Los Angeles Plays Itself

Reviewed By Jay Seaver
Posted 04/06/05 23:19:01

"A textbook on film, in both the good and bad ways."
3 stars (Just Average)

We've all done it. We've all gone to a movie, or rented a DVD, and had our belief happily suspended, maybe even scolded our neighbor about not being able to overlook some minor technical detail, and then been jolted out of it because the city on the screen, which claims to be our hometown, is obviously some other city (or vice versa). Or maybe a car chase will jump from one side of the city to another. Or maybe it just becomes clear that the director doesn't get the place like we do.

Hey, it's happened to me. I'm anticipating a bit of unintentional comedy when I see Fever Pitch this weekend, despite the filmmakers' best intentions. But I'm pretty sure I'll never make a three-hour movie about how Hollywood has misrepresented Boston, the way Thom Anderson has opted to educate us about Los Angeles.

And it's definitely Los Angeles, by the way - Anderson spends a few minutes going on about how he doesn't like the city being referred to by the diminutive "L.A.". It's one of several points that are kind of interesting arguments, but seem to be given more weight than they deserve. We didn't ask for "Beantown" out here, but you don't see us making an issue out of it - we save that for the ridiculous attempts at an accent that Anderson doesn't seem to see a need to address in a movie about how his city is portrayed on film.

I digress. It's hard not to, since how one's own city is treated is an obvious comparison. Also, I have never been to Los Angeles, so I can't speak from first-hand knowledge about the accuracy of Anderson's points. And that's how I would like to respond to this movie; it feels, more than most documentaries, like an academic paper, with an abstract, section headings, statement-example-example structures, clearly delineated rebuttals, and an extensive bibliography. One doesn't critique a journal article by discussing the writing style, but the content.

The style's all I've got, though, so that's where I'll spend most of my time. What makes Los Angeles Plays Itself unusual is that approximately ninety percent of what you see on-screen is clips of other movies; the IMDB lists seventy-five, and they certainly could be under-counting. These clips serve as visual quotations to illustrate the points made by the voice over. The other ten or fifteen minutes is footage shot for comparative purposes, or to illustrate something not easily shown via clips - the one that sticks in my mind is a montage of empty buildings with "available for filming" signs in their windows, culminating in a McDonald's that has never actually served a paying customer, but is a standing set for whichever movie needs a scene in a fast food restaurant that week.

A lot of these clips are treats; if you're going to make a point about public transportation in the city, are there more enjoyable visuals than Chinatown and Who Framed Roger Rabbit?, even as Encke King wryly describes their inaccuracy. Seeing how Union Station became America's railroad station (or even, in some cases, airport) is interesting as well. In other cases, though, he seems to be making assertions about general patterns that are certainly borne out by the movie clips presented, but which aren't necessarily convincing based on two or three examples.

The scholarly credentials are tough to deny - Anderson's knowledge of local architecture and history appears encyclopedic. He frequently seems to presume more knowledge than the audience may possess. After three hours, I felt like I had a better handle on what Los Angeles isn't than what it is. He also gives the black and Latino communities short shrift, even more so than Hollywood does.

Coming out of Los Angeles Plays Itself, I didn't really feel as though I'd learned much. I'd love to see this as a book - a heavily footnoted, oversize book with copious pictures and maps, packaged with a DVD of the movie - something I could study at my own pace and easily use as a springboard to further research.

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