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Sam Sweet on Los Angeles Plays Itself

Highlights from Issue 32: Hollywood Lost & Found

R: Thom Andersen / Photograph by SUZANNE MEJEAN

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Monday, October 29, 2007

The following piece appears in Issue 32: Hollywood Lost & Found. For more on this issue, click here


SEEING CLEARLY FOR SMOG

BY SAM SWEET

When I tell people I’m relocating from New England to Los Angeles, congratulations are rare. More often, people respond with bewilderment, disgust and the persistent question, more accusation than inquiry: “Why there?”

Of course, few of these respondents have spent any time in Los Angeles, unless in transit through LAX, or visiting Hollywood or stopping at the beach. Their knowledge of the city has been gleaned through the millions of images filtered to us through photos, TV and movies. Thom Andersen’s Los Angeles Plays Itself unpacks a cross-section of those images, burrowing into layers of mythology with the deductive agility of a sleuth, the ruthless articulation of a historian and the simmering resentment of a cuckold out for vengeance.

Andersen refuses to tell us to love or hate Los Angeles; he only insists we accept it as a real place, rather than a mirage of accumulated stereotypes and bourgeois tunnel vision. It is said that Los Angeles is a city in which everyone is involved in the entertainment industry; Andersen reminds us that only 1 in 40 residents have jobs related to film or television. It is said that Los Angeles is a place populated by the rich and famous, residing in their hillside mansions; Andersen reminds us that most of LA is composed of the kind of flatlands and suburbs rarely pictured in movies, and inhabited by the working-class minorities that constitute the invisible majority of the city’s population. It is said that Los Angeles is a city where everyone drives; “Forget the mystical blatherings of Joan Didion and company about the automobile and the freeways,” says Andersen. “They say nobody walks. They mean no rich white people like us walk. They claim nobody takes the bus, until one day we all discover that Los Angeles has the most crowded buses in the United States.”

Los Angeles Plays Itself operates on many levels: as a catalogue of filmic representations of the city; as one longtime resident’s disgruntled diatribe against the film industry, which persistently obscures the reality of his city’s people and places in the name of mass-marketed entertainment; as a hypnotic video essay, itself a challenge to the conventional forms of motion picture communication.

Andersen and his film belong wholeheartedly to Los Angeles. But his lasting message isn’t a work of local historiography or film criticism. Andersen provides a broader affirmation that having a relationship with a place isn’t so much about measuring its good qualities against its bad, but accepting the sum total of a city — its magnificence and its ugliness — and not simply one’s nest within it. Where else could the film have been set? Los Angeles Plays Itself proves there’s something vital about pursuing a place so widely skewed and castigated. Andersen’s film is always in my mind when that needling starts: “Why there?” Because no one asks “Why?” when you move to New York or San Francisco.

 



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