If you’ve spent a lifetime watching movies, you probably think you know something about Los Angeles—after all, its downtown, its hills, its swank boulevards, and its ghettos unspool on numberless feet of celluloid and fuel our sunny, palm-studded fantasies. But the Los Angeles of our screens and dreams has little to do with the city in which director Thom Andersen lives. A decade ago, the film professor turned his obsessive parsing of the way it appears in films for his classes into “Los Angeles Plays Itself,” a documentary/treatise much buzzed over by cinephiles in samizdat versions since. Finally out on legit home video, it delivers a fascinating exploration of the ways that the most photographed city in the world has been represented, and misrepresented, by its metonymic suburb, Hollywood.
Over the course of almost three hours, Andersen uses clips from hundreds of titles both famous (“Blade Runner”) and obscure (Samuel Fuller’s pulpy “The Crimson Kimono”) to survey a history of Los Angeles and its distorted cinematic doppelgänger. A few of his observations involve predictable movie meta-reality—a character opens a door in one neighborhood to emerge in a part of town that’s 15 miles away. But he also exposes the low, flat, workaday reality of the place, which belies the frequent shots of skyscrapers, not to mention the way that even struggling bookstore clerks seem to end up with glittering hillside views (see Michael Mann’s “Heat”). He investigates how a building like the Frank Lloyd Wright-designed Ennis House morphed from a residence into a location, and how such a location starts to function as cinematic shorthand, its Mayan-revival elevations and forbidding interiors evoking future worlds and omnipotent crime lords at a glance. And he discusses how movies have ignored certain facts about the city (e.g. its diversity in class and race) while amplifying others into myth (e.g. how hard-nosed police strategy eventually begat the existentially corrupt onscreen LAPD).
Andersen doesn’t pretend to be an objective observer. He’s a film nerd, but he’s on the city’s side. It’s a stance conveyed beautifully by the narration, written by Andersen and delivered by Encke King, who comes off a bit like Billy Bob Thornton channeling a particularly pedantic Raymond Chandler hero. In fact, the curmudgeonly, whip-smart voice-over becomes as much a character as Los Angeles itself (never “L.A.,” as Andersen argues at length). If you took a drink every time the narration disapproves of something you’d be unconscious before the halfway mark. But any movie lover will come away from “Los Angeles Plays Itself” with a bulging list of titles to hunt down (over here it starts with “Messiah of Evil” and Native American indie “The Exiles”), as well as a far better understanding of what you’re seeing when you watch a Hollywood movie, and what you might not be.