Thom Andersen on the Great Literalist Tour of the South Bay: "I
can watch Gone in 60 Seconds over and over again..."
It's a rare-enough occasion to happen upon a great movie when you lay down your cash at the box office. But it's even more rare to see a great movie that's also a great piece of film criticism. Godard's Histoire(s) du Cinema and Notre Musique would, by most accounts, qualify, but I can't say personally because I've not yet had occasion to see them (Notre Musique is in my Netflix queue). One that I have seen, however, is Thom Andersen's Los Angeles Plays Itself, which ends its extended American Cinematheque run at the Egyptian in Hollywood this weekend. It is, as I've said before, well worth the effort it takes to get to Hollywood for one of these screenings.
Los Angeles Plays Itself is no dry Film History 101 lecture, but instead a poetic consideration, a personal remembrance, a love letter, a politically progressive deconstruction of prevalent myths about not only Los Angeles but the films most often singled out as the best representations of the city, and a reconstruction of some forgotten chapters in the city's ongoing cinematic iconography. Andersen begins with a faux-ominous "This is the city," in first-person narration read by independent filmmaker Encke King, invoking the spectre of Dragnet, about which Andersen will offer surprising observations later. "They make movies here. I live here. Sometimes I think that gives me a right to criticize." Andersen frames his criticism with the use of extensive clips (nearly 200 of them) and that crisp, deadpan, often very funny narration to take on the gargantuan task of detailing how the movies have observed, and essentially created, a Los Angeles of the mind that often has little to do with the reality of the city. This Los Angeles is also the city within which resides Hollywood, and if you didn't already know, Andersen wants you to understand that there's a distinct difference between the two.
The film states that Los Angeles is the most photographed city in the world, yet it's the hardest to capture, to get right. In its first chapter, "The City as Background," Andersen details some of the reasons why that may be. Movies such as Public Enemy, White Cliffs of Dover and China Girl have used distinct Los Angeles locations (Wilshire Blvd., the Bradbury Building) to represent, respectively, downtown Chicago, Burma and an overseas military hospital, and Andersen suggests that the very quality that allows the city to be molded in imagery homogenous enough to make such leaps acceptable (at least to the casual viewer, which, after Los Angeles Plays Itself, I guarantee you will no longer be) is what has rendered its true spirit so elusive to most filmmakers.
The film's second section, "The City as Character," considers films such as Billy Wilder's Double Indemnity, films that, for better or worse, contributed to the character of Los Angeles and how it was perceived throughout the world. It was Wilder's film, Andersen asserts, that convinced the general population that Los Angeles was the world capital of murder and adultery, a perception that provided the film industry with the white-hot nucleus of a campaign of exploitation that continues to this day. Wilder, throughout his career, Andersen suggests, was not himself interested in what made Los Angeles a city, but rather in what made it not like the other cities he knew, and therefore he may have had a keener eye for geographical detail as a result. It is this perspective that ended up giving license to a series of films and directors that Andersen labels "literalist," a label he intends as a compliment. Literalist films hold prime value for the director, despite their variances of success as narratives. Films like Robert Siodmak's Criss Cross (1949), Anthony Mann's The Glenn Miller Story (1954) and Robert Aldrich's Kiss Me Deadly (1955), a definitive portrait of Los Angeles in the 1950s, would serve as a detailed chronology of disappearance of the beloved Bunker Hill neighborhood; and the obscure Kent MacKenzie film The Exiles (1961) stands as a solitary representation of Native Americans in Los Angeles, a group of people getting to know the city on its own harsh terms, and on foot. One of Andersen's most stinging barbs is reserved for Joan Didion and her observation that "No one walks in L.A." The footage from The Exiles, coupled with Andersen's narration-- "That is, no rich, white person like us walks"-- expose some of the prevalent mythology of the city as being firmly race and class-based, as well as utter bullshit.
It is here that Andersen introduces the concept of tourist directors. In his view, there are high tourists-- directors like Wilder, Antonioni (Zabriskie Point), Jacques Demy (Model Shop) and Jacques Deray (The Outside Man) who bring a restless, inquisitive, more fully documentary sensibility to the recording of the city within their films-- and there are low tourists, like Alfred Hitchcock and Woody Allen, directors interested in Los Angeles only for its familiar landmarks and scenery. The Outside Man is a routine thriller but for the fact that its protagonist is a French assassin who spends an inordinate portion of the film observing and interacting with his Los Angeles surroundings. Andersen calls it "the most precise portrait of the city there is." And Demy's Model Shop is derided as being practically unwatchable, but it does get the theoretician's love nonetheless for being an early (1968) attempt to define Los Angeles as a city-- "incoherent, but if you love Los Angeles, it is moving."
Andersen is at his funniest when debunking a couple of cinematic sacred cows. I'm not sure how I, and many others, who love John Boorman's Point Blank are meant to react to his statement that "People who hate Los Angeles love Point Blank," but I can say that I've never been aware of my feeling for the city being a major factor in my appreciation of the movie. That said, Andersen uses a witty selection of clips to highlight the film's ghastly interior decor (which may in fact be a form of literalism in itself, given the film's 1967 release date) and offers the backhanded compliment that director John Boorman does manage to make Los Angeles look "bland and insidious" at the same time. And he hilariously dubs Woody Allen's Annie Hall, a film famous for observing that the only cultural advantage in Los Angeles is the ability to make a right turn on a red light, "A Tale of Two Marquees." One of Allen's bits of visual shorthand to indicate the essential seriousness of his characters in Annie Hall is the shots of them congregating outside of the Thalia movie theater in Greenwich Village for screenings of Marcel Ophuls' The Sorrow and the Pity. But when Alvy, Annie and Max arrive in Los Angeles, we get the usual montage assortment of imagery meant to signify the crassness of L.A. culture-- incongruous architecture, eateries shaped like giant hot dogs and doughnuts, and a theater marquee boasting the double feature House of Exorcism and Messiah of Evil (one of the films, coincidentally enough, highlighted elsewhere in Los Angeles Plays Itself.) Then comes the narration (paraphrased here) that deftly skewers Allen's condescending provincialism: "I know I saw The Sorrow and the Pity in Los Angeles. And I'd bet that a lot of New Yorkers had the opportunity to see House of Exorcism." Andersen then goes one unexpected step further: "But if New Yorkers have Woody Allen to live down, we have Henry Jaglom." Cut to a clip from the logorrheic, visually dormant director's Venice/Venice, inaudible beneath the roaring laughter of an American Cinematheque audience that knew all too well the agony of being stuck enduring a Jaglom film for two hours.
But the section of Los Angeles Plays Itself that is perhaps most challenging to the conventional wisdom of audiences and film critics is the third chapter, entitled "The City as Subject," in which films where Los Angeles became conscious of itself are highlighted. Andersen rejects the cynical hopelessness of Chinatown as well as the film's alternate history of Los Angeles, which he fears may well have subsumed the city's actual history for critics and audiences inclined to accept movie shorthand in place of readily available research. Similarly, the corruption of the L.A.P.D. as depicted in L.A. Confidential was, according to Andersen, insufficiently portrayed in the film, while at the same time the deals that ushered in cheap urban development, as they are laid out in the film, were the result not of graft but of public decree-- they were legally voted in by a general public swayed by fast-talking politicians. Andersen sees these films, and others in this section, as valuable largely in that they illustrate that much of what passes for nostalgia in films about Los Angeles is rooted not in a longing for a past social utopia, but for what might have been if not for one profound event (say, illegal water diversion, or swift urban sprawl) that may have, in fact, been a series of less dramatic events ushered in by far less dramatic means.
Here Andersen also underlines that the one prevailing subtext in epic visions of Los Angeles is, in fact, transportation, or the lack of it. In Chinatown Jake Gittes loses his car early on and spends the rest of the film borrowing cars or heading out on foot. Andersen sees this a symbolic castration-- Gittes is always two steps behind the machinations of the movie's mystery sans his wheels, and he never catches up-- and boils the film's philosophy down to a corrosively funny, "Without a car, you will die." As if to prove this point, he immediately moves on to poor Joe Gillis, trying to outrun repo men who want to take back his ride, who fatefully pulls into that driveway off Sunset Boulevard with a flat tire and ends up narrating the movie with two bullets in his back, face down in a swimming pool. Even Who Framed Roger Rabbit, with its alternate history of the development of the Los Angeles freeway system, comes under consideration in Andersen's exhaustive, entertaining thesis. Andersen finds room for an insightful consideration of Robert Altman's The Long Goodbye, which he terms the director's best film, and how its turning of the Philip Marlowe mythology inside-out and using it as a discoverer's map to 1973 Los Angeles made for a fully realized portrait of the city. Marlowe cruises the streets in a vintage Cadillac, which reinforces Altman’s conceit that he really is the Marlowe of the ‘40s who woke up one day, Rip Van Winkle-like, to find himself in the free-floating ‘70s, but, like Gittes, he’s still two steps behind everyone else. However, one of the director's most acclaimed films, Short Cuts, his transplanting of various Raymond Carver short stories from the Northwest to Los Angeles, is witheringly exposed as a condescending travesty. Curiously, the film depicts an L.A. where vehicles seem de-emphasized, unless they are objects of derision (Anne Archer’s clownmobile) or deliverers of death (Lily Tomlin’s waitress accidentally hits a child, setting one of the intertwined stories in motion). For Andersen, Altman, with his claim that the movie pays attention to parts of L.A. usually ignored in films, like Downey, Glendale, El Segundo, suggests the difficulty of privileged directors making films about Los Angeles-- they only really know a very small section of the city. And nothing in Short Cuts feels like the Los Angeles, not to mention the Glendale, that I know.
Los Angeles Plays Itself ends by highlighting the films of three black filmmakers-- Haile Gerima (Bush Mama, 1975), Charles Burnett (Killer of Sheep, 1977) and Billy Woodberry (Bless Their Little Hearts, 1983)-- that suggest an entire alternate vision of Los Angeles that reverberates beneath the pop culture radar. It's in raising the audience's awareness of titles like these, and Kent MacKenzie's The Exiles, that Andersen proves the ultimate worthiness, in a broad sense, of his entire enterprise. These are the films we may not know about that could, if we choose to seek them out, reform the way we see this city, and for people who live in it every day that comes to feel more like a social imperative than a way to kill some time on the Internet Movie Database and Netflix. The studio dream factories and the neorealism, the "literalism" of these other directors, both have visions of value to impart, but Andersen suggests these African-American neorealists may hold the key to ushering in an era that explores the worth of a man as it relates to the worth of a city in a meaningful way that cuts across racial and social lines. He ends this sprawling, 169-minute masterpiece of superbly entertaining film criticism with a clip from Woodberry's Bless Their Little Hearts. A man drives past the ruins of a tire factory that once provided him, and hundreds of others, with a reliable, good-paying job, while the narration remembers, for the character and for us, that one used to be able to tour this Goodyear tire plant and see how tires are made, just like one can buy a ticket today to take a tour of a studio and see how movies are made. That's the ambivalent cherry on top of perhaps the most provocative, prickly, allusive and challenging movie I've seen in years. I'd openly hoped, as one fairly disillusioned with everyday life in this city, to see the city through the eyes of someone who could still find room for amazement and inspiration in the sprawl of cars and culture clashes and endless summer of the city of angels. Sometimes hopes, and prayers, are answered with silence, or with the opposite of what one wishes. Los Angeles Plays Itself is a film I hope to be able to return to many more times, an answer in the positive to the hope and prayer of a lifelong film buff for whom reconciling the dreams with the city of the dream factories is becoming more difficult each day. I have been inspired to look anew, to keep looking, and to ask new questions. How can there be another movie this year that could possibly top that?
Postscript: In various Q&As after screenings of Los Angeles Plays Itself, Thom Andersen was repeatedly asked about movies and filmmakers he did not specifically address within his film, whether because of time constraints or, in the case of Michael Mann's Collateral, the movie(s) in question came out after the film had been completed. Steve Erickson published a fascinating interview with the filmmaker at Indiewire.com last year that examines some of the questions raised about Andersen's methods, questions about clearances for the film clips that may prevent the film's DVD release, and other fascinating bits. You can read that here. Even better, Andersen himself wrote an article for Cinema Scope magazine in which he talks in detail about Mulholland Drive and Collateral, and, yes, even Henry Jaglom that almost feels like a print sequel, or continuation, of Los Angeles Plays Itself. It is, in fact, entitled Collateral Damage: Los Angeles Continues Playing Itself. If you've seen the movie, this piece will feel like continuing a conversation with an invigorated friend. If you haven't, you should still read it-- it may convince you, in ways I could not, that getting to the Egyptian for one of the remaining screenings should be a priority. (Here's the Egyptian schedule once again.)