Los Angeles Plays Itself.
Written and directed by Thom Anderson
Produced by Thom Anderson Productions
Distributed by Submarine Entertainment (2003 original limited release)
The Cinema Guild (2014 re-release)
In Mulholland Falls (1996), police Lieutenant Hoover (Nick Nolte) tells a local mobster, "this isn't America Jack, this is LA." In a similar vein, John Buntin, author of L.A. Noir, opens his history of the city's war on crime with the description "other cites have histories. Los Angeles has legends." Both suggest that Los Angeles is more than simply "Hollywood"--that there is a dark side to the country's most glamorous city. William J. Mann's Tinseltown: Murder, Morphine, and Madness at the Dawn of Hollywood interweaves the two. None, however, have managed to fully capture the depth and complexity of the city.
While popular culture products such as these have shown Los Angeles to have many faces, a recently distributed film (which debuted in 2003) takes aim at the impact of this range of representations. Thom Anderson's Los Angeles Plays Itself is about our collective perception of the city as seen through film. Concerned with how LA is viewed as a result of its popular culture representations, Anderson addresses the many ways LA has been depicted throughout film history. As a journey through the city's history, movie industry, and personalities; Los Angeles Plays Itself prompts audiences to think about how much of the city's image is true and how much is "printing the legend." Sometimes it represents a Hollywood-ized glossy version of itself, other times it represents the shadows often overlooked.
Los Angeles Plays Itself opens with a black and white establishing shot of LA, with big band swing music in the background, followed by a montage of films from the 1950s. This sequence sets up the methodology for the film, using images from movies to show the city's personality. Anderson, a local LA resident who relates more to the city of Los Angeles than the idea of Hollywood, works to render the "true" story of the city, using fictional films as a guide. "When people say L.A.," Anderson observes, "they usually mean show business." Such characterization puts forth the perception that everyone in Los Angeles either works, or wants to work, in the film industry. Anderson offers a corrective, noting that only one in every forty residents in the city work in the motion picture industry, illustrating that these perceptions often ignore the city's real citizens.
Building on these assumptions, Anderson opens his film by saying, "This is the city. Los Angeles, California. They make movies here." He goes on to illustrate, however, that those same Hollywood films do not adequately represent the city in which they were given form. Some, such as Michael Mann's Collateral, present LA's downtown as more picturesque than it is. Anderson argues that cinematic views can pass over the city from above, like a sweeping shot from a helicopter, to present a deceiving perspective of the city, while its residents and visitors must travel by land, and so, see downtown for what it truly is. As Anderson notes, for "the most photographed city in the world ... it may be the least photogenic." While it's east coast counterpart, New York, is accessible to the camera, argues Anderson, Los Angeles is not. LA is too open, allusive, "a series of villages that grew together." Because of this problematic of imagery, Anderson posits, "Los Angeles is where the relation between reality and representation gets muddled."
The largest signifier of that blurred reality is the iconic Hollywood sign. Anderson finds the sign reassuring because of its own history, from advertisement to icon. Film scholar Leo Braudy relates: "the sign represents the earthly home of that otherwise ethereal world of fame, stardom, and celebrity--the goal of American and worldwide aspirations to be in the limelight, to be, like the Hollywood sign, instantly recognizable."
And while the film industry is not the whole of Los Angeles, it is impossible to ignore its presence. Anderson points out that buildings that lose their purpose may become film sets, and vice versa, with buildings constructed for a film taking on a life of their own. This effectively blurs the line between fantasy and reality. Similarly, many films across the decades have portrayed LA as a city of transit, a place people pass through, rather than inhabit. Anderson points out "L.A. began as a destination, not a place. A resort, not a city."
It is also a city that has come to be closely associated with crime, both real and fictional, thanks to adaptations of hard-boiled detective novels by authors like Mickey Spillane, and Raymond Chandler. Anderson's film features a lengthy discussion of Double Indemnity (1944) and Kiss Me Deadly (1955) that explores the characters as well as the locations used in each film, such as the Hollywood hills and the old Bunker Hill neighborhood.
Anderson notes that "Los Angeles is a city with no history, nostalgia has always been the dominant note in the city's image of itself. At any time in its history, Los Angeles was always a better place. A long time ago, not in the present." Films that depict the audience's present-day city are often dark, such as Sunset Boulevard (1950), which is characterized by desperation; Falling Down (1993), which addresses social frustrations in an increasingly overpopulated, impoverished, and diverse city; and even Blade Runner (1982) in its depiction of a dystopic future.
While Anderson admits that LA Confidential paints a seemingly more honest reality of the city's halcyon days by illustrating that any "present" is an "amalgam of times past," his film often focuses on what he feels are dark misrepresentations of the city and its people. Among the contemporary portrayals the film cites are the FX series The Shield (2002-2008) about a Los Angeles gang unit worked to show the city through a gritty filter. Yet, it also notes the greater diversity in recent years, in such films as Collateral (2005) and Nightcrawler (2014), as well as the 2015 Amazon detective series Bosch, which depicts both the sleek and gloomy characteristics of Los Angeles. The film also highlights the 2009 romantic dramedy (500) Days of Summer, which portrays the city as a more habitable locale, managing to avoid any reference to the film industry at all.
Los Angeles Plays Itself works well as a documentary about LA's cinematic representations, supplementing Anderson's argument with visuals of the city in real life as well as film. This film is useful for historians of Los Angeles, cinema faculty, and anyone interested in how this and other cities have been portrayed in popular culture over time.
University of Wisconsin--Washington County