Review: The epic ‘Los Angeles Plays Itself’ shows a city’s life on film

Thom Andersen's "Los Angeles Plays Itself" is an exhaustive look at how a city has been portrayed in the movies.
Thom Andersen’s “Los Angeles Plays Itself” is an exhaustive look at how a city has been portrayed in the movies.

‘Los Angeles Plays Itself’
Director: Thom Andersen
Genre: Documentary
Rating: NR
5 (out of 5) Globes

It wasn’t very long ago that copyright laws kept filmmakers from using clips from other movies without forking over a small (or not so small) fortune. This was a blow to many, but in particular film critics. The printed word is not the ideal form of criticism — moving images is. The Fair Use Act destroyed this, allowing samples used for educational or critical purposes to go nuts with over 100 years of motion pictures. This development comes late — but not too late — to “Los Angeles Plays Itself,” scholar and critic Thom Andersen’s epic, masterful tour of how movies have portrayed and often roughed up the city he’s long called home.

Born from a series of lectures, Andersen’s film, first shown in 2003, sought to preserve his findings and thoughts for future use. Now reissued in a 10th anniversary format, with improved HD clips but only a mild smattering of updates, it’s ready to go mainstream. For nearly three hours, Andersen cycles through the history of the city’s alternate filmic existence. He shows, with hundreds of clips, the push-pull between the city’s realities and the myth as represented on film, showing how some of its residents use the metropolis as a giant, messy playground.

The majority of the globe, of course, knows the movie version of Los Angeles, but this tends to be a lie, and not only when it’s being passed off as far-off locales like Ireland. The biggest abuse — or at least the most fascinating — is how filmmakers like to use the sprawling, modernist mansions of the rich as the lairs of moneyed baddies, in the likes of “To Live and Die in L.A.,” “Body Double” and “L.A. Confidential.” Off-beat architecture becomes a shortcut to villainy, thus distorting and belittling the work of outside-the-box thinkers.

That Andersen spends so long angrily railing against this last bit — and chides anyone who dares abbreviate his city’s name to “L.A.” — is one of the many personality tics that keeps this from ever being a dry history lesson. In fact, it’s a hugely personal, opinionated history lesson, narrated by Encke King in a guttural mutter with a sardonic, grouchy wit. He openly talks about how movies “betray my city,” be it with geographical massacres or ignoring the diversity in favor of dwelling solely on the rich. (Steve Martin’s “L.A. Story” comes under particular admonishment for being thoroughly white-washed, with only two black actors, both in the service industry.) Andersen laments how few images exist of once-thriving Bunker Hill while highlighting low budget looks at low income families, as in Charles Burnett’s once-AWOL 1977 classic “Killer of Sheep.”

In the 1920s and 1930s, there came a rash of “city symphonies,” cinematic paeans to the ingenuity and industriousness that created massive, dense metropolises. “Los Angeles Plays Itself” plays like a meta version of those, one comprised entirely of used footage. Outsiders have long come to believe the stereotype of Los Angeles as a hotbed of ambitious phonies. It’s not remotely true, and one of “Los Angeles Plays Itself”’s many services is to reveal it as normal, home to actual human beings, and yet powerfully, magically unique.


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