by Allan Fish
(USA 2003 170m) not on DVD
p/d/w Thom Andersen ph Deborah Stratman ed Seung-HyunYoo
narrated by Encke King
The wording of the title to Thom Andersen’s three hour visual doctorate thesis on his home town could act as its ultimate summarisation. It’s Los Angeles, not LA. There had been a film titled LA Plays Itself, of course; that infamous gay porn classic from 1972 which Andersen even includes and praises. Yet Andersen spends some of his three hour address – actually spoken by Encke King – talking about how he hates the abbreviation and how Hollywood became complicit in the foreshortening of the name. This attitude, pernickety in the extreme to outsiders, sums up Los Angeles’ curmudgeonly appeal. It’s the prejudiced, jaundiced diatribe of a grumpy old man. In some ways it’s reminiscent of Terence Davies’ later Of Time and the City, but twice as long and no less grouchy.
That in itself brings another thought, of Los Angeles as one of a series. Say that the BFI commissioned, as they did the Century of Cinema series in 1995, a series of movie documentaries along the lines of Los Angeles, but with different locations. Andersen talks of the difference between LA and New York, so New York’s an obvious one, with Marty Scorsese, but then how about London Plays Itself by Patrick Keiller, Paris Plays Itself by Godard or Rivette, Rome Plays Itself with Bertolucci, even Tehran Plays Itself with Mark Cousins? Interesting concept, but one for another diatribe than this.
So what does Andersen give us? On one level a tour of the architecture and ever-changing street map and façade of his city. There are detailed sections on how the Bradbury Building became part of movie folklore in everything from D.O.A. to Blade Runner, and on the irony of it ending up an LAPD Internal Affairs HQ. There’s a nod to the staircase immortalised by Laurel and Hardy in The Music Box. There’s Frank Lloyd Wright’s Ennis house, that modernist take on Chichen Itza, also used famously in Blade Runner, but perhaps best remember in recent years as the empty abode of Spike, Drusilla and Angelus in season two of Buffy. (Indeed, one could make a case for LA’s use by Whedon for Angel’s nightscapes as one of the most iconic uses of the city in recent times, had Andersen looked at TV outside of a passing nod to Dragnet.) There’s the old Union Station building, of course, and the geographical mesh-up of the film of the same title from 1950, and long passages about how the white majority view downtown and how Hollywood’s movie past has been left forgotten. Mere signs are put up where Mack Sennett’s original studios once sat, ditto Walt Disney’s first animation studios.
Perhaps the most interesting section is on the demise of Bunker Hill and the once lost and resituated funicular railway that was a favourite for 1940s and 50s noir, as seen in Criss Cross, Kiss Me Deadly and Kent Mackenzie’s The Exiles. It’s all good, but no mention of the same location being used by Buster Keaton and Harold Lloyd in the silent era, the latter using it to fake the perspective of his legendary climb up the building in Safety Last. Sadly there are virtually no clips here prior to 1930. Andersen seems to find more to say about 1980s trash. There’s a surfeit of such garbage, punctuated by just a few references to key classics, like Double Indemnity, The Long Goodbye, Kiss Me Deadly, Chinatown and LA Confidential. References to movie shoots dominate, with Andersen taking time out to observe the making of Swordfish, a film whose only reason to exist was to gratuitously bare Halle Berry’s breasts. Yet in a way that’s what Hollywood has become in the decades of that gross oxymoron, high-concept cinema, all flashes, lights, explosions and tits. When buildings lose their initial purpose, they’re reinvented as a movie location, repeat ad infinitum, so life imitates art and vice versa. Andersen knows LA’s shortcomings; “the most photographed city in the world is the least photogenic…getting into movies becomes a substitute for achievement.” Yet the truest words are when he notes “movies aren’t about places, they’re about stories. If we notice the location, we’re not really watching the movie.” Andersen shows that LA’s history on film is, if nothing else, a great story.