ReFramed No. 7: Thom Andersen’s 'Los Angeles Plays Itself'

Jordan Cronk and Calum Marsh

In this installment, Marsh and Cronk champion a film that cogently summarizes a hundred plus years of film history, creating a work that says more about the power of the medium than any other in recent memory.

Calum Marsh: As I'm sure you know, Jordan, I've been looking forward to writing about Thom Andersen's Los Angeles Plays Itself since we began working on ReFramed together, and there's so much that I'd like to say about this film that I'm not even sure where to start. I suppose I'll kick things off by sharing a brief quote from the great film theorist Raymond Bellour:

"On the one hand, film spreads in space like a picture; on the other it plunges into time, like a story which its serialization into writing approximates more or less to the musical work. In this it is peculiarly unquotable, since the written text cannot restore to it what only the projector can produce: a movement, the illusion of which guarantees the reality".

This is the most basic difficulty of all film criticism: writing seems an inadequate tool for interrogating film, since the cinema's spatial and temporal characteristics are in a sense ineffable. No matter how lucid or compelling the ideas conveyed, to write about film is to regard it across a gulf of untranslatable medium specificity; it is, as the old saying goes, about as useful as dancing about architecture. And yet film criticism seems not only intensely enjoyable but also absolutely crucial to our understanding of the cinema as a whole. I think criticism is to art what philosophy is to life, in that it deepens and enriches our experience of it.

Which is probably why I regard Los Angeles Plays Itself as not only my personal favorite film of the last fifteen or so years, but also the most important to cinematic history in at least as long. "Important" is a bit of dubious word, I know, but Thom Andersen didn't just make another great movie here: he cogently summarized a hundred plus years of film history and, in doing so, created a work that says more about the power of the medium than any amount of brilliant writing on the subject has or maybe ever could. Los Angeles Plays Itself is a nearly perfect movie but it's also, perhaps more remarkably, one of the best works of film criticism ever—and not least of all because, rather than using the written word, it is itself cinematic.

Jordan Cronk: Well let me start by saying that I echo everything you just said: I do believe Los Angeles Plays Itself is amongst the greatest films of the modern era-- and certainly the single greatest "documentary," if you will, of the last decade-plus-- but its simultaneous function as history lesson, cinematic preservation piece, and essayist criticism should continue to be its most lasting gift. I've viewed this film from multiple perspectives, the most recent as a resident of Los Angeles myself, and the fact that it can, pardon the pun, play so uniquely from different standpoints is one of the things that keeps it so fresh in my mind. On one level, what Andersen has done here—gathering scenes from Los Angeles-based films to present a kind of visual history of the city through moving pictures—seems fairly straightforward.

On another, he's completely reshaped the way one will view Hollywood product from henceforth by dryly commenting on the atrocities that the film business has wrought on a city once vibrant with personality. The Los Angeles that Hollywood would have outsiders believe in is nothing more than a myth at this point, which I can now tell you from first-hand experience, and the act of preservation that Andersen enacted with this film is crucial to understanding a city that, like the film itself, is many things to many different people. There are 191 films excerpted in Los Angeles Plays Itself, from noirs to cult classics to regrettable assembly line junk, but Andersen's assembled them into a vibrant vision of our collective past, one worth reexamining and contextualizing for future generations.

Marsh: I'm glad you brought up your current residence in Los Angeles, actually, because that's something I've been particularly interested in hearing about: this is a film that's not only set in or a product of Los Angeles, but about in the deepest sense any movie can be "about" something—it is, to use Andersen's own excellent phrasing, "a city symphony in reverse", about how the cinema constitutes the identity of a place and, more generally, about how a place is constructed culturally—and I assume that living in the city itself grants you a unique perspective on the film. I've only spent time in Los Angeles as a tourist, and in a significant way my sense of the city has been more heavily informed by Hollywood than by my personal experience visiting it.

Cronk: As has most people's I'm assuming. I recently viewed Criterion's new blu-ray of Robert Aldrich's Kiss Me Deadly, only to this time realize I live within a few square blocks of where a large portion of the movie was filmed (that being Bunker Hill). In fact, as the narrator states via Andersen’s text in Los Angeles Plays Itself, Kiss Me Deadly is perhaps the purest representation of the city ever put on film, in that, unlike most Hollywood product, it is not trying to disguise its location in hopes of gearing the audience’s attention solely toward the narrative. Living here, however, makes certain viewing experiences inevitably jarring: two recent examples which utilize the city in a much different manner are 500 Days of Summer and Inception, the latter of course hoping to disguise it's production locales but to no avail, while the former thrives on its sense of place but nonetheless has to concede it's romanticized view to the locals who happen to see film.

Of course, some of my favorite Los Angeles-based films—from Repo Man to Hickey & Boggs to Love Streams, all excerpted by Andersen—make natural use of the city's locales, to the point where I can't imagine them being set anywhere else. And this is one of the many great themes of Los Angeles Plays Itself: what, if any, responsibility do filmmakers have to their chosen locale, and how disingenuous is it that the capital of the cinematic universe would spend so much time diverting attention from the milieu from which it was built.

Marsh: That's a very interesting question, and also a much more complex one than it may initially seem. Andersen's point, I think, is not so much that a given film "should" or "shouldn't" strive for perfect verisimilitude, but that we should be more aware of the fact that there is an important and inevitable relationship between fictional locales and the places in which they are filmed. When Andersen talks, for instance, about the cumulative effect of Hollywood's tendency to house immoral or otherwise villainous characters in modernist architecture—he feels that Los Angeles should be proud of its rich history of modernist architecture, but that Hollywood "has systematically denigrated this history"—he's not really vilifying specific filmmakers for these decisions (he even acknowledges that the director of L.A. Confidential personally likes the modernist house that his film effectively destroyed the reputation of).

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