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Thom Andersen: Looking Back at Los Angeles

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Thom Andersen's "Los Angeles Plays Itself" -- an essay-film on the image of Los Angeles in the movies -- will be released later this month by Cinema Guild. After a decade in the underground of bootlegged DVDs for cinephiles, "Los Angeles Plays Itself" will finally be available to ordinary Angeleños.

It should be required viewing for anyone who wonders why it's been so hard for so many to fall in love with this town.

Andersen's 2003 documentary ranges over nearly a hundred years of film making in Los Angeles to argue that filmmakers have rarely seen the city in which their movies are made. The city's misrepresentations at the movies have sometimes been willful, sometimes merely expedient, and sometimes hallucinations.

"Although Los Angeles has appeared in more films than any other city," Andersen wrote recently, "I believe that it has not been well served by these films. San Francisco, New York, London, Paris, Berlin, Tokyo have all left more indelible impressions. It happens that many film-makers working in Los Angeles don't appreciate the city, and very few of them understand much about it, but their failures in depicting it may have more profound causes."

Diagnosing some of those causes is Andersen's purpose, carried out in scores of clips from the silent era through the 1990s accompanied by a narrator (Encke King) whose methodical, mordant voice echoes Andersen's own.

I met Andersen not long after "Los Angeles Plays Itself" had progressed from a lecture to something Andersen calls a "city symphony in reverse." He sent me a VHS copy. I wrote him a fan letter.

"For what it's worth," I wrote, "your film was harrowing to watch. Courageous and dead-on right, but also heartbreaking. From a purely selfish point-of-view, I'm relieved that I'm not the only (one) who struggles to understand the deep history of this place in the way you presented it. I write about Los Angeles -- the city and the region -- as a ruined paradise. Not out of regret, but out of the knowledge that in ruining it, we made Los Angeles our home and the place we must understand and love, since it is our home [...] (W)e are always being thwarted from that intimacy by the erasure of memory, the substitution of false memories, and the subversion of hope." I thanked Andersen for making so much of that disconnection so clear.

Los Angeles and Los-Angeles-in-film are separate beyond the kind of displacements Angeleños wryly note when familiar locations miles apart are shown as if around the block from each other. The disconnections are ingrained in the business of Hollywood. Movies are made mostly by men who are whiter and younger and more Anglo than the city is. As Andersen has suggested elsewhere, privileged observers "in the industry" make the city we see in the movies. Andersen doesn't often see the city he knows.

In the movies, Los Angeles is a noir sheen over immense emptiness, a place where the decisions are made by fools or manipulators and where no one who isn't pulling the strings knows anything. What we're seeing is Robert Towne's "Chinatown."

"Chinatown" sums up the difficulties I have in seeing Los Angeles in the movies. At the end of "Chinatown" -- at the end of all the false leads the Jack Nicholson character has run down and at the end of our patience -- the clueless private eye is told, "Forget it, Jake. It's Chinatown." The city has become a sinister fake, and the image of Los Angeles has dwindled to a landscape seen in the rearview mirror of a car fleeing a crime scene. Towne's fable of murder, greed, incest, and hydraulics insists that all of us are only along for the ride.

The antidote is "500 Days of Summer" in which sitting and observing downtown Los Angeles -- not on a car chase through its streets -- is the frame for encountering the city. Joseph Gordon-Levitt and Zooey Deschanel sit on bench and talk romantically about the architecture of Los Angeles.

(The bench on Angel's Knoll -- a real place -- has been off limits since July. The city is required to sell the land -- worth an estimated $10 million -- as part of the dissolution of California's redevelopment agencies. I wonder what Andersen thought of "500 Days of Summer" or what he would think of the too obvious ironies.)

"500 Days of Summer" is a passing aberration. We'll always have "L.A. Confidential," "Blade Runner," and "Annie Hall" to reinforce the movies' preferred image of Los Angeles. We have Shanghai (which was the stand-in for a future Los Angeles in "Her") to look forward to.

Andersen has said that Los Angeles isn't photogenic. Perhaps he meant that the city on film didn't shamelessly appeal to sentiment, the way New York often does on film. Maybe he meant that the soul of Los Angeles couldn't be caught in a camera's roving over the city's skyline or through its streets. Los Angeles as Los Angeles mostly looks gaudy or uncanny or horrific on film. Rarely does it look touching or look like a place anyone with any sense would call home.

Thom Andersen calls Los Angeles his home. "Los Angeles Plays Itself" is his explanation for why so few of us do.

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