"This is Los Angeles. They make movies here. I live here."
These are the words Thom Anderson chooses to begin the narration of his epic docu-collage Los Angeles Plays Itself, and in so doing the filmmaker brings to the forefront the warring indicatives packed inside his rangy thesis. The film massages the first statement into a Jeopardy! style "answer/question" - "What is Los Angeles?" - and then structures the latter assertions as oppositional Jeopardy! "question/answers". What is Los Angeles more - the place where they make movies, or a place where people live? Anderson throws the full weight of his considerable critical acumen, and equally considerable crankiness, behind the contention that the by-product of the Hollywood industrial complex is an obstruction of the actual city's life, creating a "secret history" known only to those who live there - and, in some cases, even Angelenos are in the dark.
To that end, cinematographer Deborah Stratman (who, in the interest of full disclosure, was a professor of mine at The Art Institute of Chicago) traverses the city - which, by the film's broad definition, extends from Lake Arrowhead to the North, all the way South to Long Beach, and then from the Pacific Ocean as far east as Pomona - in search of signs of where other cameras have been. Much of this footage is striking, including the imagery of the literal apparatus behind an effect shot on Swordfish, the 2001 film best known as "the one with Halle Berry's tits". The original shots, used judiciciously, are collaged with clips from over 200 films, ranging from bloated blockbusters and obscure independents to Ricky Martin videos and gay porn (not the same thing). They serve as reality check-points to the indiscriminate destruction of Die Hard and The Terminator, the unchecked romanticism of Rebel Without a Cause and Zabriskie Point, and 196 points in between.
Of course, we know that Chinatown and Blade Runner and even Double Indemnity are "L.A. movies"; part of Anderson's point is that every movie shot in Los Angeles is an "L.A. movie." But whereas, as he points out, every film shot in New York announces itself as a "New York" movie, it is only relatively recently that Hollywood has taken up Los Angeles as a subject, and still rarely do filmmakers set their stories in the city sans modification and/or qualification.
As a way of temporally and conceptually structuring the film (which is an hour too-long at 169 minutes), Anderson presents his material in three sections: The City as Background, The City as Character, and The City as Subject. These groupings produce some revelations - when the streets of San Pedro become a car-thief's cohort, the original Gone in 60 Seconds becomes "a Vertovian material masterpiece" - but at times they limit the discourse to ahistoric essentialism. The clip from Laurel and Hardy's Music Box begs for completion by its descendant, the mysterious harmonium delivery from Paul Thomas Anderson's Valley-set Punch-Drunk Love. Unfortunately, such a connection would force Thom Anderson to break his own ideological mandates and consider form and narrative content more seriously than he seems prepared to.
This is not by any means an un-valuable film, but it is problematic. Part of the problem is that Anderson's arguments, when not imaginatively reminiscent of Manny Farber, are boringly, predictably Marxist. He is full of contempt for the LA stories of Robert Altman: "It's hard to make a personal film when you're absurdly over-privileged." His excerpts lean heavily towards inarguably bad, thuddingly masculinist shlock - straight-to-video erotic thrillers, 70s disaster flicks, Ricky Martin videos - bloated low culture that is a little too easy to make fun of - and yet it seems like he has to work over-time to make Independence Day look at stupid as it obviously is. Though he claims that the "City as Subject" movies almost necessarily take place in the future or the past, because contemporary filmmakers "don't know what to do with" the reality of the city they live in, he virtually ignores the cadre of intelligent, personal films made in and about Los Angeles in the 1990s by indie and semi-indie directors. Where is the work of Paul Thomas Anderson, or Gregg Araki? Where is Miguel Arteta's Star Maps? Even the career of John Singleton is represented by a single shot from Boyz in the Hood - and it's used in the opening montage, for effect. Meanwhile, the 60s television series Dragnet is "an achievement on the level of Ozu and Bresson."
At its best, Los Angeles Plays Itself is like a reinvention of That's Entertainment with a much-needed Socialist gloss. At it's worst, it reminds me of that scene in Annie Hall, where Woody Allen and Diane Keaton are book shopping at The Strand, and he says to her, "Here, you should read this, instead of that cat book." It doesn't even matter what book he wants her to read instead - it's just obviously better than any "cat book". I only wish that Anderson had taken a less condescendingly prescriptive approach.