Wednesday, August 10, 2011

PopMatters Feature: ReFramed No. 7 - Thom Andersen's Los Angeles Plays Itself

In this installment, Marsh and Cronk champion a film that cogently summarizes a hundred plus years of film history, creating a work that says more about the power of the medium than any other in recent memory.
Calum Marsh: As I’m sure you know, Jordan, I’ve been looking forward to writing about Thom Andersen’s Los Angeles Plays Itself since we began working on ReFramed together, and there’s so much that I’d like to say about this film that I’m not even sure where to start. I suppose I’ll kick things off by sharing a brief quote from the great film theorist Raymond Bellour:
“On the one hand, film spreads in space like a picture; on the other it plunges into time, like a story which its serialization into writing approximates more or less to the musical work. In this it is peculiarly unquotable, since the written text cannot restore to it what only the projector can produce: a movement, the illusion of which guarantees the reality”.
This is the most basic difficulty of all film criticism: writing seems an inadequate tool for interrogating film, since the cinema’s spatial and temporal characteristics are in a sense ineffable. No matter how lucid or compelling the ideas conveyed, to write about film is to regard it across a gulf of untranslatable medium specificity; it is, as the old saying goes, about as useful as dancing about architecture. And yet film criticism seems not only intensely enjoyable but also absolutely crucial to our understanding of the cinema as a whole. I think criticism is to art what philosophy is to life, in that it deepens and enriches our experience of it.

Which is probably why I regard Los Angeles Plays Itself as not only my personal favorite film of the last fifteen or so years, but also the most important to cinematic history in at least as long. “Important” is a bit of dubious word, I know, but Thom Andersen didn’t just make another great movie here: he cogently summarized a hundred plus years of film history and, in doing so, created a work that says more about the power of the medium than any amount of brilliant writing on the subject has or maybe ever could. Los Angeles Plays Itself is a nearly perfect movie but it’s also, perhaps more remarkably, one of the best works of film criticism ever—and not least of all because, rather than using the written word, it is itself cinematic.

Jordan Cronk: Well let me start by saying that I echo everything you just said: I do believe Los Angeles Plays Itself is amongst the greatest films of the modern era—and certainly the single greatest “documentary,” if you will, of the last decade-plus—but its simultaneous function as history lesson, cinematic preservation piece, and essayist criticism should continue to be its most lasting gift. I’ve viewed this film from multiple perspectives, the most recent as a resident of Los Angeles myself, and the fact that it can, pardon the pun, play so uniquely from different standpoints is one of the things that keeps it so fresh in my mind. On one level, what Andersen has done here—gathering scenes from Los Angeles-based films to present a kind of visual history of the city through moving pictures—seems fairly straightforward. On another, he’s completely reshaped the way one will view Hollywood product from henceforth by dryly commenting on the atrocities that the film business has wrought on a city once vibrant with personality. The Los Angeles that Hollywood would have outsiders believe in is nothing more than a myth at this point, which I can now tell you from first-hand experience, and the act of preservation that Andersen enacted with this film is crucial to understanding a city that, like the film itself, is many things to many different people. There are 191 films excerpted in Los Angeles Plays Itself, from noirs to cult classics to regrettable assembly line junk, but Andersen’s assembled them into a vibrant vision of our collective past, one worth reexamining and contextualizing for future generations.

Marsh: I’m glad you brought up your current residence in Los Angeles, actually, because that’s something I’ve been particularly interested in hearing about: this is a film that’s not only set in or a product of Los Angeles, but about in the deepest sense any movie can be “about” something—it is, to use Andersen’s own excellent phrasing, “a city symphony in reverse”, about how the cinema constitutes the identity of a place and, more generally, about how a place is constructed culturally—and I assume that living in the city itself grants you a unique perspective on the film. I’ve only spent time in Los Angeles as a tourist, and in a significant way my sense of the city has been more heavily informed by Hollywood than by my personal experience visiting it.

Cronk: As has most people’s I’m assuming. I recently viewed Criterion’s new blu-ray of Robert Aldrich’s Kiss Me Deadly, only to this time realize I live within a few square blocks of where a large portion of the movie was filmed (that being Bunker Hill). In fact, as the narrator states via Andersen’s text in Los Angeles Plays Itself, Kiss Me Deadly is perhaps the purest representation of the city ever put on film, in that, unlike most Hollywood product, it is not trying to disguise its location in hopes of gearing the audience’s attention solely toward the narrative. Living here, however, makes certain viewing experiences inevitably jarring: two recent examples which utilize the city in a much different manner are 500 Days of Summer and Inception, the latter of course hoping to disguise it’s production locales but to no avail, while the former thrives on its sense of place but nonetheless has to concede it’s romanticized view to the locals who happen to see film.

Of course, some of my favorite Los Angeles-based films—from Repo Man to Hickey & Boggs to Love Streams, all excerpted by Andersen—make natural use of the city’s locales, to the point where I can’t imagine them being set anywhere else. And this is one of the many great themes of Los Angeles Plays Itself: what, if any, responsibility do filmmakers have to their chosen locale, and how disingenuous is it that the capital of the cinematic universe would spend so much time diverting attention from the milieu from which it was built.

Marsh: That’s a very interesting question, and also a much more complex one than it may initially seem. Andersen’s point, I think, is not so much that a given film “should” or “shouldn’t” strive for perfect verisimilitude, but that we should be more aware of the fact that there is an important and inevitable relationship between fictional locales and the places in which they are filmed. When Andersen talks, for instance, about the cumulative effect of Hollywood’s tendency to house immoral or otherwise villainous characters in modernist architecture—he feels that Los Angeles should be proud of its rich history of modernist architecture, but that Hollywood “has systematically denigrated this history”—he’s not really vilifying specific filmmakers for these decisions (he even acknowledges that the director of L.A. Confidential personally likes the modernist house that his film effectively destroyed the reputation of).

But movies themselves have meaning, sometimes quite apart from the meaning imposed upon them by their authors, and Andersen is more interested in what movies can tell us about how and where and when they were made (as opposed, perhaps, to the more difficult to grasp “why”). Sometimes a film can be disingenuous about the film in which it’s set, and it’s important to explore what that means. But I don’t think the film is really advocating a movement toward absolute literalism in future films set in Los Angeles; it’s a much deeper issue that Andersen’s working through. That’s the surprising thing about this film: it’s quite a complex investigation of issues which could have otherwise been dispatched quickly and easily.

Cronk: And he doesn’t necessarily even limit his investigation to just films. Early on he speaks of his disapproval of the abbreviation “L.A.”, and there is a lengthy section of the film that deals with the city’s public transportation system, which has completely changed since the golden age of Hollywood. In this way he conflates social and political issues in a manner not unlike Jean-Luc Godard, who in a similar fashion utilizes his chosen medium as a form of film criticism. Historie(s) du Cinema may be the greatest example of this technique ever put forth, and it’s a small list of like-minded auteurs—Chris Marker and his film The Last Bolshevik, certainly, but also Mark Rappaport, who’s Rock Hudson’s Home Movies and From the Journals of Jean Seberg represent perhaps Los Angeles Plays Itself’s most symbiotic forbears—who’ve taken to examining the cinematic form on film (or video, as it were) via other people’s versions of reality.

And with film criticism changing so much over the last ten years, it’s new forms such as these which may just point the way forward for how we intelligently engage with the cinema. In 1997, Jonathan Rosenbaum conducted an interview with Godard where they spoke on this very topic and on some of these films, and when Rosenbaum stated that “it isn’t legally acknowledged that films and videos can be criticism,” Godard replied, “It’s the only thing video can be—and should be.” Which, of course, is a provocative response, and one which may keep Los Angeles Plays Itself off the DVD market forever, as licensing for these film clips has thus far limited the film’s exposure to those savvy enough to download it or lucky enough to catch it at random screenings.

Marsh: It’s unfortunate, but you’re probably right. Many of the films we’ve highlighted in these pages lack home video availability, but at least one gets a sense that a film like Love Streams will finds its way to DVD or Blu-Ray eventually, even if its release is already long overdue. Los Angeles Plays Itself is a unique case, of course, because it’s almost entirely composed of footage from other films, the majority of which are Hollywood blockbusters (and several of which are criticized heavily, which surely doesn’t help). One consequence of its official unavailability, though, is that is now almost exclusively watched online, which makes it a thoroughly contemporary work—and, thankfully, the entire film can very easily be found on torrent sites and even on YouTube.

To return to your comparison to Godard, Rappaport and Marker, I think you’re right that this film is in many ways indebted to theirs. But a major difference between Los Angeles Plays Itself and something like Historie(s) Du Cinema is how enormously entertaining and (relatively) accessible the former is. Obviously I love Godard and Historie(s) is a masterpiece, but there are all kinds of barriers to entry there that could prevent your average film-lover from getting the most out of Godard’s particular brand of film criticism. But Andersen, though clearly very intelligent, tends to be more…well, direct, I suppose.

He has a knack for pithy, perceptive arguments that are intellectually rigorous but completely hilarious, such as when he claims that the director of the original Gone in Sixty Seconds “realized Dziga Vertov’s dream: an antihumanist cinema of bodies and machines in motion”, and whose film was “a materialist masterpiece and the first manifesto for a cinema of conspicuous destruction." In the film he spends a great deal of time deconstructing Hollywood’s tradition of problematic myth-making, exploring the relationships forged between real places and their fictional counterparts, and some critics even feel that he is too critical of the filmmaking practice in general (I’ve even read that Andersen “hates movies”).

But one of the things I love most about Los Angeles Plays Itself is the passion it shows for cinema, and for the possibilities of filmmaking. Andersen strikes me as the kind of guy who loves film so much that he hates 99% of it—he holds it to a high standard and, when it achieves or even transcends that standard, he’s happy to share his enthusiasm. Like all great criticism, Los Angeles Plays Itself allows us to better understand movies, to learn more about them and their effect on us, and in a way it makes us better watchers of films. Near the end of the film, Andersen works through some really difficult subjects—like how class, race, and privilege inform certain strains of cinema—but he closes on a positive note: discussing great underground gems like The Exiles, Killer of Sheep and Bushmama, Andersen proves beyond a doubt that he loves movies. And what’s great is that watching Los Angeles Plays Itself sort of made me love movies more.

Cronk: It’s also interesting that when Los Angeles Plays Itself first began to hit the festival circuit in 2004, a couple of the films you just mentioned (Killer of Sheep and The Exiles, in particular) weren’t widely known. They’ve since been released theatrically and on DVD, which is ironic since the film which perhaps sparked a bit of the interest in these urban classics sits sadly out of mainstream view. Which itself ties into why Los Angeles Plays Itself is an interesting choice for ReFramed.

Here’s an impressively acclaimed film (one of the most acclaimed films of the aughts, in fact), easily digestible, as you suggest, in perhaps every way outside of length, but one which few outside of film writers and enthusiasts know of. It’s a personal film birthed from a social activity—Andersen first came to the idea while teaching a film course at the California Institute of the Arts—and one which has the ability to ingratiate itself personally to each specific viewer in a unique manner. I doubt any two viewers will come away from Los Angeles Plays Itself with the exact same feelings on Andersen’s presentation and criticisms, but I’m just as certain that their sympathies for the city will have been charged to a new, similar degree—and that sympathy will just as likely heighten and re-align itself with each subsequent viewing, just as Los Angeles continues to experience cinematic rebirths with every new iteration and idealization of its architectures and landscapes. It’s a beautiful place, and one which Andersen has captured and memorialized like no one before. [PM]

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