By Sandy Sanders
A short while ago, by chance, I ran into the filmworks of Thom Andersen, including a 2004 feature length video essay titled "Los Angeles Plays Itself". Andersen's filmworks make personal observations about the movies by sequencing snippets of films to disclose non-obvious content and meaning. Andersen has lived in Los Angeles since 1946 and uses brief cuts from films made in, or about LA, along with first person narrative and city location photographs. The film discusses the differences between the Los Angeles he experienced and the LA as depicted by the movies. The film was initially shown only at limited screenings but officially released by Cinema Guild in 2014 and is available on DVD.
For anyone who has lived in Los Angeles this film is a must see. For movie aficionados curious about Los Angeles and Hollywood image- crafting, this insider's take on "LA", is equally interesting. It runs 2hrs and 49 minutes with an intermission which allows two viewing periods, for those pressed for time. But the film moves breathlessly through known and lesser known film depictions of Los Angeles as Background, as Character and as Subject, presenting a personal tour of what has made Los Angeles unique. Andersen contends that Hollywood created the acronym of "LA" as a part of generating a mystique-of-place to keep moviegoer's attention. The historic modernist architecture, the hillside mansions, views of the ocean, the mix of urban and rural, the endless suburbs, anonymous streets and ubiquitous freeways, and post-industrial downtown, that make background for film noir, glamour, spectacle or the seedy, of Hollywood movies.
Andersen asks us to see the documentary aspect of films as nearly equal to their fiction. To see film with the "voluntary attention" of a conscious observer instead of the usual suspension of disbelief required of moviegoers. As we begin to see, Los Angeles was first used by Hollywood as a blank slate for their story-telling, then actually affecting the further development or exploitation of the City and surrounding towns to re-image the illusions of the movie industry. The real Los Angeles lies outside the film reel and includes the ordinary realities of a mixed urban culture of Blacks, Latinos, Asians... and Whites creating disparate but unique places and spaces from a dynamic sprawling region that started exploding in the 20's.
Also on track for discovery is the corrupt history of a city that has been run by the rich and powerful, Hollywood and LAPD. "Kiss Me Deadly", "LA Confidential" and "Chinatown" are period pieces explored for their reconfigured depictions of real events sorted differently timewise, to discuss the power, corruption and lies simmering under the surfaces of Los Angeles. Hollywood does tell tales that expose the power brokers and their scams on society, but, as Anderson comments, aren't these just "crocodile tears"? Do Hollywood movies clandestinely disclose nasty truths for citizen action, or do they merely placate guilty souls until the theater lights come on?
For me the most intriguing part of "Los Angeles Plays Itself" is the discovery of a group of neo-realist LA filmmakers quietly working on the fringes that deserve viewing. Kent MacKenzie's "The Exiles" is a 1961 black and white film about a group of Native Americans coping with being outsiders near downtown, that includes unique views of the now lost Bunker Hill area. Billy Woodbury's "Bless Their Little Hearts" (1984) and two other black filmmakers Charles Burnett and Haile Gerima make unique black & white films of black lives struggling in urban Los Angeles.
Another highly recommended Thom Andersen feature is "Red Hollywood", created in a similar method, about the blacklisting period.
Sandy Sanders creates art and the future at BlueJayWay.net. He is a member of The James Agee Cinema Circle.