Los Angeles Plays Itself (2003)

THOM ANDERSEN

Bil’s rating (out of 5): BBBBB

USA, 2003. . Screenplay by Thom Andersen. Cinematography by . Produced by Thom Andersen. Film Editing by .

The City of Angels is the city of dreams, some of which come true, while others are broken, a place that is, as the narrator of this magnificent documentary puts it, the most photographed city in the world but, as this glimpse of Los Angeles through the eyes of cinema shows us, isn’t represented accurately to the same degree.

In the first half of a very fast three hours, director Thom Andersen introduces himself through the narration read by as native to the city that is most famous as the purveyor of the Hollywood product, taking us on a Universal Studios-style tour of Los Angeles as a place of movie sets existing in real time: some places, like the Bradbury Building, are recontextualized depending on where they appear, while others, like the abandoned Ambassador Hotel or a number of gas stations and diners that went out of business years ago, exist solely to play themselves on film.

There’s a questioning of the accuracy of the term “Hollywood”, metonymously used to describe the American film business despite the fact that the majority of studios whose output defined the industry weren’t located there. Los Angeles has been turned into numerous other cities and we get examples of this, but what about the opinions we have formed of the place thanks to the times it has played itself? Sure, Blade Runner is obviously a fantasy of the future, but there’s also contemporary thrillers where the city’s unique and ornate architectural achievements are often portrayed as the headquarters of villains and corrupt organizations.

In the second half, we get deeper into history and see how cinema has either reinforced, reflected, or deflected actual events of the past: the walk of fame that draws so many tourists is here described as a celebration of the HUAC Blacklist, the destruction of Bunker Hill is explored through numerous films over the years before it vanishes and is gentrified by the eighties. Double Indemnity establishes Los Angeles as a shady character in itself, then in the seventies comes the post-Watts Riots unveiling of the city’s urban issues that can no longer be ignored, meaning that films like Chinatown become obsessed with unearthing secret histories, real or imagined.

Andersen brilliantly explores where fact connects in meaningful ways with imagination, in Polanski’s classic as well as Robert Zemeckis’s marvelous Who Framed Roger Rabbit and Curtis Hanson’s later masterpiece L.A. Confidential, going into deep and fascinating descriptions of issues of transportation and real estate in ways that become more mesmerizing with each clip.

The capper is a look at the black filmmakers whose neorealism in the late seventies delivered the last word in capturing the city at its most complex, Charles Burnett, Billy Woodbury and Haile Gerima,, whose films Killer of Sheep, Bless Their Little Hearts and Bush Mama deny the fantasy of a city of crime and urban blight and tell tales of working class families just trying to get by.

Andersen’s film is a gift to movie lovers as well as anyone with an interest in architecture and social history, the research feels important and the film clips all feel deeply and intuitively placed.

Toronto International Film Festival: 2003

 

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