Interview: Los Angeles Plays Itself's Thom Andersen
As part of Movie City Los Angeles, Nick Dawson sits down with Thom Andersen, director of the seminal documentary Los Angeles Plays Itself.
Both Noah Baumbach’s Greenberg and Sofia Coppola’s Somewhere attempt to look at Los Angeles in the way it is lived, not imaged. Years earlier this questioning of how LA appears formed the basis of a seminal documentary when in 2003, CalArts film professor and documentarian Thom Andersen unleashed Los Angeles Plays Itself. A film comprised of clips from hundreds of movies, it is an exhaustive and fascinating examination of filmmakers’ cinematic treatment of L.A. over the years. The movie is broken down into sections which deal with “The City as Background,” “The City as Subject,” and “The City as Character.” Over the course of these sections of his cinematic essay, Andersen looks at everything from the way modernist architecture is systematically linked to movie bad guys, to “secret history” movies such as Chinatown and L.A. Confidential that rewrite the city’s back-story, to the overlooked classics – such as Charles Burnett’s Killer of Sheep and Kent Mackenzie’s The Exiles – which show the metropolis from rarely seen perspectives.
As part of Movie City Los Angeles, FilmInFocus sat down with Andersen to discuss the complexities of movies in and about the City of Angels.
How and when did you first start thinking about the ideas you explore in Los Angeles Plays Itself?
It’s a little embarrassing, but I guess it’s true the impetus came from L.A. Confidential and the ideas in that film and feeling there was a continuity and an ideological consistency through Chinatown and L.A. Confidential which is expressed not only in movies about Los Angeles but Hollywood movies in general from the 70s through the 90s and I guess still continuing today. I guess an ideology of suggesting that people are powerless, everything happens as part of a conspiracy that takes place out of view. I say in the movie that this is particularly inappropriate for the history of Los Angeles.
So that led to you thinking about Los Angeles on film in a broader sense?
Yeah. The basic impulse was historical, but then it raised all these other questions in my mind. First of all, something that hasn’t changed is the provincialism of the people who make movies, their ignorance of the city.
I feel as if films tend only to really capture one small portion of Los Angeles, rather than the city as a whole.
Yeah, and it’s something that I’m addressing the new film that I’ve made which is a portrait of the city and which tries to show more of the city. But I’m sure people will see it as just the opposite because of their own provincialism. Let’s just say it shows the Latino part of the city – but, of course, that’s half the city.
In Los Angeles Plays Itself, you explore the tension between the actual, physical city of Los Angeles with the representation of Los Angeles on the big screen.
I guess every city when it gets shown in movies gets reduced to clichés. I guess you could say the same of Woody Allen’s New York, although it’s obviously a heartfelt, loving portrait. But it also seems rather provincial to people who live there, and people have also complained that it’s somewhat racist in its provincialism, which I think is also true of movies in Los Angeles. Part of it for me is this reversion to clichés is a kind of laziness, you might say, but also the other side of that is that it’s pretty true when movies have tried to show the black and Latino quarters and sections of Los Angeles, the clichés are pernicious. Like the notion of gang-infested South Los Angeles, an out of control Los Angeles, a Latino Los Angeles, which is partly as a result of what’s considered commercial. But it does create this weird misperception of large parts of the city, so a lot of people here are [laughs] afraid of going to certain parts of the city.
New York has a much more unified cinematic identity as a city, whereas Los Angeles – in part because it’s lots of communities that expanded into a huge urban sprawl – has a much more malleable identity and is much more versatile for filmmakers.
I guess the interesting thing about New York is the way that it’s come to represent “the city” because of the concentration of office space and tall buildings. In the United States, Chicago is also like that but that actually a pattern that’s actually very un-typical of cities. There wasn’t any European city like that. Quite often, it seems, the exception comes to be regarded as the epitome of what urbanity is like. Obviously Los Angeles is a lot more of a typical American city than New York is. Most other American cities also grew over the course of the 20th Century so their development is also based on motorized transportation, whether it was trolleys or buses or automobiles, but it was mostly automobiles. Dallas or Houston or Columbus, Ohio, or Atlanta follow the pattern of Los Angeles, and Los Angeles came to be regarded as special because it was the first to follow this pattern. But, interestingly, it’s also the first to reach the end of that pattern; there’s fewer miles of freeway in Los Angeles than in other American cities now. In Los Angeles, they started building those roads sooner, but they stopped building them sooner as well, and now what was originally intended in terms of the freeways was never completed. The result is the collapse of that system – it doesn’t work anymore.
It seems ironic that Los Angeles was the model for a lot of American cities, but as a result of that has a certain anonymity in terms of its identity and recognizability.
It’s strange how that works. I mean, what’s its landmark? The Hollywood sign. That’s kind of strange. Appropriate, but strange in that it was originally a commercial sign.
Right. It was originally “HOLLYWOODLAND.”
Yeah, which was a suburban housing tract. And then the sign fell into complete neglect and disrepair and there was this great civic effort to save it, which finally succeeded.
The reappropriation of the sign seems almost symbolic of the way the city and its heritage is appropriated and misunderstood by filmmakers.
I suppose it’s appropriate. Movies are important here, although not as important as probably people from outside realize or think. A lot of the other industries that used to be important in Los Angeles have faded away: oil exploration, aerospace, auto manufacturing. And the city hasn’t really found anything to replace them with yet, as far as I can see. I think they should have the sign lit up at night. They did it on New Year’s Eve 2000, but they wouldn’t do it because of the objections of the people who live nearby.
In your movie, you talk about that in Los Angeles Plays Itself, where you say that only those who walk around L.A. and ride on the buses see the true city.
Yeah, there’s something to that effect. I forget the exact line. It might be interesting to note that many of the most famous writers and artists who are closely associated with Los Angeles don’t have cars and don’t drive: Ray Bradbury, Kenneth Anger, DJ Waldie, the author of Holy Land. Waldie is a leading intellectual, which is a book about a suburb called Lakewood, a planned community northeast of Long Beach built in the early 50s. He’s actually written some pretty interesting essays about getting around on the bus in his second book, called Where We Are Now: Notes from Los Angeles.
Do you feel not being a non-driver creates a very different angle on the city?
Obviously there are different kind of perceptions. When you’re driving, you have to concentrate in what you’re doing and there’s a very narrow perception. You’re passing by things. And, of course, when you’re a passenger in a car or on a bus, that’s a different perception and walking is another kind of perception. There was a time, not so long ago, when the automobile transportation system in Los Angeles worked really well. That is, you could get from one side of the city to the other in a very short time. It was a kind of exhilarating experience. Today, it’s kind of broken down, just because of the volume of automobiles on the freeway, so that quite often you can get stuck in a situation where it can take you a couple of hours to get across the city, which is almost as long as it used to take to drive to San Diego. So there has always been a kind of regressive movement. People stay in their neighborhoods and don’t get out much.
Thinking back over the movies covered in your film, and those others I have seen about Los Angeles, it seems like one of the very few to have a genuine affection for the city is Steve Martin’s L.A. Story.
I think it’s also an ambivalent film. The main character, the Steve Martin character, belongs to this class of people who are caught up in this supposedly superficial and faddish, trendy way of life and yet somehow stands apart from it. There’s actually a section of [Los Angeles Plays Itself] that I cut out that presented its defense of the city, you might say, and questioned it. It is kind of based on the idea that as a city it’s a kind of tabula rasa.
You wrote somewhere that cinema “betrays” Los Angeles.
I don’t think I used the word “betrays”… And it’s not just cinema, it’s even more so writers, although maybe these days there’s a lot more diversity in the diversity of writers that are coming out of Los Angeles than there used to be. What I object to is a kind of provincialism, the notion that one particular class that is one small part of the city represents the whole city. And, of course, that’s generally the privileged, who have access to the means of publication.
You were at one time a cab driver in Los Angeles. Did that in any way inform the way you view the city? You demonstrate an encyclopedic and panoramic knowledge of the city in Los Angeles Plays Itself.
I think it probably did inform the film. I think actually driving a taxi cab makes you more aware of the class divisions and of course it takes you round to parts of the city that otherwise you wouldn’t be familiar with. But the thing about Los Angeles is that it’s maybe typical of American cities, but kinda unlike New York, in a way. Segregation in the city is pretty extreme. Of course, in New York when you ride on the subway you’re riding with all classes of people; when you ride on the buses in Los Angeles, you have a sense that the large majority of the people are poor. That’s slightly less true today than it used to be.
I’m a fan of the writings of Charles Bukowski, John Fante and Nathanael West, all of whom wrote very memorably about L.A. Do you feel like there’s a divide between the way mid-20th Century writers depicted the city and their cinematic contemporaries?
Of course John Fante and Nathanael West when they were writing their novels they were also writing movies, although with John Fante he started writing movies later. There weren’t movies about L.A. at the time, so their most famous novels only became movies much later. In the case of John Fante, there was a strange sentimentalization of Ask the Dust. I thought it was kind of odd that Robert Towne––for whom it was a labor of love––took such liberties with the novel. On the other hand, The Day of the Locust was a pretty faithful adaptation. It didn’t really work for me, but for some people it obviously did. This is off the topic, but the movies made from Nathanael West’s screenplays are actually pretty interesting. The vision in his novels also comes through in the movies he wrote, although they’re not particularly good movies because they’re B-movies, or close to that. They’re very dark movies. He wrote the most depressing musical ever made. There are a few obscure, interesting movies about Los Angeles that were made in the 30s like James Whale’s The Impatient Maiden, which was set in Bunker Hill. 1932 it was made. It actually gives a sense of working class life in Los Angeles.
I don’t really know Los Angeles that well. I think actually the only people who do are politicians and public servants, much more than writers and filmmakers, because it’s their job to get around and see the city and meet with all kinds of different people.
Would you say your film is a love letter to the city? Or at least to portray it fairly in a film?
I don’t know if it can portray it fairly with just images from movies, but I would say it’s a kind of manifesto or didactic film, which just is a way for filmmakers to approach them. I’ve subsequently made another short film. I’m trying to explore the city more, and a lot of it was trying to explore neighborhoods I didn’t know so well, although a lot of it was filmed around here [in Silverlake] where I live. It’s kind of the answer to Los Angeles Plays Itself, and it’s actually called Get Out of the Car.