Saturday, November 15, 2014

Thom Andersen | Los Angeles Plays Itself

a thousand and one distant nights
by Douglas Messerli

Thom Andersen Los Angeles Plays Itself / 2003

 For years Howard and I have been attempting to see Thom Andersen’s legendary film-essay Los Angeles Plays Itself, but its showings at the American Cinematheque’s Egyptian Theater and our local Cinefamily theater were always announced too impulsively to schedule into our calendars or were shown too late for our recently established “old men” hours. Since we rise each morning at 4:00-5:00, it’s hard for us to attend late-night showings.
     When the film was announced as forthcoming on DVD, accordingly, I quickly scheduled it into my Netflix queue and even considered adding it to our large DVD library when it went on sale.

Watching the film over the past couple of days, however, has changed my mind about the need to see this film numerous times. I think twice through its nearly 3 hour running time, as I have now seen it, is quite enough!
     Surely there is much to commend about this film—or, as it might better be described, ambulatory stroll through a great many films that show scenes or are centered upon our great city. And one must certainly be impressed with the range of director Andersen’s selections and his knowledge about Los Angeles history, both cinematic and political. The cinematic essay, moreover, demonstrates the director’s real love for the city and his often quite ferocious reaction against those who continue to spout clichés about Los Angeles (Andersen, like I, hate the lazy abbreviation of the city’s name, L.A., as if the shortened initialization of moniker revealed what he describes as revealing an “inferiority complex”). He admits that, despite the use of Los Angeles scenes in hundreds and hundreds of movies, that the city is still hard to capture in its sunny haze, which flattens out and diffuses what in New York, for example, is always sharply focused and easily recognized; and registers the truism we all have to admit, as Roman Polanski put it: “Los Angeles is the most beautiful city in the world—provided it’s seen at night and from a distance.” Like me, he’s pissed that some of our most stunning architectural treasures (the homes designed by figures such as Neutra, Eames, Schindler, Lummis, Wright, etc) show up as the homes of gangsters, pimps, and drug lords on celluloid. And I loved his deserved put-down of figures like Joan Didion who, among her nearly endless silly pronunciamentos about the city, quipped “Nobody walks in LA.” Did she ever try taking a bus?
     And, yes, it gets my goat to when directors exit a building at Wilshire and Fairfax to arrive on a street near Bunker Hill. Or, as I described the situation (in an essay below) in which the film Scenes from the Class Struggle in Beverly Hills is filmed in the mansions of Hancock Park, several miles from the relatively smaller Beverly Hills homes. But then, those same things irritated me when I lived in Washington, D.C., when all senator and congressmen had offices that fronted, so it appeared, on the Mall! 
    Like Andersen, I’m miffed at the Woody Allen-like put-downs of Los Angeles culture, of the low-brow tourist directors’ (which includes the very high-brow director Alfred Hitchcock) who prefer the pretty scenes of San Francisco to the gritty shots of my adopted hometown, and the outsider view that we’re all in awe of and involved with the “industry.” First of all, I think Los Angeles culture is quite often more sophisticated because of its diversity than is New York; I find Los Angeles a far more “beautiful” and visually rich city than San Francisco. And I have long ago (in My Year 2004) presented the statistics to prove just how few of us living in this vast metropolis have a relationship with any aspect of so-called Hollywood. And while we’re at it, I too resent the whole myth of Hollywood, where very little, if any, of Los Angeles filmmaking actually took place (I suppose if you’re willing to extend the boundaries, you might place Paramount Studies within Hollywood’s borders; but Culver City and Burbank, as Andersen argues, is surely closer to being the centers of the film industry. Hollywood’s relationship to filmmaking is a bit like describing Venice as a snapshot of Los Angeles urban life.
     I agree with many of Andersen’s political statements as well. The myths of Chinatown, for example, may characterize some of the true problems of Los Angeles history, but they still remain myths that often do not credibly deal with the true history of our grandly flawed city. I had even less patience as a child watching Dragnet for the robot-like movements and android voice of Sergeant Joe Friday, who treated the denizens of Los Angeles much like the FBI, CIA and NSA insiders treat everyone today: we’re all guilty until proven innocent. And, I’m willing to go along with Andersen in his suggestion that such TV fare and films reveal the deeper problems of the Los Angeles police department, although I might suggest that the same kind of political stews existed as well in any American city: New York (one thinks of Tammany Hall), Philadelphia (perhaps of any moment of its police department’s nefarious history), Washington, D.C. (with its links to FBI and CIA interventions), New Orleans….the list is endless.
     Unfortunately, Andersen often makes wide-ranged assertions that seem to have little to support them. When, for example, I might ask, did the bus company stop printing route maps. I’ve never had trouble finding them on any bus I’ve ridden—and, yes, I do regularly ride the bus and, although it is filled with people of color and the poor, it also serves a large number of white riders, who, after all, are a minority in my city. I’d agree, however, those riders don’t primarily come from the wealthy west side of the city. I also ride the subway, which Andersen politcally derides, and, if I live long enough, I hope to someday take it to the ocean, a distance from which, as the director observes, most Angelinos live. 
    Andersen, one has to admit, is all too right about the domination of the automobile in Los Angeles. And his comments on the difficulties of heroes who have lost their cars (along with their masculinity) in films such as Sunset Boulevard and Chinatown are quite perceptive. 
    And, finally, I too admire the films of what Andersen describes as the forgotten neo-realists (Billy Woodberry, Haile Gerima, Charles Burnett, and Gregory Nava). I’ve written on some of those figures, and will certainly check out the films by these directors I haven’t seen. Clearly they depict a Los Angeles that most studio directors steer away from, helping to project the notion that no one lives in the center of our city and that only violent gang members and crack dealers inhabit South Central Los Angeles. But I’m not at all sure that I’d describe those movies as the most significant, and surely not the most innovative, of all Los Angeles flicks.

    Employing his own robotic, seemingly uninvolved narrative voice through Encke King, the director begins to lose me by his own vast generalizations, and his restatements of basic clichés regarding my beloved city. Much of what he carps on might be said of any large urban setting and the distorted ways Hollywood has of portraying it.

    If the old Bunker Hill has been destroyed, ousting its ordinary and eccentric denizens, the new Bunker Hill, with the Walt Disney Music Center, the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion, and The Mark Taper Forum is far preferable to a lover of arts like me than what was there before it. Doesn’t a remarkable city also deserve a center for our cultural institutions?
    While Andersen is to be credited for his wide gathering of Los Angeles movie images, he blithely skips over numerous films that quite lovingly portray Los Angeles neighborhoods (rich and poor) that don’t entirely bow to the absurd dismissals of individuals who don’t really live here (even if, like Didion, they inhabited for long periods of time). Only once did Andersen briefly refer to the wonderful all-night journey through a large swath of Los Angeles neighborhoods in John Landis’ Into the Night. Why did Andersen completely ignore films like Choose Me, Echo Park, Scenes from the Class Struggle in Beverly Hills, Chuck & Buck, Playing by Heart, and What’s Cooking? each of which explores the city’s problems while delighting in its differences. 
      Although Andersen tangentially comments on the subject, a brilliant study is still waiting to be written about the German-Los Angeles connections and the use of our American city (or some might argue, abuse of the city) as the central landscape of film noir 

      Even action and comedy films like Beverly Hills Cop and Die Hard and those hundreds of Los Angeles-based disaster films such Miracle Mile and Volcano (both of which took place right in my neighborhood, picturing even our not-so-photogenic condominium about-to-be destroyed) might be read from contexts outside of the easy dismissals in which Andersen skewers them.
     He might have explored Steve Rash’s Under the Rainbow as one of the most interesting comments on the Hollywood industry. Or Blake Edwards’ The Party. If only Andersen had gotten the opportunity to see the Robert Evans documentary The Kid Stays in the Picture of the same year in which he put together his essay, he may have recognized the three works I just named, as well as others such as Robert Altman’s The Player and the Coen brothers’ Barton Fink, as a separate Los Angele genre.
    I am not even suggesting that any of the above titles represent great filmmaking, but am simply arguing that Andersen’s bland historicism often misses the city for the fog (the smog having been radically diminished in the nearly 30 years I dropped in). If at moments, Andersen surfaces as a sort of wise historian-commentator, too often he gets bogged down in personal gripes that often have little to do with movies and their depiction of the city. So who argued, for example, that you could watch The Sorrow and the Pity only in New York’s Thalia film theater (long closed)? Are the directors who trash and destroy our lovely architectural gems really expressing a disdain for great modernist architecture of simply attempting to take advantage of a fantastically photogenic filming sites? Didn’t Hitchcock use the Frank Lloyd Wright house near Rushmore in North by Northwest in the very same way, as a lair for his evil Vandamm? And, incidentally, although Andersen argues Hitchcock never filmed Los Angeles, he did shoot those terrifying drunk scenes in the same movie in the cliffs Potrero Valley in nearby Thousand Oaks.

     These may seem like small issues, but they accumulate through the three hours of commentary to break down any coherent sense of argument in Los Angeles Plays Itself, fracturing the film into hundreds of off-hand comments that at times merely reiterate clichés while, at other times, transforming the director’s viewpoints into mere Los Angeles boosterism (which Andersen, himself, decries).
     In the end, I’d argue, there are so many ways to look at how the film industry represents at its—now former—hometown, that the very idea that one might express a coherent view in one long picture-essay is ludicrous. Some movies using the Los Angeles landscape are simply mediocre visions, no matter where they might have been filmed. Others—perhaps most others—delimit their purview of the city because of the narrow focus of their scripts and the ideas behind them, something that could be said of films located in any urban (or even rural) setting. Some historicize (correctly or incorrectly) events in the city, which—if you’re looking at them from Andersen’s point of view—make them more interesting to Angelino buffs such as I.  But to complain about those films and their directors who really don’t give a hoot about our hazy golden paradise is absolutely pointless. 
     I believe that one might even isolate a kind of Los Angeles-based film that fits certain patterns of its characters (generally outsiders new to the city) and how the city affects them. Below, I’ve featured a few examples of that kind of film in “Rebels without a Home."

Los Angeles, November 15, 2014

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