Monday, October 13, 2008

I Love LA

In Thom Anderson's fascinating (and illegal) documentary "Los Angeles Plays Itself," he compiles hundreds of film clips that show Los Angeles, and builds a philosophy of how the city in which the vast majority of entertainment imagery and stories comes out of portrays itself.

Most of the subtext these films generate - from corrupt cops to smoggy flatlands to evil and unaffordable modernist houses up on the hills - isn't intentionally misleading or malicious. The films are motivated first by the need to be picturesque, then in reflecting the modes and means of production, easy to access or manage (financially or physically). The cheaper films will be set near Venice or the forgotten hills of deep LA downtown (Bunker Hill in the '20s and '30s).

Films with bigger budgets will position their villians on the hills overlooking the hills of Hollywood. And their heroes in a fashionable beachhouse - both no doubt for rent far beyond the pay their characters would afford, even in real life.

In Anderson's glorious cacaphony of appropriated clips - which is a self-created gordian's legal knot, no doubt not likely ever to be untangled or released - we are overwhelmed by what we recognize, what we don't, how much landscape, landmarks, fixtures and real life are in the periphery of every film ever made.

That LA (stubbornly "Los Angeles" to Anderson) is so memorable and recognizable is a testament to the unity in its apparent promiscuous appropriations of styles and fashions. There's a nostalgia infused in all of Los Angeles, with public works, bridge embankments, and neon signs high above 100-year-old hotels to remind us of previous times, glories, and periods that are, for one, not that far off. (Los Angeles and Hollywood are actually less than 100 years old - you may see old Chaplin films from the late teens and see that Sunset Blvd, the monster strip of today, was still a muddy street without curbs then.)

For two, its previous glories are documented. Well. We know the Roosevelt Hotel, and Bunker Hill, and the Santa Monica pier, and the Bradbury Building. The remnants remain, and are sometimes boarded up but not necessarily levelled. But then that leaves its own traces.

"Los Angeles Plays Itself" ends up documenting LA's combination of old nostalgic charm and misguided progress, gently and not maliciously butted up against each other, in conflict as the dramas of the day (whether it's paranoid class struggle in the '60s or corporate anxiety in the '90s). Much of it, although photographed well, isn't particularly photogenic - it's not gussied up to look as good as possible, because maybe it already has the power to provoke without it.

My main complaint with Anderson's collection, running at over 2 hours 45 minutes, is that it - wait for it - isn't long enough. He seems to begin in the late '30s and the vast majority of his clips are from the '80s and '90s. No death of material, but I would have liked to see how LA looked in the silent era, to really get a sense of how it built itself, and became the character before it eventually became, as Anderson demonstrates, the actual subject of much of these films.

The continuum continues. "Lakeview Terrace," "Collateral;" I can only imagine when someone tries to do this for New York. Or Chicago. Our relationship to a place has a lot to do with what others say about it. Los Angeles, with its history of outsiders coming in to comment on it, seems to be a good place to start.

I love LA - or, at least, what they show me of it in the movies.

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