There aren’t very many films that I would universally recommend be seen. Thom Andersen’s 2003 cinematic essay Los Angeles Plays Itself is one of them. Andersen, a film theory and history professor at CalArts, examines the portrayal of Los Angeles in cinema over the course of nearly three hours.
It should not be confused with L.A. Plays Itself, a 1972 gay porn film which Andersen references and from which the essay takes its name.
Three hours might seem like a long time. It is. But for those that decide to undertake the journey, it is worthwhile. Andersen makes use of every second of the runtime and clips from over 200 films to blend not only film theory and the history of Los Angeles, but also architecture, urban planning, race relations and the mere perception of Los Angeles in the media to create a thorough, fractal portrait of Los Angeles.
At first glance it might seem that Los Angeles Plays Itself is no different than many of the supercuts or video essayists dotting Youtube. It shortly becomes obvious that this film is different. Andersen not only has a great deal of passion for the project, but for the city itself. Los Angeles Plays Itself is his attempt to rescue the city from Hollywood, which he states is “above the city.” His intention is to prove that despite Los Angeles representing so many different parts of the country and world in film over the years, there is a there there. He succeeds magnificently.
This is most obvious when he discusses the 1974 classic Chinatown. He states that the fake history the film presents has overtaken that of the real Los Angeles at a time when the city was looking for a moment where it all went wrong.
That passion never wavers across the entire runtime of the film; Andersen goes on long, cranky diatribes about Dragnet and defends modernist architecture in Los Angeles and the LA Rebellion with equal fervor. Writer Encke King narrates the film with a distinct deadpan snark that only a man with a love-hate relationship with his hometown can have. That narration might seem off putting at first but quickly proves hypnotic and soothing, making the entire film fly by.
Perhaps an engrossing narration might not have been necessary; the material is engrossing by itself. When Andersen reaches the end of his essay, he espouses the indie filmmakers like Billy Woodberry and Kent MacKenzie, who, unlike Robert Towne and Roman Polanski, found truth through fiction instead of creating it. In the process of getting there, Andersen also finds one of his own.