Shots From the Canon #16: ‘Los Angeles Plays Itself’ (Thom Andersen, 2003)

la plays itself title

Every week or so, filmmaker and writer Robert Greene will attempt to push for a new canon of cinematic nonfiction.

“If we can appreciate documentaries for their dramatic qualities,” says the narrator in Thom Andersen’s indispensable Los Angeles Plays Itself, “perhaps we can appreciate fiction films for their documentary revelations.” Thus begins one of the most fascinating and deeply felt excursions into the language of cinema and the psychological disposition of a city. Andersen’s film, which is currently in release with a 10th anniversary “remastered edition,” is about movies, of course, but it’s really about perception and the layers of reality of an unreal place. Thorough, thrilling, epic and timeless, it’s one of the greatest essay films ever made and an essential addition to our cinematic nonfiction canon.

The simple construct is immediately announced: through a narrator, Los Angeles resident Andersen explains he wants to look beyond the surface of Hollywood’s depiction of his home city, seeing past the movie stars and titillating narratives to decipher the secret representations of the vibrant, misunderstood metropolis. To achieve this, scenes from the movies themselves are decontextualized and new material (filmed by the brilliant Deborah Stratman) is cut in, showing the “real” city (Los Angeles) behind the artificial construct (L.A.). Andersen brilliantly tells stories about plots, scenes and places, finding the perfect cinematic moments to illustrate the layers of simulation at play — essentially leading one of the greatest film classes you could ever take.

What prevents the film from becoming just a tremendous clip show, however, is Andersen’s love of mystery, aesthetic rigor and clarity of purpose. There is a poetic austerity to the director’s use of images and a palpable sense of annoyance with the way his city is dissected, misread and miscast. Whether the stories he tells are whimsical, lurid or cerebral, they are always political. Los Angeles is the most photographed city in the world as well as one of the most complex. Created images tend to compress the complexity of this knotty, living space and transform Hollywood spectacles into vehicles of subtle oppression. If the film is obsessed with images, it is perhaps most importantly obsessed with the breathing, real world where these images are derived. “This is history written by the victors,” he intones about Chinatown, “but as usual, it is written in crocodile tears.”

Los Angeles Plays Itself is an act of scholarly artistic expression as rewarding on the fifth viewing as it is the first. Epic in scope and profound in detail, this is an emotional, witty, mind-expanding video essay crafted before that was really a thing. When I first saw the film, I balked slightly at the use of, say, Klaus Kinski’s delirious energy to make the proceedings more enjoyably entertaining, as if the documentary aspect of the work demanded absolute seriousness. But what Andresen gets at here, with his intense love of movies, is that the boundary between real and represented is the space where one can find the most reverberating truths. This is cinematic excavation for the sake of a deeper understanding of the images we fabricate and the world they effect. Media literacy has never been so movingly experienced.

Here is the original cut on YouTube:

Past Nominees For the New Canon of Nonfiction Cinema:

#1 News From Home (Chantal Akerman, 1977)

#2 The Store (Frederick Wiseman, 1983)

#3 Below Sea Level (Gianfranco Rosi, 2008)

#4 Tokyo Olympiad (Kon Ichikawa, 1965)

#5 The Century of the Self (Adam Curtis, 2005)

#6 Edvard Munch (Peter Watkins, 1974)

#7 The Battle of Chile (Patricio Guzmán, 1973–1979)

#8 How To Live in the German Federal Republic (Harun Farocki, 1990)

#9 Man of Aran (Robert J. Flaherty, 1934)

#10 The Belovs (Victor Kossakovsky, 1994)

#11 The ‘Koker’ Trilogy (Abbas Kiarostami, 1987–1994)

#12 Manufacturing Consent: Noam Chomsky and the Media (Mark Achbar and Peter Wintonick, 1992)

#13 Streetwise (Martin Bell, 1984)

#14 Lessons of Darkness (Werner Herzog, 1992)

#15 An Injury to One (Travis Wilkerson, 2002)