F.I.L.M. of the Week (December 26, 2014)

26 12 2014

Los Angeles Plays Itself

Back in 2011, I saw “The Tree of Life” at home in Houston.  Towards the end of the film, Sean Penn’s Jack wanders out in front of a well-known building (which true Houstonians will still refer to as the Transco Tower).  Then, inexplicably, Terrence Malick cut to a shot of the Dallas skyline.  My entire theater erupted in boos.

When representations of a place fail to match their reality, we as both moviegoers and citizens feel angered by the disconnect.  The list of movies set in Houston are relatively small, but the same could not be said for Los Angeles, however.  Often called “the most photographed city in the world,” the city that hosts the home of the film industry has naturally served as both character and subject for a whole host of movies.

Thom Andersen’s documentary “Los Angeles Plays Itself,” made a decade ago but only just now hitting home video due to clashes over the rights to clips, follows the interplay between the concept of Hollywood and the actuality of Los Angeles.  Though the cinematic mythologizers may attempt to spin it as an atypical locale, plenty of its residents lead lives as ordinary as any other American.

While the narrator speaks in the first person plural as if all viewers are Angelenos, it ought not scare away anyone else.  It probably holds more meaning for those who have experience cruising the streets in the City of Angels (and thus understand the frustration of getting stuck in its inevitable traffic jams), but “Los Angeles Plays Itself” is a movie for anyone who loves the movies.  This is my selection for the “F.I.L.M. of the Week” because it makes an excellent case that the history of Los Angeles on-screen is the history of 20th century America and is thus worth attention.

Had I written down all the fascinating titles highlighted, my ever-growing list of movies I need to see would probably double.  Andersen covers everything in his comprehensive overview of films set in the city.  There are classics by Billy Wilder to Roman Polanski, B-movie genre trifles, and even gay porn flicks.  His saga of the rivalry between Hollywood and L.A. (as the cinema would have the world abbreviate it) reflects so much about American culture as a whole, yet it never loses its locally-minded specificity.

“Los Angeles Plays Itself” has all the depth of thought of field-leading scholarship.  (Andersen, I have since found out, is a professor at CalArts.)  But rather than packing his research into a dense textbook or monograph, he smartly fashions it in the form of a video essay, which has since popularized by editors like Nelson Carvajal and Kevin B. Lee.  The film’s intermission, on the other hand, suggests that maybe you ought to split up your absorption like reading a book rather than binging it all at once.  At nearly three hours, the documentary is a dense watch brimming with valuable information.

Even so, I felt like I could easily have watched another three hours.  The wry narrative voice of Encke King assumes an authoritative tone, although he occasionally interrupts his matter-of-fact delivery with a bluntly stated opinion that inspires a good chuckle.  And after a film like Paul Thomas Anderson’s “Inherent Vice,” I feel certain that there is enough material for a postscript about the past decade…

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