Watching 'Los Angeles Plays Itself' with Thom Anderson


"Los Angeles Plays Itself," a three hour film that is a virtual tutorial on how Los Angeles is portrayed in the movies, screened this weekend at the Aero Theater in Santa Monica. It played to packed houses and will soon be available for the first time on DVD. It is part love letter to the city and part rant against the way Hollywood has misrepresented it.

The film was put together in 2003 by CalArts film professor Thom Anderson and is rarely seen in theaters, mainly because Anderson never got permission to use the 200+ film clips that are at its heart. But what gives the movie its soul is the narration Anderson wrote, adding up to an idiosyncratically personal view of Los Angeles and filmmaking.

Anderson skewers Hollywood mercilessly for offenses large and small, the least of which begins with calling Los Angeles 'L.A.,' something he feels is disrespectful and verges on the criminal. The greater sins committed on film are political, not so much for what is depicted, but rather for what is left out. Huge swaths of the Los Angeles population seem to be missing in action — African Americans, Latinos, even women are underrepresented in the Los Angeles Anderson sees — and there is lots of what he called "silly geography," where a car chase will start in the Venice canals and end up in the South Bay, to illustrate how out of touch Hollywood was.

Despite all the humor, the film stays with you after it's over. Footage of Angels Flight, when its short ride really mattered, and Broadway's movie palaces lit up like the fourth of July provide fleeting glimpses of old Los Angeles. At three hours, it is long enough to have an intermission but well worth the journey.

In opening remarks at the Aero, the only place in Los Angeles that the film has ever screened, Anderson called the movie "kind of incomplete. It was meant to create a dialogue. It doesn't have a lot of suspense, other than waiting to see when your favorite movie will come along." He says he pored over the entire AFI catalog of films from the 20's through the 60's but called it a waste of time, finding most of the films he included through suggestions of friends and colleagues.

Anderson, whose humor and humility downplay his depth of knowledge of film and the city, said that the movie was reviewed in the Nation when it was completed in 2003. "He said it was kind of like listening to a drunk ramble on in a bar. And that was a positive review." Judging from the crowds this weekend, though, it definitely has legs.


Anderson has made a quirky ode to the city he loves. The film shows how Los Angeles figures as a character in films early on, even before Billy Wilder featured it in "Double Indemnity," and reached its pinnacle in "Chinatown" and "LA Confidential."

But the use--and misuse--of many of its architectural icons really tick him off. Why, for instance, did every high-rolling outlaw, thug and thief, or record mogul on his way down, live in a postmodern palace? Since when did evil and greed become associated with postmodernism? He concludes that Hollywood was against modern architecture and accuses Hollywood of making these homes the equivalent of the black hat. He lists the names and shows the scenes of the postmodern architects whose work was used and abused, saving the worst indignity for John Lautner. the architect he says Hollywood loved to hate. It was Lautner's Garcia house on Mulholland that was easily pulled off its footing by Mel Gibson's pickup--thereby adding incompetence to Lautner's other shortcomings.

Anderson said that the first half of his movie is more trivial and full of humor, but in the second part, when he features the powerful and poignant films of Billy Woodberry and Charles Burnett, along with "The Exiles," Kent MacKenzie's black and white movie that depicts the native American community living in the shadows in downtown Los Angeles, the film's tone becomes more serious. Films like "Killer of Sheep" and "Bless Their Little Hearts" focus on the city's struggling African American community, a part of Los Angeles rarely depicted honestly in film.

"There is nothing as radical as reality," Anderson said. He touches on bigger issues as well, like the city government's killing of public housing and destruction of public transportation, and how that shaped the city.

"Hollywood made movies about what they knew," he explained. And until Woodberry and Burnett made their films in the 80's, that meant that people of color were rarely seen. The Zoot Suit conflict is represented glancingly by Edward Olmos' film "American Me."

Anderson called Los Angeles "the most cosmopolitan city there is" but admitted that sometimes we don't appreciate what we have. He cited Agnes Vardas' film "Murs, Murs" about the murals of the city: "It took an outsider to see them as something remarkable."

Anderson ended his remarks by talking with a passion tinged with outrage and sadness, about a recent newspaper article detailing futile efforts to find private buyers for Wright's Ennis House and La Miniatura in Los Angeles, both of which have been on the market for months. "The Ennis and Miniatura houses should be purchased by a museum and made accessible to the public, rather than building another museum to house art already seen in museums all over the country," he said.

He questions spending "33 million to mount a Wagner fest, or 44 million for one painting, as the Getty is currently hoping to do. The Watts Towers has spent 4-5 million dollars on restoration and now they've given up because they can't raise the 5 million more to finish to job. That suggests skewed cultural priorities," he said. It sounded sadly like a plea from someone who feels like the lone wolf crying into the wind.

Anderson says approval to issue "Los Angeles Plays Itself" on DVD has finally been granted and it should be available soon. His newest film, "Get Out Of The Car," will be screened at the Redcat Theater in November.

Photos by Iris Schneider

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