Los Angeles Plays Itself

2004, Movie, NR, 169 mins

Review

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Not to be confused with the landmark gay porn epic L.A. PLAYS ITSELF (1972), Thom Andersen's idiosyncratic, three-hour masterpiece is both a dazzling work of film criticism and a fascinating piece of urban anthropology centered on the one city on earth where one could be mistaken for the other. Andersen, a filmmaker who teaches at the California Institute of the Arts, asserts that L.A. is where the relationship between reality and representation gets hopelessly muddled, and examines the ways in which this most photographed of cities has been mis/represented in movies. He divides his ambitious project, which largely comprises film clips culled from sources that encompass classic silent comedies forgettable 80s trash and everything in between, into three parts. The "The City as Background" examines the way filmmakers have used Los Angeles to fill in for locales as diverse as Chicago (THE PUBLIC ENEMY), China (DRAGON SEED) and Switzerland (3 SMART GIRLS), and reads the semiotics of the city's 20th century residential architecture. Homes embodying the utopian ideals of modernist designers invariably become the swanky lairs of moviedom's most loathsome villains (BODY DOUBLE, TWILIGHT). In "The City as Character," Andersen tackles films in which the sense of place is so pervasive that Los Angeles functions as a costar. Is it mere coincidence that so many of these movies tend to be films noir? Los Angeles plays supporting parts in the film adaptations of James Cain's "California Trilogy," and it's not a pretty place to live, unless you're an adulterer (MILDRED PIERCE), a murderer (DOUBLE INDEMNITY) or both (THE POSTMAN ALWAYS RINGS TWICE). Clips from Robert Aldrich's KISS ME DEADLY — the rare noir film to use actual Los Angeles locations — segue into THE EXILES, NIGHT OF THE COMET and VIRTUOSITY, which unwittingly captured the transformation of the once-thriving Bunker Hill neighborhood into a glittering simulacrum. In "City as Subject," Andersen describes the impact of the 1968 Watts riots, which forced Los Angeles to face the fact that it was a big city with big-city problems, and L.A. soon became a movie subject in its own right. In a breathtaking rereading of WHO FRAMED ROGER RABBIT?, L.A. CONFIDENTIAL and the heretofore unassailable CHINATOWN, Andersen challenges the usurping of urban history and real scandal by urban myth — the founding of the city on stolen water, say. So where, exactly, does Los Angeles play itself? Andersen points to the black, neorealist inspired work of Charles Burnett (THE KILLER OF SHEEP), Billy Woodberry (BLESS THEIR LITTLE HEARTS) and Haile Gerima (BUSH MAMA), as films whose documentary features reflect the real city Andersen knows lies between the oft-filmed hills and beaches. But none are currently available on DVD or video, leaving us again with the celluloid fantasy-land Andersen clearly deplores. leave a comment --Ken Fox

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