Thom Andersen is one cranky Angeleno. The lifelong Los Angeles resident is irritated that so many commercial filmmakers fall back on the same tired clichés when using the city as a set. It annoys him that “low-tourist” directors such as Alfred Hitchcock and Woody Allen obviously prefer other places. He gets peeved when a critic like David Thomson (an English immigrant who “loves everything about America except what is worth loving”) admires the famous Hollywood sign for all the wrong reasons. But what really upsets filmmaker and scholar Andersen, maker of the fascinatingly personal documentary Los Angeles Plays Itself, is the use of “LA” for Los Angeles.
Andersen’s gripe list goes on, and so does his tally of the overlooked assets of his hometown as seen in the movies. In 1999, the California Institute of the Arts film professor began writing and assembling what turned out to be a 167-minute lecture-with-clips on the subject. The finished film is a sprawling, testy valentine to the screen Los Angeles, the centerpiece of a 35-film series of the same name curated by Andersen and Kathy Geritz of the Pacific Film Archive. The series began June 1 at the PFA with a showing of Fabrice Ziolkowski’s avant-garde 1980 film L.A.X. , and it continues through June 29 — an idiosyncratic, often provocative look back at the city’s image in motion pictures.
The ideal entry point into Andersen’s LA (there it is, live with it; it’s a useful abbreviation. Ask the Dodgers) is the Thursday, June 3 screening of Los Angeles Plays Itself, with Andersen in attendance. The doc bears repeated viewing, even when one winces at some of Andersen’s assertions. In common with social historian Mike Davis’ book City of Quartz — a populist exposé with which it shares a disparaging opinion of Southern California’s rich and famous — Andersen’s doc comes out swinging with a flurry of accusations: Movies about movie people are a betrayal of the real city, where only one in forty residents actually works in the entertainment industry. In a typical movie about LA, everyone lives in the hills or at the beach. Movies take too much geographical license with the place. Architectural gems like the Bradbury Building (in Blade Runner and many other films) and Ennis House (The House on Haunted Hill, etc.) are usually inhabited by villains. The Los Angeles metro area is constantly being destroyed in disaster and sci-fi flicks, as if it deserved it.
Low-tourist outsiders either poke fun at the city’s purported lack of culture (Annie Hall) or make it look “bland and insidious” à la John Boorman’s neo-noir Point Blank. Moans Andersen: “People who hate Los Angeles love Point Blank.” (But even people who like Los Angeles love Point Blank, Thom.) Robert Altman condescends to the city in his adaptation of Raymond Carver’s Short Cuts, but redeems himself in the earlier masterpiece The Long Goodbye, a reimagining of the Philip Marlowe crime novel by Raymond Chandler, who along with James M. Cain (Double Indemnity) was the dean of Los Angeles noir. Andersen uses a clip from The Long Goodbye as backdrop for one of his saltier bombs: “It’s hard to make a personal film based on your own experience when you’re absurdly overprivileged. You tend not to notice the less fortunate, and that’s almost everybody.” Don’t even mention Joseph Wambaugh’s LAPD cop movies.
Andersen doesn’t hate every Los Angeles movie. He devotes a long clip to the thrilling original 1974 version of Gone in 60 Seconds, “the best Los Angeles car-chase movie,” in which “director Toby Halicki realizes Dziga Vertov’s dream, an antihumanist cinema of bodies and machines in motion.” That actioner, Andersen claims, was the first movie set in the neglected South Bay, between Long Beach and El Segundo, an unglamorous lower-middle-class zone later visited by directors William Friedkin, Michael Mann, and Quentin Tarantino. Andersen generally chooses ordinary working people and intellectuals, especially foreign intellectuals, over the likes of Stallone, Schwarzenegger, and producer Joel (The Matrix) Silver as the true and best interpreters of his town. Among the “high tourists” he praises for understanding the “real” city: experimental creator Maya Deren, Andy Warhol, Michelangelo Antonioni (Zabriskie Point), French auteurs Jacques Deray and Jacques Demy and, surprisingly, gay porno maker Fred Halsted, whose LA Plays Itself lent its name to the project. Andersen is enamored of French thinkers like Gilles Deleuze, which may explain his enthusiasm for Jerry Lewis’ The Disorderly Orderly and its demolition of a supermarket.
On the more or less commercial side of the ledger, Andersen also appreciates Roman Polanski’s “urban legend” Chinatown (immensely), Robert Aldrich’s Kiss Me Deadly (for its geographic fidelity as much as anything), Curtis Hanson’s LA Confidential (rotten cops), several films by John Cassavetes, Lawrence Kasdan’s Grand Canyon (why?), and Gregory Nava’s El Norte. Andersen goes so far as to compare Dragnet‘s deadpan style to “the rigor of Ozu and Bresson.” Singled out for special mention are a brace of independent films by neorealists of color — Charles Burnett (subject of previous PFA retrospectives), Haile Gerima, and Billy Woodberry. Their films reveal the hidden Los Angeles we almost never see in standard Hollywood product. “Who knows the city?” Andersen asks. “Only those who walk. Only those who ride the bus. Forget the mystical blatherings of Joan Didion and Co. about the automobile and the freeways. They say ‘Nobody walks.’ They mean: ‘No rich white people like us walk.'”
One of the series’ most enthralling rediscoveries is a prime example of the “cinema of walking,” The Exiles, a unique narrative portrait of poor Native Americans living in the now-destroyed Bunker Hill neighborhood downtown, circa 1961. The film, shot in black-and-white 35mm completely on location by its director, former USC student Kent MacKenzie, captures the down-to-earth existence of Los Angeles’ invisible pedestrians by taking us along with a group of partying Indians one night, from a Main Street liquor store, a poker game, and cruising around town, to an all-night session of tribal songs and drumming atop “Hill X” after the bars close. Meanwhile Yvonne, the lonely young woman left behind by her husband, goes to the movies, pregnant and alone with her regrets: “My prayers were never answered, so I sort of gave up.” A sorrowful and beautiful film, the kind you never see from mainstream Tinseltown studios, then or now.
Among the 35 movies Andersen and Geritz selected for the series are a serious smattering of the films excerpted in Los Angeles Plays Itself, including Woodberry’s African-American ode Bless Their Little Hearts, Gerima’s Watts family drama Bush Mama, a rare print of Joseph Losey’s M (an LA remake of the Fritz Lang classic about a psychotic child-murderer), Robert Culp’s Hickey & Boggs (costarring his TV partner Bill Cosby), and the Tony Richardson/Evelyn Waugh low-touristic satire of conspicuous consumption, even in death, The Loved One. Pat O’Neill’s 2002 doctored-doc The Decay of Fiction is also highly recommended, a ghostly tour of the deserted Ambassador Hotel, where Robert Kennedy was assassinated.
In any series devoted to such a huge study as Andersen’s survey of movie images of Los Angeles, somebody’s favorites are going to be left out. Reasons: prints are difficult to find, the series has to eventually end, etc. The clips in Los Angeles Plays Itself cover an amazing amount of ground, but here are a few significant omissions, movies from the All-Time Los Angeles file: In a Lonely Place, Walter Hill’s ultra-laconic art-actioner The Driver (runner-up to Halicki in the car-chase sweepstakes), The Late Show, The Day of the Locust, Laurel Canyon, Barfly and Tales of Ordinary Madness (Charles Bukowski on Skid Row), the doc James Ellroy: Demon Dog of American Crime Fiction and Ellroy’s eerie segment in Shotgun Freeway, pioneering ‘hood flicks Menace II Society and Colors, The Decline of Western Civilization or anything else by Penelope Spheeris, Foxy Brown and Coffy among many blaxploitationers, Boogie Nights plus practically any porn flick made in the San Fernando Valley, Bulworth, Cassavetes’ The Killing of a Chinese Bookie, Aldrich and Clifford Odets’ anti-movie-biz drama The Big Knife, Carl Franklin’s Devil in a Blue Dress … and the list goes on. LA is a big place. One the best things about a thoughtful, opinionated series like this one is that it sends audiences out the door hungry for more — in this case, movies that reflect on the enigma that is Los Angeles. Happy hunting.