June 10, 2005

Los Angeles Plays Itself

Directed by Thom Andersen

Reviewed by Martin Tsai

Ranked No. 17 in the Film Comment annual critics' poll, Thom Andersen's Los Angeles Plays Itself struck a chord much as Michael Moore's Fahrenheit 9/11 did within some circles last year. The documentary is almost like a college course on the roles the city has portrayed in cinema, with California Institute of the Arts lecturer Andersen painstakingly cramming a semester's worth of material from more than 70 films into a three-hour running time. It encompasses everything from usual suspects like Chinatown, Double Indemnity and Heat to the eponymous gay porn that lends its title.

Los Angeles Plays Itself observes various cinematic incarnations of different buildings, monuments and neighbourhoods, and considers depictions of ugly houses, palm trees, bland suburbs and seedy inner cities. Andersen complains that most filmmakers don't get the city because they use nonexistent street names, addresses, phone numbers and government agencies or they never set foot in the suburbs. But he has a nagging tendency to digress into other subjects ("Just as modernist architecture connotes epicene villainy, Spanish Revival suggests petty bourgeois good taste") and make gross generalizations ("People who hate Los Angeles love Point Blank"). When he claims that "the best films about Los Angeles are, at least partly, about modes of transportation" by citing examples such as Falling Down, Midnight Madness and Who Framed Roger Rabbit, one has to wonder why he has omitted Speed. Andersen's all-inclusive study seems disorganized and roundabout, although he has since followed up with an article in Cinema Scope - which covers more recent films such as Collateral and Mulholland Dr. - that articulates the points much more cogently.

Filmmakers do often rely on mise-en-scène as shorthand to quickly establish bakground or mood pieces, and they also dwell on the unique auras of other cities such as New York, Chicago, London and Paris. While an analysis of the mythical role that Los Angeles performs in films is valid, Andersen's passionate rebuttal to these portraits seems like an overreaction. Considering that women and ethnic minorities actually have to live with the stigma of such stereotyping still ubiquitous in today's cinema, the consequence that a city suffers is irrelevant and insignificant by comparison. Then again, the majority of critics and scholars in North America won't know the difference since they are just as predominantly white and male as the majority of filmmakers and studio executives.

Reprinted from WestEnder. © Copyright 2005 Martin Tsai. All rights reserved.