I was in Los Angeles the past few nights — not the physical city but the epic but impossible to distribute Los Angeles Plays Itself. At nearly three hours and never likely to receive commercial release due to the expense of getting the rights to the more than 200 films it samples, it paints a curious and personal portrait of the city. This creation by Thom Andersen who takes credit for “research/text/production,” is not exactly a documentary, a bit of an illustrated talk, a bit of an epic poem, a bit of a biography of a city and its history.
It would be hard to say one commercial film best captures Los Angeles, but I would have to say Chinatown comes close, and I often cite it as my favorite film. Andersen uses clips from it frequently and dares to take it to task on its historical accuracy and portrayal of the city. He can admire its artistry but has dark thoughts on its dark vision.
Chinatown was released the year I graduated from high school — 1974 — during the summer Nixon was resigning. It was the first true “adult” film I went to see on my own, and it had a huge impact on forming my world view. Evil grew ever deeper as you peeled away the layers, and it was so large and so powerful it was futile to fight it. That was a common attitude of my generation, adrift dramatically from that of just a few years earlier such as my sister who graduated from high school in 1969.
Its not just movies Andersen wants to talk about but neighborhoods, iconic buildings, and most importantly the population of Los Angeles that he feels have so rarely been portrayed accurately in mainstream films, even one like Chinatown that dared to present more than the usual rosy postcard of the city.
Bunker Hill, the Pan Pacific Auditorium, city hall and a host of other landmarks get discussed in the film. Often a dizzying series of representations of places are shown through films over multiple decades, and it is like seeing the evolution of a soul through varying viewpoints.
It is easy to confuse the film with the 1972 Fred Halsted pornographic film L.A. Plays Itself — which is featured in a short clip — and it may be intentional that Andersen’s film spells out his city’s full name that a porn film doesn’t have the time to iterate. He speaks at length about his irritation of how Los Angeles has been diminished to a two letter acronym that few other cities have to endure. Los Angeles is a city worthy of such a lengthy portrait, and the whole film is here: