City of Movies: The Welcome Return of Los Angeles Plays Itself

Martin Amis once wrote that the literary critic must “proceed by quotation”—that the quotation, however vigorously embellished, remains the book reviewer's “only hard evidence” in the case for or against a work. Film criticism is denied even this meager luxury. For the writer, film's nonverbal qualities are always just out of reach of the pen; the image is never quite accessible to words. But what about another image—what if, as Jean-Luc Godard believed, the appropriate way to criticize a movie is to make another movie? Perhaps this accounts for why some of our most significant works of film criticism, including Godard's own Histoire(s) du cinéma and Mark Rappaport's From the Journals of Jean Seberg, approach their subjects cinematically, responding to film in kind. We might call it “filmed criticism”: essays delivered in the language of the medium. They march into the courtroom of opinion, confidently take the stand and address the cinema in its native tongue.

Perhaps no work of filmed criticism does this as impressively as Los Angeles Plays Itself, Thom Andersen's three-hour treatise on the history of his city's depiction on the silver screen—now recut and remastered for its 10th anniversary. Derived and expanded from a lecture he delivered in the late 1990s at the California Institute of the Arts, the film surveys no less than a century in cinematic representation, constructed from clips excerpted from more than 200 feature films. A veritably encyclopedic tract, it grapples with subsidiary subjects as diverse the reverberations of the Watts uprising, fake movie phone numbers and, in one of the more memorable passages, Hollywood's sustained ideological war against the reputation of modernist architecture.

It all adds up to a study too vast in scope and ambition to digest in one sitting, its insights inexhaustible even after multiple viewings. Andersen is a scholar by profession, so it should hardly seem surprising his arguments are fortified by expertise and intellectual rigor—you expect a certain perspicacity from career academics, and Andersen's here proves exemplary. But the real revelation of Los Angeles Plays Itself, as well as the quality that elevates it from accomplished to masterful, is its warmth—its clear affection and enthusiasm for the movies. As criticism, the film is perceptive, persuasive, even educational. As cinema, it's something more: one of the great films of the century to date, poignant and affecting. Andersen's essay is deeply felt.

Los Angeles Plays Itself is a film about other films, thoroughly indebted to and engaged with cinema past and present; it is a work of both historiography and theory. To that end, it betrays a lifetime of research, as voluminous as it is varied—Andersen is as capable of elucidating the neorealist aspirations of Killer of Sheep as he is the geography delineated and compressed by Death Wish 4. Occasionally, a hierarchy of personal taste reveals itself: When, for instance, Andersen contrasts the blinkered pettiness of Steve Martin's whitewashed L.A. Story (“There are two blacks with speaking parts—both restaurant employees”) with the independent “cinema of walking” pioneered by Kent MacKenzie and The Exiles, it's rather obvious which he prefers.

These forays into more straightforward criticism yield some of the film's drollest one-liners: “You could call it independent, but it's not exactly Pulp Fiction,” “It's hard to make a personal film based on your own experience when you're absurdly overprivileged,” “For me, the highlight of the film is the astonishing tableau of grotesque interior-decoration schemes.” But for the most part, Andersen proves duly omnivorous, finding merit in everything from the apparently Brechtian Dragnet series to Rick King's mid-'90s erotic thriller A Passion to Kill. For Andersen, every movie is a text of some richness. And from the highest of the highbrow to the lowest of the low, he reads and studies and illuminates them all.

The real subject of Los Angeles Plays Itself is the city: the real thing, alive out there, built and lived-in. Andersen is interested not only in the way in which cities are represented in the cinema, but, perhaps more significantly, also the way in which these representations inform our ongoing understanding of and relationship to the places themselves. Films, Andersen argues, may not be so benign; they not only reflect the world, but contribute to our perception of it. This subject isn't trivial. If his study occasionally brushes up against the frivolous—the abbreviation “LA” as a “slightly derisive diminutive,” the likeable kitsch of the Hollywood sign, the insufferable pretensions of Henry Jaglom—it's because it strives to be comprehensive, regarding no facet of the subject as of too little consequence to explore. But the foundation is serious.

What is Los Angeles Plays Itself concerned with, ultimately? It's concerned with public space, discrimination, institutional corruption. It's concerned with issues of class and race. It's concerned, in other words, with the realities of life. And life courses through the movies.

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