Thursday, October 9, 2014

Los Angeles Plays Itself

Kent Mackenzie’s The Exiles, 1961

Kent Mackenzie’s The Exiles, 1961

Charles Burnett’s Killer of Sheep, 1979

LOS ANGELES PLAYS ITSELF       A               
USA  (169 mi)  2003  d:  Thomas Andersen 

This is the city, Los Angeles, California. They make movies here.  I live here.  Sometimes I think that gives me the right to complain about the way it’s been treated in movies.

—Thom Andersen, film narration by Encke King

Consisting entirely of clips used from more than two hundred films, where one website lists them all, List of movies mentioned in Los Angeles Plays Itself (in order of appearance), with an accompanying narration, Andersen is quick to credit film editor Yoo Seung-Hyun for her “research/text/production,” forming a stream-of-conscious video mosaic humorously explaining how “the most photographed city in the world” could be so utterly misrepresented.  Originally intended to be a lecture shown to his students at the California Institute of the Arts where he has taught film and videomaking since 1987, Anderson grew frustrated by the perpetual lies and distortions expressed by Hollywood studio pictures about the history of the city, but the overall length and meticulous detail of movie clips makes this more of a historical document, a time capsule that in essence freezes in our imaginations countless distorted images of the city, gleefully pointed out in detail by the narrator, Encke King, becoming an essay on film itself and how it mythologizes what it sees.  Divided into three sections, “The City as Backdrop,” “The City as Character,” and “The City as Subject,” with an intermission somewhere in between, the bombardment of early clips is quite simply hilarious, something of a sensory explosion of Hollywood cinema mixing the familiar with the completely obscure, from classics to B-movies, where Andersen’s voice of reason loves to assert “silly geography makes for silly movies,” identifying a chase scene in Sylvester Stallone’s COBRA (1986) where the chase jumps from the Venice Canals to the Los Angeles harbor 30 miles away.  Movies never bother to explain these minor impossibilities, but instead create an overall story built upon the viewer’s supposition that it doesn’t know any better.  Because Andersen lives in Los Angeles, and knows better, he proceeds to debunk the myths, becoming a laceratingly sarcastic piece of vitriol by the end lambasting against the need for movies to continually force-feed a big lie rather than address simple and more meaningful truths that exist for ordinary people.  Lacking that, Andersen is quite right in suggesting how movies “betray my city,” but the blunt force of the director’s passionate emphasis and the rarity of the film clips themselves make this a film whose value will only increase over time.    

From an outsider’s view, Los Angeles is one big cliché, a sprawling city built in the desert, spread out over such an extensive geographical reach that the public transit system is all but non-existent, where everyone needs a car, creating a continuously clogged inter-connecting freeway system that is choked and suffocated by the damning presence of too many cars, where the toxic effects of seemingly immovable smog asphyxiates everyone’s lungs…but the sun shines every day!  Certainly of interest is perennial New Yorker Woody Allen’s take on the city, claiming the only thing good he had to say about Los Angeles was that you could turn right on a red light.  Offering bits of insight and wisdom from film to film, certainly part of the fun in viewing this film is whole-heartedly disagreeing with Andersen’s assertions.  For every bit of insight he offers, claiming he loved watching the TV show Dragnet (1951 – 59) because it was the closest thing in America to Ozu and Bresson with its spare minimalism, or making the intriguing claim about American independent film legend John Cassavetes, that “His comedies face up to tragedy and reject it,” which certainly opens up one’s perspective to call any of his films “comedies,” but after teasing us with this provocative idea, he then buries his premise with what feels like a callous afterthought, “For Cassavetes, happiness was the only truth.  So he drank himself to death.”  Actually Cassavetes in films like Faces (1968), Minnie and Moskowitz (1971), A Woman Under the Influence (1974), The Killing of a Chinese Bookie (1976), and Love Streams (1984), was one of the few filmmakers whose integration of real Los Angeles locations, including shooting films in his own home, add to the authenticity of his films, where Robert Altman in The Long Goodbye (1973) and Short Cuts (1993) follows in his footsteps.  Robert Aldrich’s classic film noir fatalism was never more beautifully expressed than his use of Los Angeles in Kiss Me Deadly (1955), where Detective Mike Hammer has an actual city address, visiting places at their real locations, where the contrast between this grim, real-life authenticity only heightens the final dreamlike qualities of the apocalyptic ending, perhaps making it an even more horrifying experience because the audience all along can identify with an essential core reality in the film.  

One of the ideas posited by the director comes from his provocative statement, “As a rule, reality is richer than our imaginations,” suggesting some of the more celebrated films about the city, including CHINATOWN (1974), Blade Runner (1982), and L.A. CONFIDENTIAL (1997), are cynical, overly fatalistic views that contribute to a myth of impenetrability, where viewers often confuse this alternate Hollywood reality for the real thing, using it as a basis of historical fact.  One the other hand, some of the more eye-opening images uncovered by Andersen are the movies set in and around the run-down and dilapidated downtown Bunker Hill neighborhood, a now demolished slum with its irregularly shaped streets, steep angular slope of the Angels Flight tramway, shabby rooming houses and Victorian-era mansions memorialized by pulp writers such as Raymond Chandler.  The discovery of Kent Mackenzie’s The Exiles (1961), a time capsule portrait of the Bunker Hill district in the 50’s, is a revelation, chronicling a day in the life of hard-living and hard-drinking native American Indians who have left the reservation to seek non-existent opportunities in the city, causing Andersen to exclaim, “Better than any other movie, it shows that there was once a city here, before they tore it down and built a simulacrum.”  It’s here that the director finds the beating heart of city residents eking out a living, later supported by black independent filmmakers like Billy Woodberry’s BLESS THEIR LITTLE HEARTS (1984) or Charles Burnett’s KILLER OF SHEEP (1979) that focus on working-class black families living in South Central Los Angeles living from paycheck to paycheck which comes across as near documentary truth without an ounce of artifice about life or the black experience.  It is here that the natural artistic expression of realism provides more depth and complexity than the more heralded and critically acclaimed, yet melodramatically overblown Hollywood versions that exaggerate and distort the truth, and for that they make tons more money, where the Hollywood business model may as well be a metaphor for capitalism, where the more outrageously exaggerated the myth, the more money the movie brings in.         

Omitted from the film as well as throughout the first century of Hollywood filmmaking is the city’s own often violent history, once a part of Indian territory before being claimed by the Spanish empire, becoming part of Mexican territory until the Mexican–American War, where the entire American southwest was ceded to America in the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo in 1848.  Railroads helped the population swell to over 100,000 by 1900, placing pressure on the city’s water supply, but the completion of the politically controversial Los Angeles Aqueduct in 1913, spearheaded by William Mulholland, assured that water from the Sierra Nevada Mountains could be delivered to the city of Los Angeles, even if it was at the expense of agricultural farmers in the valleys in between who were using the water at the time.  By 1910 there were already ten Hollywood movie companies operating in the city.  Within a decade 80% of the world’s film industry was concentrated in Los Angeles, eventually becoming a major center of wartime manufacturing, such as shipbuilding and aircraft.  The growth of the city was unprecedented following World War II, where the Interstate Highway System of the 50’s and 60’s helped propel suburban growth, where the freeway system connected Los Angeles to a host of surrounding suburban regions and the car became a symbol of the American Dream, popularized by Jan and Dean songs or The Beach Boys in the early 60’s.  While Hollywood loves to tell the story of Bugsy Siegel, they express ignorance in the matters of various racial clashes, like the Watts Riots of 1965 which resulted in 34 deaths and over 1,000 injuries, or the Los Angeles riots of 1992 in South Central Los Angeles which followed the acquittal of police officers on trial in the beating of Rodney King, the worst riots in the city’s history that revealed rampant corruption within the police department, causing widespread looting, arson, assaults, and murder, with 53 deaths and more than 2000 injured, where estimates of property damages topped one billion dollars, which were only quelled after bringing in soldiers from the National Guard, the 7th Infantry Division and the Marines. 

“If the world really is falling down around us, can’t we at least try and understand what started its collapse?”  Citing a continual barrage of destruction brought down upon the city with a host of Hollywood disaster movies, or endless signs hastily posted along street corners to direct wayward cast and crew members to the locations of a daily movie shoot, Andersen offers sharp observations about the undervalued modern architecture, often used as a symbol of vice and corruption, or as props for destruction in disaster movies.  Coining the phrase “high tourism” for tourist art directors like Antonioni’s Zabriskie Point (1970) or Jacques Demy’s MODEL SHOP (1969), Europeans that may as well be strangers in a strange land, filming the city as if seeing it for the first time, or “low tourism” which offers a cynical, one-dimensional view of the city, like John Boorman’s POINT BLANK (1967), where Andersen claims “People who hate Los Angeles love POINT BLANK.”  While gazing at The Hollywood Sign that sits atop the Hollywood Hills, Andersen informs us the film title actually originates with Fred Halsted’s “gay porn masterpiece” L.A. PLAYS ITSELF (1972), though this Los Angeles native director wouldn’t be caught dead using the abbreviation.  Finally the director suggests there are films that defeat the myths about the city, where tension remains between using Los Angeles as a metaphor and the actual city itself, where Andersen believes the city deserves more than the conventional treatment it has received.  While it is a city born out of racial strife and economic exploitation, the chief aim of the film is to restore the city’s heritage above the lies and myths that have distorted its image and reputation.  Highlighting the city’s landmarks, the Griffith Observatory, the Bradbury Building, Los Angeles County Museum of Art, Angels Flight, Frank Lloyd Wright’s Ennis House, or Union Station, Andersen lends a kind of surreal beyond the grave anger that Terence Davies brings to his excoriated portrait of his hometown, Liverpool, England in Of Time and the City (2008), both bitingly sarcastic films, though Andersen targets the film industry with the same feverish moral indignation as Davies attacks the Catholic church, both personally affected by the devastating lies and deception that are inherent in both corporate enterprises, where the lure of the myth is used as scented perfume to attract potential customers while lining their pockets with the proceeds from the business at hand.    

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