Once it was a whispered secret among movie obsessives: the consensus that Thom Andersen’s Los Angeles Plays Itself was a perfect film, three hours of combing through Los Angeles in a stunning multitude of clips and cuts, exploring how the city shaped the movies that shaped the city. Greeted with hosannas upon its release in 2003, it kept a supposedly necessarily low profile in the years that followed, with screenings limited to the occasional repertory-house run.
While its status as a rarity was said to have something to do with the fact that it would be impossible to secure all the rights for the film clips that make up Los Angeles Plays Itself, it turns out that wasn’t really the case. According to attorney Michael Donaldson, the film fell squarely under the terms of “fair use.” In reality, Andersen had balked, initially, at the $3,500 insurance required to protect the film and the fear that a middling copy of it could be out in the world.
But, a decade later, Los Angeles Plays Itself is finally available — and convenient — for anyone to stream on Netflix or rent from iTunes. Over the course of a fleet-footed three hours, Andersen skillfully transcends the pleasures of your average awards-ceremony “Year in Film” montage to create a towering portrait of the last hundred years of Los Angeles on screen. It’s a film that’s enjoyable however you choose to watch it, whether it’s straight through or (like me) stretched out over three days in a NyQuil haze.
The film takes the form of a video essay, and Andersen has a knack for editing — the clips are beautifully chosen, and seeing an iconic landmark like the Bradbury Building shift through the years, starting out as a backdrop for noir shadows in D.O.A. before becoming a desolate, dystopian wreck in Blade Runner, is fascinating. The way that Andersen showcases a film like 1967’s Point Blank illuminates how current movies, like this fall’s engrossing, imperfect Nightcrawler, stole liberally from its shots.
Andersen ties the clips together with judiciously placed, brilliantly cranky and idiosyncratic, narration. The voice is writer and editor Encke King, who has the monotone of a Ben Stein without the nasality, and he dryly details various little things that annoy Andersen regarding LA on film. (For example: Andersen even objects to the abbreviation “LA,” calling it an insult to the city itself in the film’s most hilarious, notorious rant.) He expounds on things you might have noticed in passing, like how Los Angeles is always seen through the haze (New York, on the other hand, is represented as crisp and sunny); how Blade Runner‘s 2019 imagines Los Angeles as the perfect city — one that’s functiona and not a suburb — by remaking it into, essentially, New York; and how its futuristic architecture — buildings by Frank Lloyd Wright and others — gives the city an authority it rarely deserves, as it’s an imperfect, screaming, immature teenager of a city, still figuring itself out.
At points — particularly when the NyQuil kicks in — the film feels, entertainingly, like a cranky old man complaining about how the movies are full of lies, but there’s such specific knowledge behind that crankiness that it comes off as quite endearing. Andersen is able to look at the place-setting behind storytelling, the backdrops to our dreams in 35 mm, and the result casts films in a new light of class, race, economics, and history. It’s also terrific fun just to see the sheer variety of films that have used the city as a backdrop, from the ’70s gay porn from which Los Angeles Plays Itself takes its title to the slapstick hilarity of What! No Beer? to a film from the 1930s about a woman leading a company — called, impressively, Female.
By the time you reach hour three, and Andersen is talking about the racial divides that shape Los Angeles, showing how films like The Exiles, El Norte, American Me, Bush Mama, and Killer of Sheep paint a neorealist portrait of life in the real city, you’ll want the film to run for three more hours. It could, easily. “Forget the mystical blatherings by Joan Didion and company about freeways. They say nobody walks, but it’s not rich white people like us who walk,” the narrator says, as we see the working-class heroine of Bush Mama walking. By the time filmmakers start showing us how Los Angeles really looks, without the pomp and flash of big-budget studio movies, we understand the economics and energy that got us to this point.
As someone writing this piece from New York City, it’s easy to shrug at Los Angeles, the (other) Wild West that forever beckons. And a first time in Los Angeles is odd and bewildering, as captured with a near-documentary verisimilitude in Woody Allen’s Annie Hall. But through Andersen’s masterpiece, Los Angeles becomes even more real, becoming less of a Shangri-La and gaining something like a solid shape; the streets and history of a real city, with all the complexity that entails.