This week, I had a chance to check out Los Angeles Plays Itself, a docu-essay by Thom Andersen that chronicles how L.A. is represented in the movies — not only the ones that take place there, but also those that were shot here hoping to pass as somewhere else.
As you might imagine, that encompasses a lot of fucking movies.
It only figures that a documentary on Los Angeles’ representation in film would be as sprawling as the city itself. Andersen makes many astute points in L.A.P.I. (an acronym I’m sure he’d despise), including one about how L.A. must have an inferiority complex if it allows itself to be referred to by acronym. As someone who has always been conflicted about saying I’m from “L.A.” — and also writing it, as there is no consistency as to whether or not people put the periods in, but if you don’t, then you’re likely to confuse it with Louisiana — I appreciated this commentary on our dubious, fake-sounding name, as if we Angelenos and the rest of the world are just too lazy to bother saying all four syllables.
Other subjects tackled include architecture, the increasingly bizarre representation of the LAPD, geographical gaffes, and the cinematically-tracked disappearance of the old Bunker Hill, all served up with equal doses of insight and entertainment. One of the most amusing aspects of this documentary is taking a gander at dated, mostly forgotten films with goofy titles and/or content, including 1933’s What! No Beer? and 1988’s L.A. Crackdown II.
Yes, Los Angeles has played a starring role in many, many B movies over the years.Particularly fun for me was a segment on Los Angeles destroying itself, as Hollywood has always taken an especially great pleasure in its own destruction — most notably (to me) in 1997’s magma-happy misfire Volcano, which was cleverly marketed (“The Coast Is Toast!”) but not so astutely written or directed. The City of Angels does sometimes seem to hate itself, or is at least willing to take a number of jabs in stride, as seen in industry-skewering films like The Player and L.A. Story. Few other locations are so mercilessly mocked as we are — but as this documentary points out, there’s a lot more to Los Angeles than what you see in the movies.
Overall, Los Angeles Plays Itself‘s focus on the entertainment industry is smallish, considering. Andersen is more interested in architecture and geography and social problems. This is more history lesson than cinematic celebration, and as such, it occasionally strays too far from its ostensible subject and, in a moment or two, becomes slightly pedantic bordering on cranky. The documentary is nearly three hours long, and would likely need to be at least three hours longer to totally encompass all that is L.A. and the movies. Perhaps it isn’t possible.
There are lengthy segments on several of cinema’s well-known SoCal staples, like Kiss Me Deadly, Chinatown, Blade Runner, and L.A. Confidential, as well there should be. (Other, less venerated movies pop up more often than it seems they should — The Replacement Killers, The Thirteenth Floor, Why Do Fools Fall In Love.) And there’s a nice nod to filmmakers who either disdained or ignored Los Angeles, like Woody Allen and Alfred Hitchcock.
Even so, there are some startling and glaring omissions. Andersen gives us a long bit on the failed L.A. trolley system (brought to the big screen in Who Framed Roger Rabbit?), but how can a movie that touches on the city’s transportation issues contain not a single frame of Jan De Bont’s 1995 action masterpiece Speed? Not only is the city front-and-center throughout the movie, but the passengers on the bus also represent a wide cross-section of Angelenos, with lots of L.A.-specific jokes.
Paul Thomas Anderson is also nowhere to be found, despite the fact that both Boogie Nights and Magnolia contain a multitude of scenes that would feel right at home in this essay. The film gives us a lot of James Dean, but no Marilyn Monroe, which seems unusual given that our city’s tourism is now practically built around her likeness. Movies as diverse as Sunset Boulevard, Mulholland Drive, and Clueless get cameos, but feel like they should be bumped up to co-starring roles. There’s no Swingers, no Ed Wood, but there is a curious examination of the long-forgotten dud Hanging Up. Of course, with a subject like this, you could spend all day thinking up relevant movies that are underrepresented here. (There’s a pretty good L.A. montage in the opening of The Brady Bunch Movie, but I didn’t expect to find that here.)
Los Angeles Plays Itself was completed in 2003, which explains the omission of some later movies that would almost certainly appear here otherwise, including Crash, Drive, and Collateral.
Ultimately, Los Angeles Plays Itself is a fascinating, if at times slightly unfocused, exploration of an immense subject. It is only in the film’s final 20 minutes or so that it starts to miss the mark, with a curiously long look at black neo-realism in films like Killer Of Sheep and Bush Mama. Race is such a colossal aspect of Los Angeles culture that it doesn’t feel right to shove it all the way to the end — it could, of course, easily be the subject of its own doc — and it would’ve been more jarring for Andersen to omit the subject entirely. But for a film that jumps so easily and gleefully through disparate decades and genres, it doesn’t make sense to finish focusing almost exclusively on a specific niche from the late 70s and early 80s. After two-plus hours of frolicking through time and space, Andersen plunks us down for a big ol’ spoonful of medicine, and it doesn’t go down so smoothly. This would have been the perfect place to compare and contrast depictions of different ethnicities in Los Angeles from various decades and points of view — a little more Boyz In The Hood, perhaps? Instead, it seemed Andersen reached such an insurmountable subject that he threw up his hands and decided to just roll credits. It’s a frustrating end to an otherwise fine film.
Due to rights issues, Los Angeles Plays Itself has been difficult to see for much of the decade since it was made, and only now is it about to be released officially on home video. But a film like this is best seen on the big screen, a must-see for residents of Los Angeles — and anyone who has ever seen a movie. I’m grateful for this thoughtful, informative, and insightful look at the city I live in, the City of Angels — one that is often dismissed or overlooked when it comes to serious cultural conversation. It’s hardly a fawning or self-congratulatory look at the movies — that would be more like Los Angeles Plays With Itself. Instead, Andersen does a rare thing and takes L.A. seriously, giving it both a critical eye and a forgiving look.