> Volume 6 > Number 28


Thom Andersen

Encke King

Release: 30 Jul. 04

Los Angeles Plays Itself


I don’t particularly care for Los Angeles and its surrounding suburbs. L.A. is, with Rome, the epitome of “a nice place to visit, but I wouldn’t want to live here.” Northern California’s far more amenable to me, but the land of movies does nothing for this man of movies.

My East Coast state of mind was in full function as I watched Los Angeles Play Itself, a documentary examination of the way the city has been portrayed in films. Although I’d rather sit through 3-hours of New York Plays Itself (though my call for a sequel to Looking for Richard fell on deaf ears, I equally implore some unctuous and talented filmmaker to run with this opening), I’m plainly dumbstruck by what director Thom Andersen, a professor at the California Institute of the Arts, presents in his extended essay. I might not be as willing to fault Chinatown, L.A. Confidential, or Who Framed Roger Rabbit for the revisionism they do with their City as Subject (as Andersen titles his third section, which deals with these films), but while watching Los Angeles Plays Itself I began to understand the reason so many Angelinos can stand living in a land of needless red-tape, a statewide bureaucracy, health hazards, annoying tourists, parades of poseurs, an inept transit system, and wretched weather. Sure, most can be said about New York, but at least we have an expansive subway system and great weather nine months out of the year.

Before I turn this into another article on city superiority (cf. the New York Post’s Cindy Adams vs. the Boston Globe), I must admit that Andersen himself admits to L.A.’s own shortcomings, quoting Roman Polanski: “There’s no more beautiful city in the world, provided it’s seen by night and at a distance.” Andersen agrees that “Los Angeles may be the most photographed city in the world, but its also the least photogenic.” And, for that matter, his willingness to question his state’s social problems are fully articulated at the conclusion of the film as he considers the works of Charles Burnett and Haile Gerima.

That’s likely why Los Angeles Plays Itself is the perfect explanation of the cinema of this city. While the citizens of New York, Boston, Nashville, Houston, Seattle, and Chicago will decry anything that doesn’t embrace even the grittiest side of their turf, Los Angeles, a land of backdrop stand-ins for many of these cities, almost seems ambivalent to its portrayal. Andersen may have had enough of all the mistreatment of the Ines House, Union Station, and Bunker Hill, but he’s the first one to recognize that Los Angeles has done nothing to refute these portrayals (with one exception: French director Jacques Demy). After all, the closest thing to a Woody Allen or Martin Scorsese in Los Angeles is the constantly star-struck Henry Jaglom.

Andersen, even in 3 hours, cannot create a complete analysis, which means that the film’s conclusion is bound to feel unfulfilling. Trading the works of L.A. wünderkinds Quentin Tarantino, Paul Thomas Anderson, and Ron Shelton, themselves deserving of 3-hours of debriefing each, for the social activism of the conclusion never feel completely relevant. I understand that Andersen may feel the need to politick (in this movie season, who isn’t -- let’s not forget the visual jab at Bush in Harold & Kumar Go to White Castle), but, with a film that doesn’t stray from the left cycle it ultimately embraces, this feels unnecessary. Coming off of an intense three-hour look at the city and its actors -- human, manmade, and natural -- a film that castigates Short Cuts but never touches Magnolia is proof that even a third-rate city deserves a Decalogue-length cinematic investigation. Nonetheless, nothing beats comparing Jack Webb to the “transcendental simplicity” of Robert Bresson and Yasujiro Ozu -- and making the audience agree

©2004, David Perry,, 9 July 2004