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Thom Andersen's Collected Essays Map L.A.'s Relationship to Film

"This is the city: Los Angeles, California," begins the narration of Thom Andersen's “Los Angeles Plays Itself.” "They make movies here. I live here." When I first heard those words, spoken over an assembly of black-and-white shots of freeways, studio lots and theater marquees from Los Angeles movies of the 1940s and 50s, I, too, lived that city. In fact, I'd only just moved there. A friend who'd settled in years earlier had invited me over to watch Andersen's nearly three-hour-long documentary on the myriad depictions of the city in film as a way of introducing me to my new city. He'd acquired a bootleg DVD of it while studying at CalArts under Andersen himself, a formidably knowledgeable and dry-witted presence not just in the classroom but at the theaters around the city and elsewhere that have screened “Los Angeles Plays Itself” every so often since its release in 2003.

Potential intellectual-property trouble over the clips of more than 200 different movies used in Los Angeles Plays Itself held up a proper DVD release, so for quite some time there was no other above-board way to see it. Andersen's wide-ranging post-screening Q&A sessions, though, made attendance almost compulsory for even enthusiasts of Los Angeles on film who did have a quasi-legitimate copy of their own. I went to at least five or six of them in my first four years in Los Angeles, but then, if I'd moved there for any reason other than sheer fascination with the place, I did it for the moviegoing. The Los Angeles County Museum of Art's film program exerted an especially strong draw, repeatedly bringing me down from Santa Barbara, where I lived before, with its promise of French and Italian New Wave, 1970s road movies, the Korean experimental social-comedies of Hong Sangsoo, and much else besides.

Thom Andersen | Christine Chang
Thom Andersen | Christine Chang

Alas, not long after I set up house in Los Angeles, LACMA sacked the man making those choices. It wasn't his first time on the chopping block: "In 2009 film-lovers in this sprawled-out city had come together with a remarkable cohesiveness to protest the cancellations of film programs at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art," Andersen writes in a Film Comment piece from early 2012. "As a newcomer to Los Angeles, the museum's CEO and director Michael Govan couldn't understand the program's special niche in Los Angeles film culture." The public response stayed the executioner's hand, but only for two years. Then, "in a brilliant Pontius Pilate maneuver, Govan ousted the museum's outspoken, passionate film programmer Ian Birnie for good," replacing him with the high-profile critic Elvis Mitchell, a "controversial but really unassailable" replacement.

The loss, though immediately palpable, didn't then seem like a fatal blow to Los Angeles film culture: we still had the American Cinematheque, with the Egyptian in the Hollywood and the Aero in Santa Monica; we still had the Quentin Tarantino-owned New Beverly; we still had the avant-garde-oriented Filmforum. We still had the ramshackle but wonky and highly adventurous Cinefamily: "Its programmer Hadrian Belove lacks the suaveness of Elvis Mitchell," Andersen writes, "but he can do what he likes without looking over his shoulders for big donors." Not anymore: financially insecure even in the best of times and dealt a fatal blow when the storm of "sexual misconduct" accusations sweeping through the film industry forced Belove out, Cinefamily shut down for good earlier this month.

Slow Writing Cover |  Photos courtesy of The Visible Press
Slow Writing Cover | Photos courtesy of The Visible Press

Andersen's lament, titled "Barbarians at the Gate," appears in “Slow Writing: Thom Andersen on Cinema,” the very first collection of essays published in his long career of teaching, programming and filmmaking. Its pieces span more than half a century ("I could not make a living as a film critic because I write too slowly," he writes in explanation of the title), and though many date from the past decade, even the newer pieces evidence a clear memory of what it felt like to be a cinéaste in the Los Angeles of previous eras. Andersen recalls Filmforum screenings of the 1990s at a "terrible theater" called the Wallenboyd, "right in the heart of Skid Row at Wall and Boyd," where "you had to pay 'The Avant Guardian' a dollar to watch your car," and the Saturdays when "Movies Round Midnight packed the Cinema Theater on Western Avenue," the same now long-gone venue where he saw his first Andy Warhol movie, “Sleep,” in June of 1964.

"His cinema is the cinema of cold intelligence," writes a young Andersen of Warhol in a 1966 piece for Artforum, then based in Los Angeles. "It is passionless and also merciless. Perhaps this is why it disturbs so many people." An Andersen almost forty years older remembers Sleep, admiringly, as "a movie that was self-sufficient, like a tree or a stone or a building. It didn't need me, and I didn't need it." No other filmmaker "could afford to be as humble or as just plain dumb as Warhol." The observation resonates with what he notes a few years later about watching a screening of Christian Marclay's “The Clock” at LACMA (in the same theater where Birnie's selections once played): "The Clock is certainly dumb: a twenty-four hour movie made entirely from other movies in which the depicted screen time corresponds precisely to the actual time of the screening with plenty of clock inserts and shots in which clocks appear, sometimes incidentally. I'm sure I'm not the first to ask, why didn't I think of that? But is ‘The Clock’ dumb enough?"

I've never heard “Los Angeles Plays Itself,” Andersen's own project of collecting and reorganizing existing cinematic material, called dumb, but when I first watched it that night at my friend's place, I did curse myself for not having thought of it first. That regret, in time, led to The City in Cinema, my series of video essays on the representation and misrepresentation of Los Angeles (and occasionally other cities) in film, as much my exercise in trying to reach an understanding of that essentially un-masterable metropolis as a tribute to my inspirations. Andersen seems to understand that un-masterability: "When it began screening around the world," he writes of “Los Angeles Plays Itself,” "I suddenly found myself regarded as an authority on Los Angeles. This kind of treatment had the effect of underlining my ignorance."

But making a documentary like “Los Angeles Plays Itself,” composed of "fragments from other films read against the grain to bring the background into the foreground" and in which "visions of the city's geography and history implicit in these films were made manifest," demands less a mastery of the city itself than a mastery of one's own attentional faculties. "Movies bury their traces, choosing for us what to watch, then moving on to something else," Andersen says through his narrator Encke King early in the documentary. "They do the work of our voluntary attention, and so we must suppress that faculty as we watch. Our involuntary attention must come to the fore. But what if we watch with our voluntary attention, instead of letting the movies direct us?"

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Andersen clearly prizes cinema that refuses to direct its viewers and leaves them space to pay any kind of voluntary attention they wish, whether Warhol's five hours and 20 minutes of a man sleeping, The Clock's foregrounding of time over all other elements of film, or the work of a filmmaker he takes Marclay to task for including too little of in “The Clock:” Yasujirō Ozu, with whose “Late Autumn” I recall Birnie capping off his fifteen-year tenure at LACMA. "Ozu is, after all, the great filmmaker of durée, of lived time, and he created the most elegant clock shots in the history of cinema." In a 2012 Sight & Sound piece, Andersen points out an absence in Ozu's work: "There are no subjective images of any kind, no images that purport to show what a character is imagining or dreaming or remembering or anticipating." In context, that sounds like high praise indeed.

The films of Ozu, unimaginable without their midcentury Japanese setting, obviously don't appear in “Los Angeles Plays Itself,” but a few of the directors whose work it does include receive fuller treatment in Slow Writing. Jim Jarmusch's “Night on Earth,” for instance: while its Los Angeles segment "is certainly not literalist," Andersen writes in a 2007 essay for the Criterion Collection's DVD release, "it is evocative, and it has aged much better than the hysterically pessimistic visions of the city prevalent in the 1990s." (The fearful, aggrieved scenes of Lawrence Kasdan's “Grand Canyon” and Joel Schumacher's “Falling Down” in “Los Angeles Plays Itself” come right to mind.) Andersen's consideration finds its way to memorable insights about both the filmmaker and the city: "Because it was first for so many years — it built the first freeway system, the first airport for jet airliners, the first mid-century modern baseball stadium, the first shoddy neoclassical cultural palaces — it is in many ways the oldest U.S. city. Jarmusch knows New York better, but he values what is ancient in each of the cities he portrays."

Night on Earth | Jim Jarmusch, 1991​
Night on Earth | Jim Jarmusch, 1991​

As a movie about five different rides in five different taxis, “Night on Earth” also offers Andersen occasion to remember an earlier chapter in his own career: "I was a cab driver once myself (in Los Angeles, in the mid-1970s), and I've been sensitive ever since to how the profession is portrayed on the screen." It irked him that, while he and his colleagues made little more than minimum wage, "Travis Bickle made $300 to $400 per week, so he was free of the mundane financial worries that bedeviled me." Even so, his memories reveal that it was an unfathomably cheaper time in Los Angeles: when he went to graduate school at UCLA, "there was no tuition, just a student activity fee of $81 a year. I rented a room with an ocean view in Irving Gill's Horatio Court for $37.50 a month. I ate at Olivia's Place, where almost all the entrees were less than a dollar."

Andersen made a short film about that Santa Monica diner in 1966, for an experimental film course at UCLA. ("I got a B for the course because my project wasn't experimental enough.") After moving out of the neighborhood, he writes in his annotated filmography at the back of “Slow Writing,” he paid Olivia's Place another visit in 1967 and "discovered an entirely different clientele: the bohemian youth of Venice and Ocean Park, people like Jim Morrison and Ray Manzarek." (The restaurant would inspire the Doors' song "Soul Kitchen" that same year.) Andersen planned to shoot that scene and combine it with his earlier project into a diptych film, but "one day in the early 1970s, I drove by and Olivia's Place was gone without a trace, another victim of 'community redevelopment.'"

Night on Earth | Jim Jarmusch, 1991​
Night on Earth | Jim Jarmusch, 1991

Music and automobiles figure just about as much into what Andersen reveals of his life as one might expect from an Angeleno of his generation. "I can still remember where I was the first time I heard it," he writes of The Crystals' "Then He Kissed Me," "stopped at a traffic light on West 39th Street at Degnan Blvd. as I was driving to a class at the University of Southern California. I pulled over to the side of the road so I could concentrate more intently on the song coming from the radio." But he also criticizes the blinkered many, filmmakers or otherwise, who see Los Angeles primarily through a windshield. "Who knows the city?" asks the narration of Los Angeles Plays Itself. "Only those who walk, only those who ride the bus. Forget the mystical blatherings of Joan Didion and company about the automobile and the freeways. They say nobody walks; they mean no rich white people like us walk."

And so after “Los Angeles Plays Itself” came “Get Out of the Car,” a half-hour-long exploration of the city on its streets rather than through its cinematic history. What began as "a study of weather-worn billboards around Los Angeles" eventually came to include everything "from custom-made neon signs to whimsical sculptures to mural-like paintings that cover the walls of restaurants, grocery stores, and auto repair shops," set to the music by the likes of Johnny Otis, rhythm and blues saxophonist Big Jay McNeely and norteño icons Los Tigres del Norte. Andersen calls those last "the most important music group in the United States today, their impact greater than Dylan and Springsteen combined." Of this project's use of unsubtitled Spanish, he writes that "I wanted to put bilingual viewers in a privileged position (they are the only ones who can fully understand the film) and remind monolingual viewers of their cultural disadvantage."

Get Out of the Car | Thom Andersen, 2010​
Get Out of the Car | Thom Andersen, 2010​

These strong choices lead up, in Andersen's commentary on “Get Out of the Car,” to a kind of manifesto for what he calls "militant nostalgia" and against the kind of "misguided nostalgia," not unknown in Los Angeles, that deems it necessary "to preserve a simple utilitarian building just because it is a repository of historic memories." As the essay reaches its crescendo, Andersen urges his city to "restore what can be restored, like the Watts Towers. Rebuild what must be rebuilt. Re-abolish capital punishment. Remember the injustices done to Chinese, Japanese, blacks, gays, Mexicans, Chicanos, and make it right. Put Richard Berry, Maxwell Davis, Hunter Hancock, Art Laboe, and Big Jay McNeely in the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame. Bring back South Central Farm."

Unlike many Angelenos of his generation — and especially unlike those who remember living a block from the beach $37.50 for attending UCLA for $81, all to a soundtrack of Phil Spector and The Doors — Andersen ultimately prefers this iteration of Los Angeles to those of the past, now seen mostly in movies, not least because of its demographics: "Diversity is why I like the city more now than at any time in the past, despite its well-documented problems and its dysfunctional government. If I choose, I can ride and walk around all day without seeing another white face." Long-time residents of Los Angeles of a certain age may fulminate about the English language's decreasing prevalence in the city, but Andersen advocates "real bilingual education in the schools of California to ensure that all English-speaking students learn Spanish and all Spanish-speaking students learn English."

Get Out of the Car | Thom Andersen, 2010​
Get Out of the Car | Thom Andersen, 2010

In addition to the deep connection to Latin America, "Asia looms larger in our imaginations, and for us Asia is the West and Europe is the East. Europeans don't care about Korea, but it is very important to us in Los Angeles." I now live in Korea myself, having moved here from Los Angeles a couple of years ago, a choice no doubt influenced by all those Hong Sangsoo screenings at LACMA. (But despite the transpacific relocation, or perhaps because of it, I do enjoy a cinematic diet richer in Los Angeles movies than ever.) Regarding Andersen's work from here makes its subtle Korean connections more notable: the credits of “Los Angeles Plays Itself” list an editor with the Korean name of Yoo Seung-hyun, and Andersen dedicates the film to Johnny Otis, Art Laboe, and "Kim Sung-tae, immigrant and emigrant." “Slow Writing” he dedicates to his wife Christine Myung-hi Chang, whom he also credits as a collaborator.

Andersen rejects simple nostalgia for a simpler Los Angeles, but he also rejects the fundamentally negative conception of the city upon which some of its most celebrated films have been premised. "Chinatown created a mold for movie versions of Los Angeles history that has yet to be broken," he argues in an essay originally written for a Austrian exhibition on Los Angeles in film. "In all these movies, the people are excluded, and secret cabals decide everything. This conspiracy-theory history is particularly inappropriate for Los Angeles where you could always read about civic corruption in the daily newspapers." “Blade Runner,” “Who Framed Roger Rabbit,” “L.A. Confidential:” whether set in the past or the future, Los Angeles period pieces "replace the public history of the city with a secret history," which "serves to dissuade naive viewers from political engagement by telling them that they are condemned to ignorance and powerlessness, no matter what they do."

All those pictures' presentations of Los Angeles, and many others, come in for criticism in “Los Angeles Plays Itself,” whether for their willful misrepresentation of history, their shaky sense of place ("Geographic license is usually an alibi for laziness"), or their penchant for Taxi Driver-style economic fantasy ("To someone who knows Los Angeles only from movies, it might appear that everyone who has a job lives in the hills or at the beach"). Andersen reserves his praise in the documentary for the likes of the "stubbornly, even perversely literalist" South Bay car-chase picture “Gone in 60 Seconds,” or the alternately harrowingly and sweetly realist visions, as low of budget and rich of feeling as the lives of their downtrodden subjects, of Kent MacKenzie's “The Exiles,” Haile Gerima's “Bush Mama,” Charles Burnett's “Killer of Sheep,” and Billy Woodberry's “Bless their Little Hearts.”

"The irony of ending an account that is roughly chronological in its organization with four old movies have not escaped me," Andersen writes of “Los Angeles Plays Itself.” That piece as well as others collected in “Slow Writing” make more explicit the demand implicit in the documentary: a demand for richer and more realistic cinematic visions of Los Angeles, of course, but more so for a higher cinema. "Something better is possible," he assures us in the book's introduction. "Most of us who think about movies and television know it. We don't need to eliminate comic book movies: most of us read comic books at some time in our lives without rotting our brains. We don't need to eliminate movies that entertain as long as they leave something that lasts. We need to eliminate work that does not honor our intelligence." We need cinema that "acknowledges what we know but don't believe." A cinema that acknowledges what we know but don't believe about the city so much of it uses — and more often than not, misuses — as a setting would make for a fine start.

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