Currently available on Netflix streaming, this almost 3 hour documentary essay presents as both art exhibit and graduate course (it is written and narrated by the sleepy-voiced Thom Anderson, a filmmaker and film theory and history teacher at the California Institute of the Arts). Los Angeles Plays Itself is textually interesting, the visuals of the city’s depiction in film are always entertaining, and accompanied by Anderson’s incisive narration, often illuminating.
Anderson can also be very funny, in a dry “this is Carlton, your doorman” way. On a scene from Michael Mann’s Heat:
[In Heat, Neil McCauley (Robert DeNiro) is briefing two members of his gang. He tells them, “Saint Vincent Thomas Bridge, that’s escape route number one.“] Vincent Thomas was San Pedro’s representative in the state assembly for many years, but he hasn’t been canonized yet, not even in Pedro.
And on the perpetual destruction of LA in the movies:
Mike Davis has claimed that Hollywood takes a special pleasure in destroying Los Angeles, a guilty pleasure shared by most of its audience. The entire world seems to be rooting for Los Angeles to slide into the Pacific or be swallowed by the San Andreas fault. …In Independence Day, who could identify with the caricatured mob…dancing in idiot ecstasy…to greet the extraterrestrials? There is a comic undertone of ‘good riddance’ when kooks like these are vaporized by the earth’s latest ill-mannered guests. But to me the casual sacrifice of Paris in Armageddon seems even crasser. Are the French being singled out for punishment because they admire Jerry Lewis too much? Or because they have resisted Hollywood’s cultural imperialism too fervently?
Of course, if you let an academic talk long enough without interruption or query, he’ll eventually meander into overstatement and grandiosity, and as Anderson moves from LA’s history, architecture, sprawl and patterns in film to politics, race and class, we get poetic broadsides, against the cops and the modern Noah Crosses and skyscrapers. This is all part of the condescension of most any “true” city dweller who presumes to know the authentic heart that beats in his city, and for the most part, that’s part of Anderson’s charm. Anderson has a grievance, as he concedes at the outset: That’s another presumption of the movies: that everyone in Los Angeles is part of their industry or wants to be. Actually, only one in forty residents of Los Angeles County works in the entertainment industry. But the rest of us simply don’t exist. We might wonder if the movies have ever really depicted Los Angeles.
But doleful mouthfuls like “White America had declared a crisis of the black family as a cover for its campaign of incremental genocide against its expendable ex-slave population, rendered superfluous by immigrant labor power, so black film-makers responded by emphasizing families and children” are waiting at the end, so you have been warned.
Though it limps a little at the finish, I really dug this movie, and it is a must-see for any film buff.