Thom Andersen: “Los Angeles Plays Itself,” Part One

Thom Andersen

Near the end of Thom Andersen’s three-hour meditation on the cinematic identity of Los Angeles, Los Angeles Plays Itself, we are thrust into the  city aswarm with the real life problems that most working class Americans confront daily. Billy Woodberry’s low-budget, documentary style, black and white drama, Bless Their Little Hearts, along with Charles Burnett’s, Killer of Sheep, affords us a glimpse into the African-American, blue-collar lives that are an antipode to what we have seen in the rest of the film—Andersen’s kaleidoscopic examination of Los Angeles as a journey through our shared cultural and cinematic fantasies on the streets, in the homes, and at the public spaces of a city whose identity is never fixed, but is an always unreeling drama.

In the final scene of Bless Their Little Hearts, Charlie Banks (Nate Hardman) is driven in his battered pickup truck past the closed Goodyear Tire factory where his fellow South Central workers had once been employed. Andersen’s narration over Woodberry’s final images intones,

Built in 1919 and closed in 1980, the Goodyear factory on south Central Avenue was the first and largest of the four major tire-manufacturing plants once located in the Los Angeles area. Once upon a time, visitors could take a guided tour and see how tires were made, just as today they can take a studio tour and see how movies are made.

Derelict Goodyear Tire plant, frame grab from "Bless Their Little Hearts."

Los Angeles Plays Itself is an insider’s tour of the city that “manufactures” movies. It glosses through dozens of film clips, mainly Hollywood studio features—from Hal Roach shorts to mid-nineties feature films of white paranoia and malaise such as Falling Down and Grand Canyon. Along the way, we explore other faces of Los Angeles: from the dystopian, nightmare future of Blade Runner; the cop corruptions and violence of L.A. Confidential; the bare bones iconography and nighttime streets of post WWII “film noir” with its McCarthy-esque conspiratorial overtones; the relentless crunching of sheet metal in car chases that are its own timeless genre—to the satiric “LaLa Land” clichés of L.A. Story and Annie Hall; and the slapstick delights of Laurel and Hardy’s The Music Box.

Laurel and Hardy in "The Music Box."

Andersen is a filmmaker with a philosophical slant; he has taught for many years at Cal Arts. He and I were film students in the mid 60s, back when USC Cinema was still a “film” school rather than a digital factory churning out human product for the Hollywood “industry.” Andersen was born in Chicago, came to Los Angeles at age three; he has been a life-long scholar of the city, especially its fantasy incarnations in hundreds of movies produced here. Many of these films are set geographically in Los Angeles; many others use the city as stand-in for other real or fictive places.

One of the first student films I shot at USC was a short pop art homage called Melting, Thom Andersen’s 16mm study of a bowl of melting ice cream. We filmed it with a 16mm Mitchell camera loaded with a single 200-foot roll of ECO. A few years later, Andersen went on to do a near feature length study of photographer Eadward Muybridge, and in 1995 in collaboration with Noël Burch, a passionately charged study of leftist filmmakers during the blacklist era, titled Red Hollywood. This documentary offers a trenchant analysis of the intersection of art and politics, the themes of which are still relevant to today's political landscape.

Andersen says that the philosophical writings of Hugo Munsterberg and Gilles Deleuze are “unacknowledged sources” for his study of the multiple cinematic faces of Los Angeles, Deleuze’s theory of neorealism being particularly relevant to many of the films he discusses.

But Andersen’s fascination with Los Angeles is not solely cinematic. He is an architecture buff; he acknowledges that David Gebhard and Robert Winter’s classic guide to Los Angeles architecture was a crucial reference.— An Architectural Guidebook to Los Angeles link

as well as a series of books on early film locations, Silent Traces, by John Bengston. — Silent Traces: Discovering Early Hollywood Through the Films of Charlie Chaplin link

Thom Andersen lives in a modest bungalow home on Silverlake’s Micheltorena Street, in a renovation done by the Los Angeles modernist architect Rudolf Schindler, whose mid 30s addition of a second floor open studio gave an opportunity for its then owners to initiate a series of intimate chamber music concerts in their home. These legendary “Evenings on the Roof” were wildly successful, drawing luminaries from all the arts, including filmmakers. The Schindler "roof" space soon proved to be too small, and over the years the concerts became a movable feast, even continuing today as the venerable “Monday Evening Concerts.”

This historic residence is apt for a man so devoted to the elusive physical and psychic dimensions of a city oft maligned for its commercial architectural banality—but, in fact, so rich is its eclectic residential architecture, that it easily serves as cinematic stand-in for anywhere in the country. It is also a city whose modernist bona fides were extensively documented in the photographs of Julius Schulman.— Julius-Shulman’s Los Angeles link

Andersen’s inspiration for his documentary came from watching L.A. Confidential, a film that at first viewing he felt aimed for an audience of action-oriented young men. Repeated study, however, proved to be the impetus for an examination of the evolving, multiple cinematic personalities of “The City of the Angels.”

Many of the lifestyle tropes about Los Angeles, such as its sybaritic self- indulgence, its quick-beat inclination to gunplay as solution to societal malaise (made manifest in the movies’ rogue cops and vigilantes), its open horizons clogged and impacted by smog, stultifying traffic, gangs and race riots—play out in themes of dystopian frenzy or drugged-out ennui. One refrain in many Los Angeles films is self-referential beyond that even of any other popular art form—that of lives lost because of vain and thwarted illusions, ruminations of the innocent and naïve, souls imagining fame in the movies as a dream due to them--only briefly deferred by happenstance.

Andersen defines the structure of Los Angeles Plays Itself simply—as a “video essay about how movies have portrayed the city of Los Angeles.” He organizes it in three sections—with an intermission, just like a “B” movie double feature. We will watch it here as a twelve-part YouTube video for the next three weeks.

Andersen writes that,

The first section (The City as Background) is about buildings and places, famous and obscure, and how they get typecast and transformed by movies.

The second section (The City as Character) considers shifting attitudes toward the city expressed in the work of filmmakers who have self-consciously made the city an important presence in their films.

It begins with Billy Wilder’s Double Indemnity, about which Richard Schickel wrote, ”You could charge L.A. as a co-conspirator in the crimes this movie relates,” and it ends with Jacques Demy’s Model Shop, in which the protagonist [Gary Lockwood] declares, ”It’s a fabulous city. To think some people claim it’s an ugly city when it’s really pure poetry, it just kills me.”

Along the way, it recalls how movies have documented vanished landmarks and neighborhoods.

The third section (The City as Subject) considers movies that take the city itself as their subject, beginning with Chinatown in 1974.

The rest of this week’s essay will look at the posted YouTube video, parts one through four:

Los Angeles Plays Itself opens with a clip from a master of “B” noir, Sam Fuller. His 1959 The Crimson Kimono lays bare the cities’ nighttime mean streets. A flurry montage leads to Andersen’s discussion of involuntary versus voluntary viewing and the ubiquitous location signage pasted on lampposts around town—“Los Angeles, it is said, is the most photographed city in the world.” Reality and representation become “muddled.” Then, an excerpt from the Laurel and Hardy short, The Music Box, steers us away from the abstractions of the opening to a much visited location just a few blocks from Andersen’s own home.

Part two opens with a look at Los Angeles/Hollywood, the real and the fictive cities and a meditation on the ubiquitous derisive acronym “LA.” Who has ever called San Francisco “SF” or New York City “NYC”? After this introductory material, the first parsed section of the film, City as Background, begins at 2:30. It examines a city with no name, the celluloid stand-in for anywhere USA. Ironically, the highly stylized late 19th century Art Nouveau Bradbury Bldg. at 3rd and Broadway becomes the architectural representation of that anonymity as a key location for wildly different movies. Andersen’s interest in architecture as cinematic metaphor then segues into the iconic Mayan revival Frank Lloyd Wright Ennis House as an even more exploitable set than the Bradbury Bldg.

Part three shows the gateway Union Station on Alameda as yet another major movie location, starting with an exterior drive-up from Bugsy, followed by the station’s myriad cinematic incarnations, especially in Blade Runner, before its renovation as a transport hub for Los Angeles’ expanding light rail complex. Unlike Union Station’s evocative deco chic architecture, LAX and its “terminal blandness,” excluding the 50s space-age theme building, is “airport anywhere.”

Andersen discusses the absurdities of high-end, scenic locations like the Hollywood Hills or the Malibu beachfronts as residences for recently arrived and impecunious film characters. Fake addresses, non-existent 555 phone numbers, are all part of what he calls “geographic license. “Silly geography makes for silly movies.” Conversely, he extols the literal reality of locations in the South Bay area of San Pedro in the movie Gone in 60 Seconds. Andersen then launches into a thoughtful defense against the perpetuating myth of Los Angeles’ greatest residential architecture (Wright, Neutra, and Lautner) as ground zero operating headquarters for sadists, drug dealers and murderers—Schindler’s more modest, non-elitist residences alone being spared from these celluloid clichés. Do most Hollywood filmmakers so hate Modernism that these iconic residences are frequently cast as cesspools of vice? Or are the filmmakers simply ignorant of Los Angeles’ role as a creative entrepôt for so many war-displaced artists?

Part four continues the cinematic assault on Los Angeles' architectural modernism with Andersen’s extended look at L.A. Confidential. The abuse of Los Angeles’ modernist residences reached a real-life apotheosis in an L.A. Times critic’s rant against Neutra and his cohorts. On the other hand, Pierre Koenig’s residences get off lightly, if for no other reason than to pile on more rancor toward the extravagant residential visions of John Lautner, “the architect Hollywood loves to hate.” The irony is that despite the predations visited on many of these iconic homes, producer Joel Silver and director Curtis Hanson are great fans of Los Angeles residential modernism. Silver even bought and painstakingly restored a Wright house.

A Cook’s Tour of familiar locations such as the Griffith Park Observatory, City Hall, the Chinese Theater and the Bonaventure Hotel leads us, of course, to the L.A. Coliseum, “the most democratic American stadium and the last of its kind to survive.” Next, surviving long beyond its origins as promotion for a real estate development, the Hollywood sign marks for Andersen “the ascendency of Hollywood [and its myths] over the rest of Los Angeles.” Pointedly, the Hollywood Bowl is absent from this catalog of locations.

Hollywood’s “Walk of Shame,” measured out in an engraved square yard of bronze and concrete at a per star admission fee of $15,000, garners Andersen’s scorn for its recognition of filmdom’s “friendly” or recanted witnesses during the HUAC hearings of 1947. I was on the Academy’s Board of Governors when Elia Kazan’s name was put forward for an Honorary Oscar in 1999. I am sympathetic to the martyrs of that era’s blacklisting and have little sympathy for the opportunistic testimony of Kazan, even while admitting his seminal place in American theater and film. I expressed myself accordingly at the AMPAS meeting, even though Kazan's sad political history was antecedent to my own generation's.

Dalton Trumbo, blacklisted screenwriter, and his wife, Cleo, at 1947 HUAC hearings.

Andersen’s impassioned declaration that the blacklisted filmmakers have no stars on that fabled sidewalk is a clarion echo of his own cinematic perspective expressed in his previous documentary, Red Hollywood. Andersen was among the picketers outside the Oscar telecast that year.

Though these few shots of Hollywood’s darkest hour are a brief aside, the human disaster of that tragedy’s fallout outweighs by far the visual effects detritus that engulfs the final sequence—“disaster movies.”



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