Why Haven’t You Watched This Yet? Los Angeles Plays Itself (2003)

Written by Matt Bowes

Whether or not you’ve actually been to Los Angeles doesn’t matter. We’ve all gone there, together really, in two-hour increments delivered to us by Hollywood filmmakers. We all have our own idea of Los Angeles in our heads as a result, and to be quite honest, sometimes that city doesn’t always come off so well. It’s a city populated by Hollywood weirdoes, of excess, vice and corruption. Of smog and phonies, overshadowed in the public consciousness as a city of the future now by tech bastions found in Silicon Valley to the north. A now ironically-named City of Angels.

Whether it’s desperately in need of a New York City cop to fend off thieves masquerading as terrorists, the site of murder, mayhem and discussions about fast food, the collision of hard-boiled detectives and femmes fatale following the Second World War, or first on the list of cities targeted for destruction by aliens, the movies have not been entirely kind to Los Angeles.

Los Angeles Plays Itself, which has finally come to DVD after many years of being unavailable by legal means, is an attempt to fix the ontological damage Hollywood has caused to the city. It’s an essay film, a collection of hundreds of movie scenes spliced together with narration in order to make an argument. Filmmaker Thom Anderson appreciates his city on multiple levels, and through use of narration in the film related to us by Encke King his movie proves him a tenacious and loving caretaker of this place.

The interplay between narration and film samples is key. While it takes a little bit of getting used to, King’s gravelly voice relating Andersen’s words becomes like our tour guide over the three hours of Los Angeles Plays Itself. It feels like the ancestor of newer essay filmmakers, most notably Red Letter Media’s Mr. Plinkett and his take downs of the Star Wars prequel trilogy, or series found at PressPlay. King’s voice has the tone of a world-weary private eye, the kind of character we see depicted so often in Los Angeles.

Andersen proves quite angry about the treatment of his home, almost overly so, which becomes a fascinating counterpoint to the official narratives trotted out by the Hollywood studios. I think most film viewers haven’t really heard this sort of a rebuttal to how Los Angeles is characteristically depicted, and it’s fascinating to think about. Andersen is mad about how the city’s geography has been warped by film, and how the only way he’s able to see parts of it anymore are by watching old movies, as, like my own home, Los Angeles has a terrible record of maintaining historical buildings.

Andersen does a great job of explaining to viewers how New York is somehow inherently cinematic, inherently its own, while Los Angeles must be used correctly, staged perfectly, in order to achieve the same effect.

The film is split into sections, the first of which is called The City as Background. Here, Andersen examines how Los Angeles was often used to represent other cities, often to hilariously incongruous effect. One great example comes with James Cagney and The Public Enemy, which barely even attempted to hide the grass sprouting out near new L.A. developments pretending to be downtown Chicago’s streets. Andersen does a great job of explaining to viewers how New York is somehow inherently cinematic, inherently its own, while Los Angeles must be used correctly, staged perfectly, in order to achieve the same effect.

Andersen is also confounded by Hollywood’s reluctance to leave the city’s relatively small downtown core. Los Angeles, he tells us, is a city of sprawl, many small villages linked together by roads, and the best films shot there at least attempt to acknowledge this fact. Something like the original Gone in Sixty Seconds, where exciting car chases burn rubber through the city’s industrial district, or Kiss Me Deadly, where protagonist Mike Hammer has an actual verifiable address, which lies next to the actual roads used in the movie.

I think the film is at its best when it discusses architecture, and the way that film is able to adhere identity to these spaces. He might honestly change the way you watch movies, as he points out how modernist houses are inextricably linked with drug kingpins and corrupt government officials while Spanish Revival bungalows, while phony, give off a certain veneer that has become confused with authenticity. Fascinating stuff. There’s also a great sequence where Andersen talks about the few landmarks that are recognizable to outsiders to Los Angeles, like the City Hall building, the Bonaventure Hotel and the Bradbury Building.

If I have one criticism, it’s that the home video release of the film does not add any new material. Andersen’s examination of Los Angeles stops around 2001, with the most recent movie being David Lynch’s Mulholland Drive. I would have liked to see what Andersen thinks of newer films, like Nicholas Winding Refn’s Drive, or Richard Kelly’s Southland Tales. Luckily, a Vimeo producer named Colin Marshall has picked up the slack.

Los Angeles, the City in Cinema: Kiss Me Deadly (Robert Aldrich, 1955) from Colin Marshall on Vimeo.

So why haven’t you watched Los Angeles Plays Itself yet? Well, as you can expect with a film comprised almost entirely out of scenes from other films, the legalities of getting distribution proved challenging. Luckily for us, they’ve figured it out and now everyone can enjoy this examination of place and theme on film. Los Angeles Play Itself might not completely change your mind about the “most photographed city in the world,” but what it might do is make you think about how cities are characterized by artworks set there.

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