Sim City
Andrew Tracy on Los Angeles Plays Itself

“This is the City,” intones the narrator in the opening frames of Los Angeles Plays Itself. “I live here. Sometimes I think that gives me the right to complain about the way it’s been treated in movies.” The voice, once removed, is that of Thom Andersen, and his self-aware possessiveness towards his native city will set the tone for the film. With its three hours nearly all comprised of clips from other people’s work and selections from the public record, Los Angeles Plays Itself, while impressively comprehensive, never pretends to be empirical in its approach. Eccentric, standoffish, fiercely intelligent, and possessed of some moments of truly searing insight, Andersen’s consistently entertaining essay film takes its doggedly prosaic tack about as close as it can come to poetic revelation, aided in no small part by the very haziness of its title subject. “Los Angeles is where reality and representation get muddled,” Andersen comments early on, and while the chief aim of his film is to restore reality to its rightful place above the myths and lies that have been spread atop it in a century of moving images, he also concedes that locating that reality is very much dependent upon one’s personal representation. Make no mistake: Los Angeles Plays Itself is Andersen’s vision of the city, as distinctive as that of any of the filmmakers he champions or denigrates. What gives his vision integrity is his ability to lift the screens of a thousand fictions and find the pulsing beat of life that those fictions so often hide. Praising Kent MacKenzie’s The Exiles (1961), Andersen comments that “better than any other movie, it shows that there was once a city here, before they tore it down and built a simulacrum.” By linking those on- and off-screen simulacrums together under the lens of his focused, lucid anger, Andersen, to paraphrase Oscar Levant’s famous dictum on Hollywood, strips the phony imaginings of Los Angeles away to find the real imagination underneath.

The method is a simple one: to appropriate the narratives of representation and build a counter-narrative of reality from their materials. Dividing his film into three umbrella sections—“The City as Backdrop,” “The City as Character,” and “The City as Subject”—Andersen traces Los Angeles’s onscreen evolution from the anonymous to the distinctive, and the distortions, misrepresentations, and cultural violence that followed every step of the way. Urging the viewer to reawaken “conscious spectatorship” from the uncritical acceptance usually thrust upon one by the machinery of narrative filmmaking, Andersen plumbs the unconscious of the films themselves: their unthinking recording of the city which most have treated as a useful prop at best, the inadvertent, epic-length documentary record of Los Angeles contained in the innumerable films which have made it the “most-filmed city in the world.” In his voluminous assortment of clips—everything from classic Hollywood staples to experimental cinema, from sci-fi flicks, action films, and straight-to-video erotic thrillers to European art films and even some poetic pornography—Andersen charts the use and misuse of Los Angeles landmarks (the Bradbury Building, Frank Lloyd Wright’s Ennis House, Union Station), the mingled fascination and scorn heaped upon the city’s famously eclectic architecture, the decades-long, caught-on-film disintegration of regions like Bunker Hill or the once-thriving downtown, and the intriguing hints that Los Angeles may have been far more comfortably racially integrated in the first half of the century than today.

That this literalist corrective never becomes pedantic is a testament not only to the wit and spryness of Andersen’s commentary but to the far more pressing project underlying his condemnation of geographical distortion. While Andersen’s contention that “silly geography makes for silly movies” may be debatable, his call for fidelity to the real goes deeper than just the crankish defensiveness of a native. In the fragmented and distorted Los Angeles as seen through the cracked prism of Hollywood (and beyond), Andersen locates more profound betrayals—a willful ignorance of a century of civic strife, racial clashes, and economic exploitation, a covert war on the city’s historical and cultural heritage, an unconditional support for the agents of oppressive authority—ingrained in cinematic storytelling even as they are enacted in life. Andersen’s trenchant comments on the politics of disaster films (“they define the real sources of authority. . . we must depend on professionals and experts to save us from ourselves”), the derision accorded to Los Angeles’s greatest modernist architecture (frequently used as an implicit symbol of vice and corruption, or as props for destruction in the films of the great vulgarist Joel Silver), and the “secret histories” of films like Chinatown (1974) and L.A Confidential (1997), which rewrite events of public record as cynical conspiracy myths, “proof” of the public’s helplessness in the face of powerful private interests, casts his urging for conscious spectatorship into the realm of activism.

What galvanizes Andersen is how the narrative and cultural mythmaking endemic to the cinema has the effect of reducing the scope of the real, not just its surface details but the imaginative potential inherent within it. Andersen’s bugbears—the “secret history” films, the casual destruction visited upon the city by Hollywood action flicks, the cynical one-dimensionality of those whom Andersen terms “low tourists”, such as John Boorman (“People who hate Los Angeles love Point Blank [1967]”), Woody Allen, and the expatriate writer David Thomson, the liberal pieties of Lawrence Kasdan’s Grand Canyon (1991) and the moneyed insularity of Steve Martin’s L.A. Story (1991)—all share a mutual reductiveness: they’re dead ends, refusals to engage with the life beneath the urban sprawl, and as such failures of artistic imagination. When Andersen details the history of the defeat of public housing in the Fifties, of the starving of the public transportation system, of the growing segregation between white and black, rich and poor, he does not disdain the cinema’s ability to address these issues. Rather, he implies that for the movies to ignore the glaring truths of class barriers, racial animosities, and capitalist greed, especially in a medium that is so manifestly able to make those truths immediate and affecting, is tantamount to condoning them.

“If the world really is falling down around us, can’t we at least try and understand what started its collapse?” asks Andersen as his film reaches its powerful conclusion. Respect for reality is a respect for art’s place within that reality, and shutting out the former shuts in the latter. Just as the movies mirror the complacencies and depredations of those who control the city’s power and wealth, so Andersen sees the movies as a way to combat those same attitudes, to restore dignity to a city which houses millions and to give faces and voices back to those who have had them stolen. In such disparate sources as the “high tourism” of Antonioni’s Zabriskie Point (1970), Jacques Demy’s Model Shop (1969), and Jacques Deray’s The Outside Man (1973), the geographical unity of Robert Aldrich’s Kiss Me Deadly (1955) and H.B. Halicki’s Gone in 60 Seconds (1974), the “sublime dystopia” of Blade Runner (1982), the pastoral fantasy and gritty reality of his film’s namesake, Fred Halsted’s “gay porn masterpiece” L.A. Plays Itself (1972), and the everyday madness and romantic idealism of John Cassavetes (“His films face up to tragedy and reject it. . . for Cassavetes, happiness was the only truth. So he drank himself to death”), Andersen finds ample reason for hope—the only useful kind of hope, that which purges us of our illusions and makes us see ourselves with unremitting clarity. Nowhere is that hope more evident than in the true underdog heroes of Los Angeles Plays Itself, independent films like The Exiles, Charles Burnett’s Killer of Sheep (1977), Haile Gerima’s Bush Mama (1979), and Billy Woodberry’s Bless Their Little Hearts (1984), films which absorb the social realities of the city’s life and project it back as transfigured art. Like the films it champions, Los Angeles Plays Itself functions as an act of reclamation—giving back the freedom not just to see the City as it is, but to imagine it as it could be.