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How Chinatown Falsifies History and Why Dragnet Is Like Ozu
February 5, 2011 10:53 AM   Subscribe

Los Angeles Plays Itself is a dazzling cinematic essay by the filmmaker Thom Andersen about how the city of Los Angeles is portrayed in films. Watch it now on YouTube: Part 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9, 10, 11, 12

The Reality of Film: Thom Andersen on Los Angeles Plays Itself
The Dream Life of Angeles: A Film Professor Reclaims His City
Blade Runner Is a City Planner's Dream: An Interview with Thom Andersen
List of Films Mentioned in Los Angeles Plays Itself
posted by jonp72 (36 comments total) 59 users marked this as a favorite

 
I just watched Altman's "The Long Goodbye" last night. I love love LOVE depictions of L.A. in the 70s. So spacious and tacky and relatively unself-conscious.
posted by hermitosis at 10:57 AM on February 5, 2011


Nice, I've wanted to see this but as far as I can tell, it's never been released on DVD.
posted by octothorpe at 11:11 AM on February 5, 2011


Nice, I've wanted to see this but as far as I can tell, it's never been released on DVD.

This has been in my Netflix queue for years.

It is still listed as:
Format: DVD availability date unknown
posted by birdherder at 11:15 AM on February 5, 2011


The rights to this beast are nigh impossible to procure. This thing will never be released on DVD.
posted by PostIronyIsNotaMyth at 11:36 AM on February 5, 2011


I've seen this twice in theaters and it was spellbinding both times. This and Brownlow's "Hollywood" silent film documentary are both lost in a copyright maze from which I doubt they'll ever emerge, unless there's a sudden outbreak of good sense out there. I hate having to watch this on youTube when it ought to be a glamorous HD box set. Thanks for all the great links though!
posted by Erasmouse at 11:56 AM on February 5, 2011


I just watched Altman's "The Long Goodbye" last night. I love love LOVE depictions of L.A. in the 70s. So spacious and tacky and relatively unself-conscious.

Yeah, well, that was the only good thing about that movie.
posted by VikingSword at 11:56 AM on February 5, 2011


Oh man, between this and the Star Wars thing, I've got my weekend YouTubing planned out for me.
posted by The Winsome Parker Lewis at 12:15 PM on February 5, 2011


Klaus Kinski isn't so much of a temporal engineer as he is someone who goes back in time and shakes it as baby.
posted by clarknova at 12:20 PM on February 5, 2011 [2 favorites]


This is fantastic, I can't wait to watch all 12 parts.

I lived in L.A. for six years, and the pervasive effect of the film & television industry and its cumulative output over the years is pretty remarkable. It was while living there that I developed a fondness for watching reruns of Adam-12 and CHiPS, because in any given episode you stand a good chance of catching a glimpse of a familiar building or intersection in your neighborhood as it appeared decades earlier.
posted by usonian at 2:06 PM on February 5, 2011 [2 favorites]


This is awesome and usually is shown in LA a few times a year.
posted by mandymanwasregistered at 2:41 PM on February 5, 2011


Thanks jonp72, I missed my chance to see this in a theater and like birdherder I've been staring at it forlornly in my Saved queue ever since.

psst, nobody tell YouTube about the naked butt at the end of part 2.
posted by Horace Rumpole at 3:20 PM on February 5, 2011


This is indeed great. Los Angeles is a city I'm in fairly often, but don't really understand. I like the way that it is totally unlike London, my standard reference model for a city. After a few visits, you start seeing points - the Kirby Mall, the offices of Wolfram and Hart. I should go back and watch some of these movies again now I have a bit more of a sense of the city.

Cheers, jonp72!
posted by DNye at 3:38 PM on February 5, 2011


I love seeing L.A. in movies. Zabriskie Point seems to make a lot of effort showing the lowbrow ugly commercialism to be seen driving down any major Los Angeles artery, yet I found those shots remarkable documentation of the landscape, even if the storyline is not so hot.

Another neat L.A. movie from the same era that didn't seem to be mentioned is I Love You, Alice B. Toklas!
posted by 2N2222 at 4:33 PM on February 5, 2011


Just finished it. I enjoyed it. I've always liked Los Angeles and feel it always gets an unfair shake, pretty much by everyone. I love seeing movies shot in Los Angeles and trying to place where they are, and unlike Anderson, love when an exit door from a place opens up to a location 20 miles away. I also love when Los Angeles acts as a stand in for somewhere else. Like the stockyard scene in Union Station where there's a palm tree in the middle of the Chicago stockyards.

What a lot of people don't get is Los Angeles isn't really a city so much as a collection of neighborhoods -- brought together as Anderson suggests "out of contempt for the central core." (or something like that). So, in general, Los Angeles is cast as this big, dirty sprawl of strip malls and freeways when in reality there are some real gems. Being in the west when anything over 30 years old tends to get knocked down and built over, there's not a lot of history left. Hollywood tends to just show the beach, the hills, or South Central.

Getting clearances for this would take forever. This could be a great documentary miniseries produced (with financial support of some rich filmmakers) by Los Angeles area PBS stations and eventually find its way to a box set. I say produced since I would think they could find cleaner (hard to tell with Youtube) prints to work with as well as give Anderson a chance to tighten up the narrative. Unfortunately, Los Angeles can't even get its shit together with public television these days so maybe not.

I must also say that I like Anderson's crankiness over using LA vs Los Angeles:
For example, the thing about L.A. and Los Angeles, which has given me a lot of grief. It's kind of hard to take seriously, but I think it's always interesting to talk about the use of language. It reveals something that goes beyond the specific linguistic issues. I actually cut out a whole paragraph about the disappearance of the apostrophe in [the trolley] Angels Flight which would have been really cranky. I guess I have the idea that the disappearance or misuse of the apostrophe can tell us something about the times in which we live. The use of diminutives as a way of denigrating something is done unconsciously, but we should be conscious of it. I'm not against changes in language, but people should be conscious of the way theyuse language and the way it can express ideas that aren't acknowledged or understood.
It's fine to abbreviate in a tweet, I suppose. Anderson's thought that LA is the movie industry and Los Angeles is the actual place makes sense.

People using LA doesn't grate on me as much as those who say Frisco when referring to San Francisco. But I really hate when people who say "Cali" when referring to California. If you're not LL Cool J or the Notorious BIG (RIP), then you can't call it that.

I would love to hear the bit about the apostrophe!
posted by birdherder at 4:34 PM on February 5, 2011 [1 favorite]


Wow, this totally ate my afternoon. I've lived here most of my life (well, in the Valley and Santa Monica, so I guess I've lived in quasi-LA for most of my life) and my two favorite movies are Who Framed Roger Rabbit and Chinatown, so this clearly is right up my alley. That one shot of the baby boomer neighborhood built for the airplane factory workers could be my street, and indeed, my house was built in 1939 as a development for Douglas employees. We still have a backyard incinerator.

Definitely going to send this to my dad and my aunts and uncles, who lived here from 1960 on. Many people hate LA, and that's their right, but I love it and love watching movies by others who do.
posted by little light-giver at 6:19 PM on February 5, 2011


Yeah, well, that was the only good thing about [The Long Goodbye].

You're out of your mind. Altman's The Long Goodbye is a masterpiece on every level.
posted by dobbs at 9:29 PM on February 5, 2011 [3 favorites]


It's such a great movie, isn't it? Since it looks like it will be never released on DVD (because of copyright issues), a final word: torrent.
posted by Mister Bijou at 11:02 PM on February 5, 2011


How is LA portrayed in movies?

Too much if you ask me.

For us on the outside (though we've been there, seen it, yeah, it's a sprawling mess, gimme a break) it's like seeing Bombay in every other movie that comes out. Really, who cares, except for the people who live in LA?
posted by Laotic at 11:27 PM on February 5, 2011


Laotic, you're kidding yourself if you don't think the Los Angeles you've seen in the movies influenced your "sprawling mess" real-life impression. Ultimately, the experience of living in LA is altered because of how the world perceives it through one of its primary exports, and because a lot of filmmakers live here (many of whom seem to hate it here, btw, or experience it only through a lens of extreme privilege or extreme cynicism), a lot of implicit LA beliefs come through intentionally or unintentionally, in plots.

A great example from this documentary is the "symbolic castration" of not having a car - ultimately there are plenty of places where a guy can get around without a vehicle, but in the world of the movies, wheels are essential, because where the movies are made, not having a car is a gigantic fucking pain. This is something I'd never really thought about until the movie "Greenberg" came out last year, which I didn't actually see, but I read a review out of it that pointed out that Greenberg's character is an LA resident who can't drive which is basically just movie shorthand for "loser". If the film capital of the world were NY or Paris or London, that connotation just wouldn't exist, period. It makes you think: what other aspects of life in Los Angeles are assumed to be true everywhere, and projected in the media we export?

So, yeah, I think it's worth thinking about how LA shapes the movies and how the movies have shaped LA. I mean, maybe watching 3 hours of documentary about it isn't your cup of tea, but to dismiss it as just a bunch of typical self-obsessed Hollywood navelgazing is unfair and wildly inaccurate. Another thing he gets into a little is that a lot of the movies shot in LA are not made by people from Los Angeles, or people who are stuck here because their showbiz jobs are here and not because they like it, and capture beliefs like yours, that LA is overexposed, shallow, ugly, pathologically corrupt, "a sprawling mess" etc. I hear these beliefs from non-natives who live here all the time and never realized the extent to which this is probably due to the fact that their first introduction to LA was in the movies, which often play up all its worst attributes. I've had visitors come from out of town and whine about how the 405 is "always like this", never having seen that oft-congested thoroughfare in person before. I mean, dang.

Anyway, I think it's worth watching at least some of this documentary. I think you may be pleasantly surprised. I certainly learned a lot and now I have some movies I'll throw into my Netflix queue.
posted by little light-giver at 11:50 PM on February 5, 2011 [2 favorites]


little light-giver, I will enjoy watching the documentary when I have the time, and I understand that people who live in LA might enjoy it for precisely the same reasons as I would seeing a documentary of movies which were shot in my town, but it's just too much of the same thing, and not even a good one.

It's just that I don't want forever to be fed stuff which shows how not do to things, because there is stuff and places which suit my temper much more (and much less movies are made about those, thank goodness). It's the overkill of the bad and the useless of LA in its portrayals that irks me.

To give a (far-fetched) metaphor, it's like most film-makers lived in some famined, war-torn, corrupt, slummy African neighborhood with a huge rich-poor gap, and for lack of money, invention and daring, portrayed that environment in every scenario imaginable.

That would make it a de-facto standard movie setting. Like these days - is there a tornado, a giant global flood, a hellfire, a giant monkey or indeed, Satan himself descending from heaven? They always end up in one place, or at least the hero allmighty was born and raised there.

Granted, there are other choices, so my rant above is largely irrelevant.
posted by Laotic at 1:34 AM on February 6, 2011


As a native Angeleno who left eight years ago, I find that feelings of appreciation and confusion around Los Angeles only increase with time and distance. This is brilliant. Thank you for posting.
posted by nickrussell at 2:15 AM on February 6, 2011


Also of interest (as well as the essays listed by jonp72 at the top of this page) there is Collateral Damage: Los Angeles Continues Playing Itself
posted by Mister Bijou at 7:02 AM on February 6, 2011


Well, I've lived in about a dozen cities around the world, including LA for over 15 years - LA is the ugliest, most pathetic big city I can think of - easily, the last city that deserves this kind of attention. Of course, only LA doesn't acknowledge this. Only LA thinks that because I say that I am either jealous or don't get it or both.

I pretty much agree with Laotic's take - as with everything about the entertainment industry in LA (which is to say: LA) , the use of itself as a setting is just another aspect of the irresistible, unquenchable, bottomless pit of self-justifying exhibitionism that is institutionally built into the culture of LA.

This documentary and its content? I could hardly be accused of having a bad self image, but I have never jerked off in a mirror.
posted by victors at 7:11 AM on February 6, 2011


This documentary and its content? I could hardly be accused of having a bad self image, but I have never jerked off in a mirror.

Did you watch it? Your comments certainly make it seem like you didn't.
posted by dobbs at 9:59 AM on February 6, 2011 [1 favorite]


Did you watch it?

I watched as much as I could I stomach. The first seg and snippets of the others - it all looks like a meta-navel gazing exercise to me... ("LA plays (with) itself") quite possible I'm missing the larger point of making such a thing.
posted by victors at 5:03 PM on February 6, 2011


Only LA thinks that because I say that I am either jealous or don't get it or both.

This is interesting because my perception is that L.A. is unique in that there is a vast lack pride, care in what the outside world thinks, and parochialism. The idea that L.A. cares what you think seems more a projection about what Angelenos think rather than reality. People who make L.A. their home are rarely under any illusions about the sprawl, the ugliness, or whatever faults you can throw up.

L.A. shows up in plenty of movies, but it's less frequent L.A. is actually a setting for the story. Is it really any more frequent a setting than any other large city? Maybe there are numbers to back that up, but I've never had that sense. Even if it were true, is it any mystery why a movie set in a large American city would make that location Los Angeles, when it's the very back yard of the movie industry, with a huge and diverse population? Is L.A. really depicted in frequency out of proportion with it's size? The idea that it is seems to be a point that irritates some.

The neat thing about seeing L.A. in movies is the rich and professional visual documentation we can see as a result, even if the depictions are intended to be somewhere else. Which is a nice thing about this movie even if it's IMO slow and navel gaze-y.
posted by 2N2222 at 7:15 PM on February 6, 2011 [1 favorite]


The idea that L.A. cares what you think seems more a projection about what Angelenos think rather than reality.

In other words: I don't get it? I'm missing the "reality."

First, I'm pretty sure I moved passed projecting and into actual life experience after living there, going to school, getting married to a Valley girl, having kids, working in the entertainment industry, etc. etc. for 17 years.

Second, if Angelinos are so humbly ashamed of what a pit it is why don't they, you know, fix it instead of spending 100+ years immortalizing its pitiful ugliness? Oh, it's because they don't care what I think! They would rather live and work in a mega eye-sore than give me the satisfaction of applying taste and beauty to their environment. That's fucking precious.

Meanwhile, the idea that LA is not the most self-conscience place on Earth, in love with itself and the ultimate social hierarchy where everybody knows their place, where..... wait, hold on.... huh? yea, I got to take this, it's Morgan Freeman's assistant on the line... anyway, yea, she says you're right, LA is a humble, pride-less kind of place that isn't the world capital for head shots, boob jobs and full immersion Propecia baths. So yea, I'm projecting after all.
posted by victors at 9:04 PM on February 6, 2011


"entertainment industry in LA (which is to say: LA)"

I cannot agree with the conflation of the two. Most of Los Angeles goes about life with little thought of these obsessions.

Further: every giant city has massive amounts of beauty and art as well as hundreds of square miles of, well, slums, as well as the backlots of industrial capitalism.
posted by lathrop at 9:26 PM on February 6, 2011


I cannot agree with the conflation of the two.

1 in 6 people work directly in the entertainment industry and 4 out of the other 5 are in support industries. "there are more artists, writers, filmmakers, actors, dancers and musicians living and working in Los Angeles than any other city at any time in the history of civilization." *

I can't think of a more focused city in America (except maybe Detroit or San Jose) - where else do 1 in 6 people out of 12 million work in exactly the same industry??

every giant city has massive amounts of beauty and art as well as hundreds of square miles of, well, slums, as well as the backlots of industrial capitalism.

So no city is more esthetically pleasing than any other? No city has more style or grace than any other? That LA is ugly, gauche and tacky is also not a matter of debate, "most would agree that it’s a pretty ugly city"
posted by victors at 9:29 AM on February 7, 2011


On a tangent:

"there are more artists, writers, filmmakers, actors, dancers and musicians living and working in Los Angeles than any other city at any time in the history of civilization."

Doesn't that sound amazing, though? I realise it may well not be amazing, but what kind of Paradise of the Arts would you expect from that statistic?

Back ontopic, I was interested in the citing of Lautner in the film as used to exemplify the distasters of a particular style of architecture, and its use to signifiy the impermanence and the ugliness of Los Angeles. Lautner seems to have experienced something of a reevaluation in recent years - I know that the interior of Sam Rockwell's house in Charlie's Angels was not in fact the inside of the Chemosphere, but nevertheless it did look damn cool, and the Lautner retrospective at the Hammer seemed like both a sign and an agent of redemption. I'd be interested in the opinions of Angelenos about Lautner, and recent uses of Lautner in film.
posted by DNye at 11:15 AM on February 7, 2011


He asks rhetorically at one point, "Why shouldn't the exit from a skating rink in Westwood open directly onto Fletcher Bowron Square in downtown Los Angeles, fifteen miles east?" This is a critique of geographic license? Hell, I once saw Arnold Schwarzenegger get on to the bottom of an escalator in Vancouver and get off the top in Toronto, 2100 miles and three time zones east. Of course, towards the end of the movie he is on the thirty-somethingth floor of the evil megacorp's headquarters, which is about thirty more floors than the building actually is shown to have in its numerous establishing shots.
posted by ricochet biscuit at 1:03 PM on February 7, 2011


This happens all the time for residents of Oxford, also - admittedly, there's a lot less of Oxford than there is of Los Angeles, but the insanely popular detective series Morse, based on the books of Colin Dexter often had Morse striding through the gates of Merton College, into the Corpus Christi front quad, before being seen getting into his car, which was parked outside the Sheldonian theatre, or similar.

I think locals experience this all the time - I found it impossible to be properly frightened 28 Weeks Later because I was trying too hard to work out how the survivors were getting across London (land at City airport, disembark at Stanstead about 30 miles north, then 35 milles south to the Isle of Dogs, and then running to Hyde Park, doubling back to Charing Cross and inching slowly along the underground tracks in the dark for ten miles to get to Wembley Stadium. Which is actually the Millennium Stadium in Cardiff, by the way). And don't even get me started on Richard Curtis films, all of which appear to be predicated on the existence of London's one international airport somewhere around Ealing.

I am now starting to wonder about Woody Allen films - surely, their New York must be just as incoherent and jumbled, or is a coherent filmic city the mark of the true detail-obsessive?
posted by DNye at 2:48 PM on February 7, 2011


I think part 11 is gone :(
posted by Pruitt-Igoe at 11:54 PM on February 7, 2011


No wait, for part 11: "The author of this video does not allow playback on iPhone". Why do that for only one of the videos?
posted by Pruitt-Igoe at 10:54 AM on February 8, 2011


I'm not sure what the experience would be in Canada, Pruitt-Igoe, but when I tried to watch part 11 on my PC it told me that for licensing issues it was not available outside the US - maybe a piece of music which is cleared for YouTube use in the US, but not elsewhere?
posted by DNye at 11:02 AM on February 8, 2011


It looks like all the parts work for me from a PC.
posted by Pruitt-Igoe at 11:26 AM on February 8, 2011


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