his interest in cultural theory, but he avoids dictation; while not quoting Jean Baudrillard directly, there is some evidence that Andersen may have read his claims that

[C]ities are distinguished by the catastrophic forms they presuppose and which are a vital part of their essential charm. New York is King Kong, or the blackout, or vertical bombardment: Towering Inferno. Los Angeles is the horizontal fault, California breaking off and sliding into the Pacific: Earthquake.

Instead of verbally throwing out that heady quote, destruction theory manifests in an array of film clips discussing the obsession Hollywood appears to have with destroying Los Angeles, and there’s something far more rewarding in watching Die Hard juxtaposed with Escape from L.A. than simply reading the text. Perhaps even more delightful is the exploration of modernist architecture and its association with movie villains (see Body Double or Lethal Weapon 2 as prime examples); despite his crankiness, there’s a playful nature in the clip selections indicating that Andersen enjoys not merely dissecting, but also watching.

These clips are what garnered popular attention for Los Angeles Plays Itself upon its original release. While film nerds still bliss out at both recognition of the obvious “Los Angeles” films (Chinatown, Double Indemnity, The Long Goodbye and the promise of the unseen (Andersen includes the until-recently overlooked, such as Killer of Sheep and the newly-released The Exiles) the continuum of clips doesn’t so much celebrate filmmaking as critically poses fantasy against reality. Los Angeles isn’t just the backdrop in hundreds of films, despite all good efforts by Hollywood to hide it in plain sight. Instead this city, when off the set, contains both evolving and sadly lost neighborhoods, a complex multicultural population, and inhabitants who actually work outside of Hollywood.

While it’s useless to imagine Hollywood without Los Angeles, Andersen’s film enables the city to stand on its own, pulling it out of the context of Tinseltown to share a rich, eccentric urban history. The others – New York, Paris, Rome – have their defenders in literature and music (of course, the movies too). In Los Angeles Plays Itself, Andersen celebrates his city just as marvelously, in a sprawling manifesto that still manages to leave us in the hopes of a sequel.


Los Angeles Plays Itself will screen at 92YTribeca on Saturday, November 21 at 7:00pm.

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