- Los Angeles Plays Itself written and dir. by Thom Anderson
Written and directed by Thom Anderson
Produced by Thom Anderson Productions
Distributed by Submarine Entertainment (2003 original limited release)
The Cinema Guild (2014 re-release)
In Mulholland Falls (1996), police Lieutenant Hoover (Nick Nolte) tells a local mobster, “this isn’t America Jack, this is LA.” In a similar vein, John Buntin, author of L.A. Noir, opens his history of the city’s war on crime with the description “other cites have histories. Los Angeles has legends.” Both suggest that Los Angeles is more than simply “Hollywood”—that there is a dark side to the country’s most glamorous city. William J. Mann’s Tinseltown: Murder, Morphine, and Madness at the Dawn of Hollywood interweaves the two. None, however, have managed to fully capture the depth and complexity of the city.
While popular culture products such as these have shown Los Angeles to have many faces, a recently distributed film (which debuted in 2003) takes aim at the impact of this range of representations. Thom Anderson’s Los Angeles Plays Itself is about our collective perception of the city as seen through film. Concerned with how LA is viewed as a result of its popular culture representations, Anderson addresses the many ways LA has been depicted throughout film history. As a journey through the city’s history, movie industry, and personalities; Los Angeles Plays Itself prompts audiences to think about how much of the city’s image is true and how much is “printing the legend.” Sometimes it represents a Hollywood-ized glossy version of itself, other times it represents the shadows often overlooked.
Los Angeles Plays Itself opens with a black and white establishing shot of LA, with big band swing music in the background, followed by a montage of films from the 1950s. This sequence sets up the methodology for the film, using images from movies to show the city’s personality. Anderson, a local LA resident who relates more to the city of Los Angeles than the idea of Hollywood, works to render the “true” story of the city, using fictional films as a guide. “When people say L.A.,” Anderson observes, “they usually mean show business.” Such characterization puts forth the perception that everyone in Los Angeles either works, or wants to work, in the film industry. Anderson offers a corrective, noting that only one in every forty residents in the city work in the motion picture industry, illustrating that these perceptions often ignore the city’s real citizens.
Building on these assumptions, Anderson opens his film by saying, “This is the city. Los Angeles, California. They make movies here.” He goes on to illustrate, however, that those same Hollywood films do not adequately represent the city in which they were given form. Some, such as Michael Mann’s Collateral, present LA’s downtown as more picturesque than it is. Anderson argues that cinematic views can pass over the city from above, like a sweeping shot from a helicopter, to present a deceiving perspective of the city, while its residents and visitors must travel by land, and so, see downtown for what it truly is. As Anderson notes, for “the most photographed city in the world...it may be the least photogenic.” While it’s east coast counterpart, New York, is accessible to the camera, argues Anderson, Los Angeles is not. LA is too open, allusive, “a series of villages that grew together.” Because of this problematic of imagery, Anderson posits, “Los Angeles is where the relation between reality and representation gets muddled.”
The largest signifier of that blurred reality is the iconic Hollywood sign. Anderson finds the sign reassuring because of its own history, from advertisement to icon. Film scholar Leo Braudy relates: “the sign represents the earthly home of that otherwise ethereal world of fame, stardom, and celebrity – the goal of American and worldwide aspirations to be in the limelight, to be, like the Hollywood sign, instantly recognizable.”
And while the film industry is not the whole of Los Angeles, it is impossible to ignore its presence. Anderson points out...