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LA Existential

Thom Andersen crams architectural history, film criticism, political analysis, and more into a rhapsodic paean to his hometown.



Los Angeles Plays Itself

**** (Masterpiece)

Directed and Written by Thom Andersen

Narrated by Encke King

I think there's this weird thing at work now with the way people relate to, specifically, mainstream cinema. When they watch those movies they like to be on the receiving end. . . . The sound is so loud, and the images are so powerful, they want to be totally passive. But then, a few months later, the same film is on DVD, and they can watch it and they own it. And the relationship is inverted. They own that moment, that scene. They also control that diverse, complex relationship they have with film actors. They can watch this or that in slow motion or image by image. --Olivier Assayas in a 2003 interview

The shift in the way people watch movies described above is profoundly altering film history and criticism. It's also changing filmmaking. Thom Andersen's mesmerizing 169-minute essay film Los Angeles Plays Itself, getting a one-week run at the Gene Siskel Film Center, is a case in point: it was inspired by his desire to reclaim and master his own experience of watching certain movies.

The film--which has taken a year to get here from the Toronto Film Festival and still isn't out on video or DVD--mimics an old-fashioned double feature, with an intermission planted about two-thirds of the way through. It offers clips from 191 American movies, whose only point in common is that they're set in Los Angeles, and a narration that's an essay on how movies have treated Andersen's hometown (he was born in Chicago in 1943 but his family moved to Los Angeles four years later). Plainspoken and witty, it qualifies as social history, film theory, personal reverie, architectural history and criticism, a bittersweet meditation on automotive transport, a critical history of mass transit in southern California, a wisecracking compilation of local folklore, "a city symphony in reverse," and a song of nostalgia for lost neighborhoods such as Bunker Hill and unchronicled lifestyles such as those of locals who walk or take buses.

Most of all, it qualifies as film criticism on the highest level--analytical, transformative, and political. But it's also sufficiently engrossing and funny that some viewers won't find it political or seriously critical at all, at least until its closing stretches--a clever ruse it shares with Ron Mann's documentary Go Further, an engaging piece of environmental propaganda that turned up at the Chicago International Film Festival last year and will open commercially in early December.

These days a film's politics and criticism sometimes need to be disguised if it's to succeed as entertainment. Our culture is so ambivalent about edification that we virtually demand to be hustled--even when it comes to the current presidential campaign. If parts of Los Angeles Plays Itself contain elements of a con job, it's because Andersen knows that if he owned up to doing something serious and complex--such as defying the American taboo against discussing class--we'd be less likely to pay attention.

Despite the film's exemplary simplicity, lightness, and clarity, this subterfuge, which often takes the form of crankiness and sarcasm, runs the risk of creating a false impression about Andersen's attitude toward his subject. Most critics have responded to his film with enthusiasm, but a few of the smarter ones, such as Gary Indiana and A.O. Scott, have expressed irritation. "Do I really feel superior to Hollywood movies, as A.O. Scott claimed in the New York Times?" Andersen asks in an article in the fall issue of Cinema Scope. "I would say that I take them more seriously than someone who has to write about them twice a week can afford to." He has also noted in interviews that virtually all his clips and the way they've been edited by Yoo Seung-hyun demonstrate that he appreciates the movies in question, even if he's tweaking them in his narration. Indifferent to what passes for high and low fashion in his academic neck of the woods--he teaches film and video at the California Institute of the Arts--he quotes approvingly from both Richard Schickel and Pauline Kael, stomps twice on David Thomson, and has the following to say about Los Angeles's chicest spokesperson: "Forget the mystical blatherings of Joan Didion and company about the automobile and freeways. They say, 'Nobody walks.' They mean, 'No rich white person like us walks.'"

Andersen seems, paradoxically, like a traditionalist who refuses to play by the rules. He even dispenses with the boilerplate "directed and written by" credit just as Chris Marker does in his films (Marker's another essayist who prefers to have his highly distinctive, personal, and literary commentaries spoken by other people). Instead, with a disarming false modesty, he credits himself merely with "research/text/production."

As the film observes early on, Los Angeles is the most photographed city in the world, yet it's also one of the most invisible, because generally we're not supposed to notice it except as background. "If we notice the locations, we're not really watching the story," says the narrator on the sound track (the voice of Encke King). "It's what's up front that counts....But what if we watch with our own voluntary attention instead of letting the movies direct us?" Like Olivier Assayas, Andersen offhandedly suggests the way passive spectators can become active once they have a film on DVD. Yet he's also working hard to change the way we look at the films he's excerpted, which range chronologically from early silents to recent blockbusters and generically from an experimental film like Meshes of the Afternoon (1943) to a mainstream SF action thriller like The Terminator (1984).

A good example of Andersen's criticism at its finest is a single sentence about the films of John Cassavetes: "His comedies face up to tragedy and reject it." What's startling about this terse observation is that none of Cassavetes's films, with the possible exception of Husbands, Minnie and Moskowitz, and Gloria, has been regarded by critics as a comedy--certainly neither of the films Andersen shows brief segments of, A Woman Under the Influence (1974) and Love Streams (1984), though both clips focus on behavior that some might regard as comic.

Andersen is on to something that's elusive and special about Cassavetes, and if one thinks about Faces (1968) and The Killing of a Chinese Bookie (1976), both of which are set in Los Angeles, his meaning becomes more apparent. What's most comic about them is that they acknowledge tragic elements in a situation but refuse to deal with them as tragedy. It might be argued that even the compulsive laughter heard throughout Faces functions dialectically, first as a rejection of comedy that makes it tragic and finally as a rejection of tragedy that makes it comic.

What, you might ask, does this have to do with Los Angeles? By this point the film has moved through its three epic chapter headings--"The City as Background," "The City as Character," and "The City as Subject." The Cassavetes interlude comes toward the end of the film, sandwiched between considerations of Steve Martin's L.A. Story (1991) and Diane Keaton's Hanging Up (2000), so its relevance to the ongoing discussion is mainly implied. L.A. Story, though deemed "an honorably failed romantic comedy," has at least two strikes against it. One is its title: Andersen has already discoursed at length about why he despises "LA" as a "slightly derisive diminutive" ("Only a city with an inferiority complex would allow it"). The other is its racial profiling; we're told that there are only "two blacks with speaking parts" in the movie, "both restaurant employees." Then the narration adds, "The comedies of John Cassavetes cut deeper," leading us directly into the Cassavetes clips and other comments. And once Hanging Up is gently but firmly skewered for professing to be about Los Angeles even though the only public space shown is a tunnel the upper-class characters drive through, it becomes clear that Cassavetes is trusted because he shows us a more comprehensive view of life in Los Angeles in terms of both class and behavior.

All cities are palimpsests, just as any historical period combines previous historical periods, and part of Andersen's modus operandi is to show us why, for example, Philip Marlowe continues to have a solid grip on our perception of Los Angeles. A detective's job is to look at the same things as everyone else but see a new layer, and that's what Andersen does--when he's showing us clips and when he's generating footage of his own (shot by experimental filmmaker Deborah Stratman). Early on we're shown a series of handwritten or printed signs in otherwise unremarkable landscapes directing crews to film locations, and the signs wouldn't register as such if Andersen didn't alert us to their obscure meanings.

The next logical step is to introduce us to some of the more famous neighborhoods and sites in various films, including the steps in Silver Lake navigated by Stan Laurel and Oliver Hardy when they attempt to move a piano in The Music Box (1932); the Spanish colonial revival house occupied by Barbara Stanwyck in Double Indemnity (1944); the 1893 Bradbury Building at Third and Broadway, inspired by Edward Bellamy's evocation of a socialist utopia and used as a Burmese hotel in China Girl (1942), a London military hospital in The White Cliffs of Dover (1944), and an apartment house of the future in Blade Runner (1982); Frank Lloyd Wright's Ennis House (1923) in numerous appearances stretching over 66 years, from Female (1933) to a 1999 music video, often with different interiors; and Union Station, a favorite site for movie kidnappings.

Blade Runner also uses the last two locations, with Union Station doubling as a police station, underscoring Andersen's observations about the ways in which reality and fantasy mingle in the films he cites. Sometimes the realities he discovers are as unexpected as the fantasies. In the low-budget 1952 programmer The Atomic City we see a real crowd of spectators leaving a baseball game--a sequence that might have defied the production code prohibitions at the time about the "social intermingling of white and colored people" had it employed extras; Andersen says the footage "suggests that Los Angeles may have been more comfortably integrated in 1952 than it is today." He dislikes films that take geographical license with the city, prefering films like the "literalist" thriller Kiss Me Deadly (1955), which scrupulously respects every location it uses, even though its plot veers toward science fiction and Greek mythology.

Eventually these segments develop into a fascinating appreciation of modernist buildings in Los Angeles, including hillside homes designed by John Lautner and Richard Neutra, and a caustic denigration of the way they're invariably used to house villains in crime pictures. More generally, Andersen often takes the transgressive but defensible position that films are to be valued for what they reveal to us regardless of their intentions. After noting that cop Joe Friday "thinks like a computer" and "walks and talks like a robot," the narrator confesses, "Actually, I love Dragnet"--referring to the 1968 TV show more than the 1951 feature, though both are sampled. "Its creator and star Jack Webb directed each episode with a rigor equaled only by Ozu and Bresson, the cinema's acknowledged masters of transcendental simplicity," the narrator continues. "Dragnet admirably expressed the contempt the LAPD had for the law-abiding citizens it was pledged to protect and to serve." And after maintaining that the parade of grotesque crazies in these episodes contributed to the national image of Los Angeles as cuckooland, Andersen can't resist asking rhetorically, "Is there any other city that puts its [police force's] motto, 'To protect and to serve,' in quotation marks?"

Los Angeles Plays Itself grew out of one of Andersen's lectures at the California Institute of the Arts. But it's also clear that he's been storing up material for this feature for most of his life. One doesn't have to agree with any of his judgments to learn something from them. "People who hate Los Angeles love Point Blank," he remarks irritatably while ruminating on the subject of "high tourists" and "low tourists" who film in the city. High tourists include Jacques Demy (Model Shop, 1969), Michelangelo Antonioni (Zabriskie Point, 1969), and Jacques Deray (The Outside Man, 1972); low tourists include Alfred Hitchcock (only one of whose 30 American films is set even partially in Los Angeles--the first ten minutes of the 1942 Saboteur), Woody Allen (Annie Hall, 1977), and John Boorman (Point Blank, 1967).

As someone who loves both Los Angeles and Point Blank, I'm not sure what to make of Andersen's declaration, but he did help me see the grotesqueries of this modernist thriller's interior decoration in a different light. And when it comes to Robert Altman, the narration is brilliant both when it decries his "condescension toward the outer suburbs" and the way his characters "lead lives of noisy desperation" in Short Cuts (1993) and when it admires the way Elliot Gould's Marlowe in the 1973 The Long Goodbye ("Altman's best film") serves to deconstruct and expose aspects of the city's environment.

Andersen's two most substantive critiques concern two overpraised and underexamined crime pictures that put the city on the map as a respectable movie subject, Chinatown (1974) and L.A. Confidential (1997). His concern is less with how these films misrepresent local history--though he's highly informative on that--than with why these misrepresentations have been so widely embraced and how they've functioned ideologically as pretexts for political defeatism: "Cynicism has become the dominant myth of our time, and L.A. Confidential preaches it. . . . Cynicism tells us we are ignorant and powerless, and L.A. Confidential proves it."

In many ways the film's most touching passage is its last--a celebration of the neorealist depictions of minorities in the neighborhoods of Bunker Hill and Watts in four neglected features: the late Kent MacKenzie's The Exiles (1961), Haile Gerima's Bush Mama (1976), Charles Burnett's Killer of Sheep (1978), and Bill Woodbury's Bless Their Little Hearts (1984). The Exiles, about Native Americans from Arizona who've emigrated to Bunker Hill, had some currency in the early 60s but has been almost completely forgotten. (It has played at a few festivals and other venues alongside Los Angeles Plays Itself, and I regret that the Film Center isn't showing it; as a piece of filmmaking and as a time capsule, it's worthy of being placed alongside Cassavetes's Shadows, which was released the previous year.) Critics often suggest that the other three pictures are as remote from contemporary film culture as Bunker Hill--which got leveled as part of an urban-renewal project--is from contemporary Los Angeles, but Andersen vividly resurrects them with sharp and deeply felt appreciations.

Finally, by changing our relationship to both his hometown and the movies filmed there, Andersen's monumental act of recovery expands our options as moviegoers and as Americans. Seeing a relation between these two identities may be his boldest step of all.

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