On first viewing, the sardonic quality of Los Angeles Plays Itself is the epic essay film’s greatest surprise. Thom Andersen, “speaking” through Encke King’s wry baritone, adopts the tone of an irascible local gadfly who excoriates at length the gentrifying forces he sees cheapening his hometown of Los Angeles at every turn. That persona itself is a screed against Hollywood, which Andersen perceptively lambasts for suggesting that everyone who lives in L.A. either belongs to the film industry or desperately wants to be a part of it, thus erasing the existence of millions of residents who have nothing to do with the business.
Andersen’s overriding critique deals with the way that Hollywood’s use of Los Angeles as a backdrop for its films has divested the city of its own identity by defining its space and public image to fit its own sense of self. Andersen devotes considerable time to tracing the history of various buildings and landmarks of the city, like the Bradbury Building and the Angels Flight railroad, then demonstrating how their constant use in film has led to their preservation, albeit only as tourist hotspots for movie fans. This creates a feedback loop, Andersen argues, in which real objects are preserved only as simulacra of themselves, completely subsumed into the roles that Hollywood has made for them.
That line of thought informs the funnier passages of the film, which castigate movies for disrespecting the city’s layout. Andersen amusingly links bad geographical continuity with bad films, using particularly risible clips from the likes of Death Wish 4 (complete with an old man shot with a rocket) to further mock when someone opens a door in L.A. and emerges someplace at the other end of the city. Andersen even takes umbrage with how the city’s rich modernist architecture is almost unfailingly used to house villains of runaway capitalistic excess, erasing their intent as utopian models by using their transparency and angularity as shows of decadence and predatory evil.
Andersen covers an impressive range in his rants, identifying the Hollywood Walk of Fame as a place where the enforcers and informers of the HUAC blacklist are honored, but those blacklisted aren’t, or how even “L.A.” as a term suggests Hollywood’s contempt for its host city, a diminutive absorbed into the lexicon (and, more importantly, subconscious) of its citizens. The film contrasts the heightened sense of conspiracy that pervades movies like Chinatown and L.A. Confidential with the more banal, yet no less pervasive, corruption that truly infects the city. Lest he be seen as too literalist in his historical perspective, Andersen indulges in poetic license of his own, elaborating an extended interpretation of L.A. disaster movies as a means of reinforcing the sanctity and righteous leadership of authority figures in times of political tumult, not-so-subtly linking Hollywood to the status quo and its history of racist suppression and economic deck-stacking.
At three hours, the film regularly gives the impression that it can only scratch the surface of the link between Hollywood’s cultural takeover of Los Angeles and the real-world conflicts and dramas erased by the industry’s repetitive, myopic sense of narrative. Only in the last minutes does Andersen devote his focus to the independent filmmakers who finally put the real Los Angeles on a screen, a pity given how both Andersen and his mouthpiece, King, strip away their sarcastic, grouchy tone and speak respectfully of the contributions of the likes of Charles Burnett and Kent MacKenzie in illustrating the city’s neglected underclass. The brevity of this sequence is a painful reminder of the paucity of such examples, but it’s also an indication that Andersen could have spent the majority of his running time on any single facet of his critique and wound up with an equally riveting, insightful film. Above all, perhaps the keenest indictment of Hollywood’s regular failure of imagination is that Andersen used clips of their own output to produce something, in many cases, far superior to the works quoted throughout.
Sourced from films made throughout Hollywood’s history as a creative center, Los Angeles Plays Itself looks astonishingly consistent. Though many prints display softened colors or scratches, they all look presentable and most look exceptionally clear. The remastering job looks as if it applied broad cleaning practices over the film, but given the essayistic bent of the movie, the occasional too-scrubbed look matters less than the overall cohesion of the images. Sound has been flattened into two-channel stereo, but given that the actual soundtracks of the chosen films are mostly muted to make space for Encke King’s narration, this matters little.
"The Tony Longo Trilogy" is a new short from Thom Andersen, collecting clips from three movies featuring the prolific character actor. The film doesn’t seem to have a point other than illustrating Longo’s amusingly specific range as a heavy who betrays single-minded inanity and fundamentally weak spirit, but it’s still a fun collection of goofy scenes. Other than that, there’s a theatrical trailer and a booklet with essays from Andersen and Mike Davis, author of City of Quartz: Excavating the Future of Los Angeles.
Thom Anderson’s legendary essay film finally comes to home video in one of the most important releases of the year.