Don’t call it L.A.
“L.A.” isn’t real. Those initials are a reduction of the real city and everyone who lives in it. “L.A.” is shorthand for “Hollywood,” a mythical place where everyone works in the film industry, the streets are pristine, and there’s a plastic surgeon on every corner. L.A. is what outsiders call us. L.A. isn’t a true city. It has no identity of its own, which is why it can work as a stand-in for any other city when a movie production doesn’t want to go too far to shoot. L.A. is as insubstantial and breezy as the sound made when you recite those two letters together.
When I moved here, I wasn’t thinking much of the character of the city. I just felt like I belonged when I spent a semester here in college. My favorite quote about this place comes from, strangely enough, the TV show Angel: “You know where I belong? L.A. You know why? Nobody belongs there. It’s the perfect place for guys like us.” Even though it uses the abbreviation and ignores the millions who were born here, that fits why I like it. We all experience our ideas of places more often we experience what they really are. Some of these ideas are a shared creation. Cinema, as the art form of the 20th century, has played a huge role in shaping these shared ideas.
But what of the real place? That real place is Los Angeles, not “L.A.” According to Thom Andersen, that’s an important distinction to make. For a century now, it’s supposedly been the most photographed city in the world. But people don’t think about the real Los Angeles when they see it in pictures or on a screen. They think of L.A. Even when the city is meant to represent itself and not New York or Chicago or wherever, it’s still not itself. Just L.A. It’s L.A. Confidential, To Live and Die in L.A., L.A. Story, L.A. Crackdown. The great irony is that Andersen, in crafting a video essay that aims to finally let Los Angeles play itself, utilizes footage from these carefully crafted images. Everything on screen is from a movie. It’s finding the stranger truth in fiction.
The use of those images is why Los Angeles Plays Itself will never get a legitimate theatrical or home release. Any attempted use of the film for commercial reasons would put it smack dab into a copyright morass. It uses footage from over 200 movies, representing every studio label that’s ever been in existence. Since the film was first completed a decade ago, it’s lived in special screenings and on the Internet. In many ways, the Internet feels like where the essay belongs. The production was frugal and the video quality is low-rent as a result. More than that, this film is a great academic resource, and a YouTube video, which you can scroll through at your leisure to find the clip you need, seems the optimal way to access it. Of course, since the film runs nearly three hours long, the temptation to wander one’s attention away from it may feel overpowering in such a viewing mode. And this is an experience that demands your active engagement.
This year, for its tenth anniversary, the film has been remastered in HD, making it truly fit for theater viewing. In that setting, Los Angeles Plays Itself feels more like a college lecture, except there will be no test and taking notes is highly discouraged. This new cut of the film is what I recently viewed in a special American Cinematheque screening at the Egyptian Theatre in Hollywood. Thom Andersen, introducing the cut, explained that no footage from movies made since the first release have been added. He feels that the movie says everything it needs to as it is, and nothing that’s happened since 2003 has dated it. As a first-time viewer, I’m inclined to agree. While clips from new movies could have been added to further underline the points that are made with the existing clips, the film is not poorer for not “updating.”
The essay of the film is divided into three parts: The City as Background, The City as Character, and The City as Subject. The City as Background is very much about Los Angeles as L.A., as a setting that could be substituted for any other in a pinch. It also explores how Los Angeles as a visual space compares to other cities, such as New York. The City as Character is about films that seemingly could only happen here. Film noir features heavily in this section. The City as Subject looks at movies that are in part or in whole about Los Angeles, and in particular how they reflect on the city as emblematic of the greater myth of America. Films like Chinatown look at the world and wonder “where it all went wrong,” each one drawing their own conclusion as to the hows and the whys.
The answer, of course, is that things never really went wrong, because they weren’t “right” to begin with. Andersen, whose writing is read wonderfully by narrator Encke King, has very strong opinions about his city and its history. A staunch progressive with a disdain for Hollywood gloss, Andersen shreds all concepts born of nostalgia apart. The Los Angeles of the movies, he points out, has largely cut out the stories of anyone who does not fit into the box of a white person living above a certain income bracket. He’s not quite a grump, but he’s terrifically sardonic, flipping zingers at Woody Allen’s condescension towards us and the cheesiness of Cobra alike. His clear-headedness is matched only by the depth of his knowledge about this town. He can explain the real water conspiracy from Los Angeles’s beginnings as it relates to the fictional one in Chinatown.
Despite its epic length, Los Angeles Plays Itself maintains momentum by constantly shifting ideas. In one section, Andersen looks at the portrayal of famous landmarks in the city, such as the Hollywood Sign or the Griffith Observatory. In the next, he discusses architectural icons like the Bradbury Building or the Ennis House. And then there are segments devoted to how Los Angeles is seen in relation to Southern California as a region, as depicted in films like Messiah of Evil, where a Ralphs supermarket is the scene of supernatural terror.
And that just scratches the surface. There is so much in Los Angeles Plays Itself that to comment on every idea would take a full-length dissertation, which is redundant, since the film itself is already a dissertation. The documentary as an essay is a form that’s been sadly neglected until now. Therefore, the success of work like The Story of Film is encouraging. There’s great didactic power to be tapped in the directness of cinema. I would love for this kind of movie to be made about every city. At the same time, though, it feels nice that the city that I live in, the one that’s historically not been allowed a character of its own by pop culture, is the only one to have gotten its due in this way.
Los Angeles Plays Itself is a truly unique film. As an examination of the interplay between culture, art and how it breeds our perception, it is unparalleled. As a look at how Hollywood tells its myths, it is fascinating. As a tribute to Los Angeles (not L.A.!) as a city, it is heartfelt and greatly welcome.