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Thom Andersen uses hundreds of scenes from a multitude of movies
throughout the past century, to express his opinions about the true Los
Angeles in this cinematic essay. He takes the common opinion that Los
Angeles has no discernible culture, and presents two basic reasons why
this opinion is so prevalent.
1. Los Angeles used to be a culture rich city until the richer, more affluent, citizens decided that it's more profitable to have apartment complexes, high rises, and strip malls.
2. There is quite a bit of culture remaining in Los Angeles, but because everyone is too busy driving themselves from point A to point B as fast as possible, they don't see it.
Whether you agree with his opinions or not, the film is worth a look (although nearly three hours long) to see all of the footage of Los Angeles over the years, and how it portrayed LA at the time.
A fantastic film covering all of the bases of the way in which Los Angeles is seen through the eyes of Hollywood. Full of wonderful insights, this film is an in depth study more than it is a crowd-pleaser. Also a great source of information for film-buffs...a plethora of little-known facts and behind-the-scenes information. Some of the movies are blockbusters, others you may not have ever heard of, but each film that Thom Anderson studies and quotes proves to be a unique take on the subject. If you love DVD special features, you will love this movie. If you love Los Angeles, you will love this movie. If you HATE Los Angeles, you will love this movie. If you don't know yet, or know nothing about LA, get your hands on a copy of this movie. It will make it easier to decide.
You may have noticed other comments here saying that the film is long,
boring and has a droning voice over. While it is 3 hours long and has a
narrator with a voice like a sedated Billy Bob Thornton, Los Angeles Plays
Itself is one of the most fascinating film-crit documentaries ever made.
The director assumes that the viewer has a certain level of understanding of film theory, and that would probably help when the narrator starts citing David Thomson, Pauline Kael, Dziga Veryov and Ozu, but it's not entirely necessary to enoy the film either. All you really need is an understanding that a real place - the city of Los Angeles - is also a fictional place - the LA of the movies. The documentary is like an extended home movie made up of clips from films and interspersed with sections created by the director.
What holds it all together is an examination of Los Angeles as a place in films (locations, buildings), as a stand in for other places (Africa, Switzerland), as a record of places lost (buildings, neighborhoods, people, cultures), as focus for nightmares and dreams (SF like Blade Runner and Independence Day) and more.
While the voice over could have been paced a little better and be bit more "up", this film really rewards viewers who are willing to accept the documentary on its own terms. I found I just couldn't stop thinking about it and now, when watching movies shot in LA, I keep remembering moments from Los Angeles Plays Itself.
I watched this movie at the 'Rotterdam Film Festival' in The Netherlands and beforehand had no idea what to expect. After a few minutes it became clear to me that the movie was a collection of hundreds of movie-fragments, all located in the city of Los Angeles. Being a movie freak I was very interested from that point on, and Thomas Anderson didn't let me down. A terrible amount of time and research must have been spent making this movie, and it pays off! Having been in L.A. myself I really liked all places that are shown in the movie, and all movie-fragments being shown. Unfortunately, a lot (I think to many) of old movie fragments are shown (1950-1960), which makes it a little 'unrecognizable', at least for me. After part two of the movie, I had seen so many peaces of 'old material', and together with listening 2 hours to the voice of Mr. Anderson, I became to tired to go for the 3rd hour. Nevertheless, I can really recommend this movie to anyone who likes watching movies, and likes learning more about them and about a city that was so very important in movie making!
Criticisms are valid, but this film is not entertainment...in the popular sense of movies today. That said, I was riveted for three hours, without an intermission. I just couldn't leave, and risk missing something! I've been secretly admiring Los Angeles for years. I love driving its main boulevards for miles and experiencing the pan-cultural ethic a single street. Western, Sepulveda, Slausen, Sunset, Van Owen. Here is a film that I always wanted to see, and encourages me to see more films about Los Angeles. I've always felt that Los Angeles was a city in its late adolescence/teen age years: pimples, raging hormones, lack of history and eternally looking to the future. Andersons take on the city, it's image in film as a personality, place and thing are very juicy indeed. Best seen at multiple sessions! Can't wait for the DVD.
Trenchant and epic in size is Thom Andersen's "Los Angeles Plays
Itself" a doc that analyzes representation as much as it analyzes
representation of Los Angeles itself.
How I adored the narrator's (Encke King) voice! It was at once sardonic and annoyed a reflection of Andersen's emotional regard toward the whole matter, no doubt. What we hear are critical observations of the film clips that we see there are quite literally dozens and dozens of clips here. This may seem disorienting and exhausting (to the interest level) but it's not. So struck with the compelling argument that Andersen presents to us do the hours fly by like minutes (not vice versa as Addison DeWitt said in "All About Eve").
Funny/interesting it is how this doc is set up like a conventional narrative film that Hollywood is guilty of routinely (and cloyingly) pushing on to the consumer - first we laugh and then we cry. The only difference here (and it's a big one) is that we're looking at actual subjects that existed or still exist. We cry for Los Angeles, you ask? Well, I'm not at liberty to discuss the poignancy that's present it must be experienced firsthand in order to attain those surprise tears that are greatly missing in our movies.
Los Angeles Plays Itself asks the question - should we expect films to
represent the truth or is anything acceptable in the name of
entertainment? Director Thom Andersen is mostly concerned about how his
city, the City of Los Angeles, has been represented in the movies. In
an abrasive and brilliant three-hour cinematic essay, he wants us to
know that the history, locations, and social makeup of Los Angeles
bears little resemblance to how it has been depicted on screen over the
years. According to Andersen, "Los Angeles is where reality and
representation get muddled," he says. The public conception of Los
Angeles (he despises calling it LA) he says is of discontinuity,
nonexistent addresses, phony telephone numbers, rich and corrupt
individuals who live in modernist houses in the hills, and ethnic
minorities who live next to oil refineries if they live at all.
Containing clips from literally hundreds of films, Los Angeles Plays Itself is divided into three parts plus a very welcome intermission. Encke King narrates but the text is from Andersen, a Professor of Film Studies at the California Institute of the Arts and a resident of Los Angeles since age seven. The first part, The City as Background, looks at how real sites have been misleadingly portrayed in a cinematic history of buildings and houses turned into something far from their intended purpose. Using clips from such diverse films as The White Cliffs of Dover and DOA, he shows how the massive sky-lit Bradbury Building was turned into a British hospital, a Burmese hotel, and a police headquarters. In The City as Character, he shows the deterioration of the residential downtown area known as Bunker Hill that went from an upscale neighborhood to one of seedy rooming houses until it was finally leveled for redevelopment and commercial high rises.
Accessible by a railcar known as Angel's Flight, Bunker Hill in the movies became a setting for adultery and murder in film noirs such as Kiss me Deadly and Double Indemnity and eventually a futuristic dreamscape in Blade Runner. These are contrasted with the documentary The Exiles by Kent Mackenzie that shows the reality of the cultural dislocation of a subculture of Arizona Indians living in loneliness on the hill. Andersen discusses landmarks that no longer exist such as the Pan Pacific Auditorium and laments the passing of the drive-in restaurant and drive-in movies. He has little good to say about films such as Altman's Short Cuts, Steve Martin's L.A. Story, and Woody Allen's Annie Hall that, he says, repeat tired clichés about his city. He also takes umbrage at films like War of the Worlds, Predator 2, and Independence Daythat blow his city to smithereens to satisfy the audience's need for destruction.
The final part is called The City as Subject and here Andersen exposes the lies of films such as Chinatown and L.A. Confidential that tell only part of history, delving into the real scandals in L.A. history that reached far deeper than that shown in the movies. He even dissects good old Joe Friday in Dragnet, showing it as a TV series that mirrored the LAPDs contempt for the ordinary citizen. The essay ends with a look at some rare independent films that portray a part of ethnic Los Angeles overlooked in big studio productions. These are Bush Mama, Killer of Sheep, and Bless Their Little Hearts, a film about the tribulations of an aging unemployed black man in South Central Los Angeles.
Los Angeles Plays Itself is a fascinating excursion into the history of cinema and Andersen's commentary is hard hitting, insightful, and revealing. He invites us to reawaken our senses and view movies consciously, not simply accept uncritically what is presented on the screen. Whether you agree or disagree with his point of view, I guarantee you will never look at films in quite the same way again.
In much the same spirit as Martin Scorsese's "Mio viaggio in Italia"
(1999), Thom Andersen's "visual lecture" on his native Los Angeles is a
very personal journey. Because of rights issues involved in procuring
clips from dozens and dozens of films, this project is unlikely to ever
be seen outside of Museums, Cinemateques, and 'academic' settings, so
you will have to actively seek it out if you want to see it. It is
worth doing so - with reservations.
Because it is such a personal odyssey, nobody is likely to agree with all of it, and that would suit Director Andersen just fine. I guess I could be categorized as a "tourist who stayed" in the vernacular of Andersen's thesis. I grew up in Boston, and moved to Los Angeles in my early 20's. Therefore, MY LOS ANGELES is different from Andersen's. I don't get my back up when the city is referred to as "L.A.", but Andersen pointedly does. He finds it a derogatory and dismissive term that is used as a weapon by outsiders and tourists. As local film critic Andy Klein points out, Americans don't seem to have the same issue when it comes to the abbreviation "U.S.A.", so why is "L.A." so offensive? And, though many locals DO object, "Frisco", "D.C.","NYC", "SLC"and other similar abbreviations are becoming more and more common in our less literal society.
Some of the clips which Andersen employs last only a few seconds - acting as veritable Still Photos of certain views of the city (representing a variety of eras as well). Andersen is laudably conscientious in identifying ALL the clips used (sometimes this is a distraction; especially in those briefest of shots). Oddly, the brevity of those shots actually spurred me to wish the film were EVEN LONGER (the most common criticism of the film is that it is too long as is). Still, by the end, a remarkable portrait of a city does emerge. But, being the home of "Hollywood" (a term which also rankles Andersen - especially when it is used interchangeably with the main city itself), Los Angeles doesn't seem to exist in the world's eyes as separate from the Film Industry.
The biggest problem with the film is the narration (not Andersen's voice as others have often mentioned). Andersen is given to make sharp declarative sentences, that are too often contradicted not only by reality - but by the clips in his own movie! For instance, he makes a point about the haze over the city and declares that films ALWAYS have a gauzy look when showing Los Angeles - then provides clips which show the sharp sunny vistas (think BAYWATCH) that attract hordes of visitors and tourists. More problematically, Andersen is a 'neighborhood' guy who not only derides Hollywood, but seemingly anywhere west of Vine. For someone who is declaring love for his native city, it is odd that he dismisses vast swatches of it! Curious too, is that Andersen knowingly adopts the view of "outsiders" to the city (and the film industry) as he levies specious arguments to why "Hollywood" is so phony in its depiction of the city. Andersen certainly is better informed, but feigns ignorance to make his point.
The final portion of the movie brings Andersen's agitprop view into focus. To Andersen, racism is the dark underside of Los Angeles. As a so-called 'liberal Westsider', I have sympathy with much of what Andersen espouses (especially his parsing of the term "Nobody walks in L.A."), but it changes the focus of the film (not to mention the explosive and divisive use of a term like "genocide" to define public policy).
Again, one wishes the film were longer in order to explore some of these issues touched upon. Also, Andersen should have done another pass in the editing room. Not in terms of length, but in terms of some of the obvious contradictions in his narration vs. reality/movie clips. And , a cheap shot at George Kennedy (obviously an attempt to inject humor in the dry commentary) is not worthy of such a high-minded project (curiously, Andersen misses an opportunity to needle Kennedy again in a later BLUE KNIGHT clip). On a technical note, I must say I was disappointed that it is a Video Production (as many of the most extraordinary pieces of Cinematography are marred by a fuzzy video-dupe look) -- all the while understanding the financial and logistical reasons it is so.
Most people are going to say 'whoa!' at the running time for this
lengthy (3 and a bit hours) documentary but it is one of the most
fascinating films you can see on the subject of Los Angeles (certainly
not L.A.). Andersen's monotone voice does not grate or bore and is
scripted well not to tell too much or too little about the city. The
running time, as any film or LA aficionado will appreciate, is not
nearly enough time to fit in all that could be said, or shown, about
the city, people, buildings, spaces, representations but he does very
well with condensing what he has gathered.
Many critics have argued that the poor quality (it is entirely on video) of a lot (even the most recent) footage lets the piece down slightly which is true if the viewer is to appreciate the wide landscapes but matters not where he is simply trying to illustrate an oft-repeated point. People will say 'what about 'The Couch Trip' or 'where's 'Beverley Hills Cop' but this is just nit-picking a fine achievement and a labour of love that Andersen has fortunately been able to share with the world. Even if you haven't been to Los Angeles you'll love this trip through the movies.
This is one of the most interesting projects about cinema (as the
filmed frame) that I know of. It is about the city as background, as
character and subject. They were making as far back as the 1920's films
as hymns to the cityscape and what life in it, 'city symphonies' they
called them, but here it is about the most photographed city in the
world. A place that was nothing more than a small town when the dream
factories rolled in and shaped it into a myth that sustains itself. And
it's entirely in terms of cinematic history, entirely cobbled together
from other peoples' vision of that place.
So the essay is about the history of a city as reflected in cinema and shaped by it, about Hollywood's idea of Los Angeles overlapping with the actual place where real people live. The filmmaker has compiled clips from a large array of films; from silents and noir to 80's action and modern blockbusters. The idea is that we're looking at the background of these shots, at the actual reality and place over which is superimposed the movie fantasy.
Various insights here, ranging from the stridently interprative to the intuitively discerning. It amuses the narrator for example, how modernist architectural houses built to signify transparence are turned by movies into the dens of iniquity of shady characters simply because they look weird from the outside. How the same building could substitute as a hotel, a police station, and a newspaper office depending on the movie. How the disappearance of entire neighborhoods can be actually traced in the footage of movies filmed there. Bunker Hill was a busy, homely district where pensioners and poor immigrants lived in the late 50's, but in '84 it substitutes well as a desolate urban wasteland in Night of the Comet.
And a more interesting one. How cinema imagined in Chinatown or Who Framed Roger Rabbit, perhaps reflecting public opinion, devious schemes by shady groups of plutocrats to usurp control of the water or public transport, while the actual reality was banal; these things happened, or efforts towards them, but in the public eye and with its support.
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