Los Angeles Plays Itself

(Thom Andersen, USA, 2003)


Los Angeles – like New York, Paris, or Berlin – is a cinema-city. It has been filmed so many times, in so many ways, that it has become a screen mythology, removed from its daily material reality.

To Robert Altman in Short Cuts (1993), Los Angeles is the city of fragmented lives, chance encounters and catastrophic collisions. It exists as a community only when natural disaster (in the form of an earthquake) affects everyone at once.

For Robert Aldrich, thirty-eight years earlier in his film noir classic Kiss Me Deadly (1955), Los Angeles was the emblem par excellence of an encroaching urban modernism. Its nightmarish vision of disembodied techno-gadgets, bewildered citizens caught in a labyrinthine plot and long streets receding into darkness was revived by David Lynch in Mulholland Drive (2001).

For the avant-garde master Pat O'Neill, Los Angeles is more of an abstraction, a cosmic meeting of forces that he summed up in his classic Water and Power (1989).

Just about everything you ever wanted to know about the cinema's ever-changing representation of this city can be found in Thom Andersen's almost three-hour video documentary, Los Angeles Plays Itself. It is a witty, learned, sometimes dazzling piece, and the ideal centrepiece of cinématheque or festival survey programs on the topic of this city (or perhaps any big city) on film, as has occurred in (at least) Canada, France and Australia.

Andersen's essay-films can sometimes seem like illustrated classroom lectures – albeit particularly erudite and colourful lectures. Los Angeles Plays Itself, like his earlier piece Red Hollywood (1996) made in collaboration with the celebrated film theorist Noël Burch, in fact fits right in with the DVD age: it resembles a series of scenes with a running commentary overlaid, rather than a chiselled montage of images and sounds. (Red Hollywood even comes with a "chapter menu" which viewers can only count down, rather than manipulate, as they watch.)

And there is an argument to be had with this epic documentary. Andersen holds firm to the notion that there is a "spirit of place" that needs to be authentically detailed and conveyed in cinema. It's inherently a dubious notion: just who agrees upon what constitutes the authentic sense, look or style of any place? Lived personal and social experience is simply too varied for this kind of consensus, unless it has been artificially imposed or internalised (as is, in fact, so often the case).

But, as a native insider, Andersen takes a somewhat snobbish, almost proprietorial posture in his critique of fantastic or wayward depictions of "his" city, such as Jacques Demy's lovely and haunting Model Shop (1969). This attitude in Andersen marries a strictly materialist attention to political history (not to mention political geography) with a Manny Farber-like valuation of "deep dish" realist observation.

It is easy, in this way, for Andersen to score points against the majority of films set in Los Angeles. Of course, Roman Polanski's Chinatown (1974) fudges some of the facts of real history, and the social panorama presented in L.A. Confidential (1997) is rather fanciful. But so what? Are these films any less valuable or valid for taking such dramatic and poetic license?

Andersen's attitude has a very bullish, American ring to it. Even the most progressive American critics put up walls when it comes to the "horror" of seeing their culture and their landscapes depicted in a way that is unfamiliar to them – look, for example, at the chilly reception given to Bruno Dumont's brilliant Twentynine Palms (2003), a film which (in my opinion) renders irrelevant any strictly Farberian authentic-sense-of-place argument.

The inhabitants of most major cities around the world are used to seeing their home turf gleefully fragmented and recreated within films originating both locally and from elsewhere. And isn't that, from one angle, precisely what movies are good at, creating virtual, imaginary or downright surreal spaces from the pieces of real places?

As an Australian, for example, I happen to enjoy the fantasticated visions of "my" capital cities in everything from the local Angel Baby (1995) to the fly-in American production Mighty Morphin Power Rangers: The Movie (1995). And, also as an Australian, I don't believe, within the context of an unequally globalised cultural economy, that too many people around that globe will be lining up to see a three-hour video-essay by me called Perth Plays Itself. American privilege, with its almighty sense of entitlement, wins the day once more, even in the left-wing critique by an essay-film!

The conclusion that Los Angeles Plays Itself reaches has been sardonically tagged as: "Neo-realism will save us". Andersen ends up championing the downbeat, scrupulously authentic, almost grimily documentary views of the city that he views as true alternatives to the mainstream norm.

At that point, he virtually abandons voice-over commentary altogether for the sake of extended clips. This is perhaps forgivable in light of the films he excavates – such as Charles Burnett's Killer of Sheep (1979). Burnett is among the most vital of contemporary American filmmakers, although he is shamefully under-appreciated in many countries.

The greatest benefit of Andersen's work is the historic rediscovery of a remarkable, hitherto virtually unknown American film, Kent Mackenzie's The Exiles (1961). This astonishing work, roughly contemporaneous with John Cassavetes' similarly groundbreaking Shadows (1959), is a glimpse into the daily lives of a now lost community: the Arizonian Indians who lived on Bunker Hill.

Mackenzie was a figure who died in obscurity, unable to realise any of his major projects subsequent to The Exiles. In 1961, he was already far ahead of his time.

Neo-realism, in the end, may not save us, but The Exiles and Killer of Sheep are reminders of a lost tradition in American independent cinema.

MORE Los Angeles: Collateral

© Adrian Martin September 2004

Film Critic: Adrian Martin
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