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Blade Runner Is a City Planner's Dream:
An Interview with Thom Andersen: Highlights from Hollywood Lost & Found

Highlights from Hollywood Lost & Found

Thom Andersen at his home in Silver Lake, September 2007
Photography by SUZANNE MEJEAN


Monday, October 29, 2007

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


Thom Andersen, director of Los Angeles Plays Itself and professor of film theory at CalArts, offers the ground truth about the West Coast metropolis


In June, filmmaker Thom Andersen opened the doors of his home — a Schindler house tucked in the hills of Silver Lake — and spoke eloquently, if not mordantly, about the city he’s been chronicling for decades (see this piece for more on his authoritative 2003 documentary Los Angeles Plays Itself). Looming beyond the windows of the kitchen where Andersen quietly sat, pinpointing his replies to each question, was a clear view of the famed Hollywood sign, the seemingly eternal landmark that takes on a new shape after sustained exposure to Andersen’s forensic analysis of the movie business and its endless byproducts.

Stop Smiling
: Were you interested in film as a child?

Thom Andersen
: Not so much when I was a child. I wasn’t a big moviegoer until high school, in the late Fifties and early Sixties. It was an interesting time because it was an extreme point of senility for the Hollywood film industry. So probably in consequence of that, I took an interest in foreign films — European films, especially, but also Satyajit Ray, who made a big impression on me. At the time Ivan the Terrible first came out, it made a big impression on me. Hiroshima Mon Amour, Breathless. So it seemed like a medium or art form with a lot of possibilities, but it didn’t seem at all possible to pursue it, given the way Hollywood was organized at that time. Everyone was getting older, literally. Even the movie stars were getting older. There were more movies being made, but guys that were playing sergeants in the Forties were playing generals in the Sixties.

On the level of getting a position in the industry, it was all still nepotism. The only way to get involved in it was by having a relative who was working at a studio. That wasn’t far from the truth. I started out, actually, as a student. I decided after a few years of going to college — and not doing too well — to go to the film school at USC, which was about the only one at the time. USC was the only school in the Western US where you could major as an undergraduate in film production. One of the first things they said was that only 20 percent of us would ever work in motion picture production in any capacity whatsoever.

SS: Are you as upfront with your students now about their chances?

TA: It’s completely different now. Youth is valued more. When I was young, they made movies for old people. Now that I’m old, they make movies for young people. I’m a double loser. One reason I like teaching at CalArts is that a good number of the students will be, within a few years, making more money than I do. On the other hand, they’ll be saddled with all these student loans, which wasn’t an issue back in the Sixties when I was going to school. They’ve turned education into a sort of racket now.

SS: When you decided to make the film, you clearly had a lifetime of film viewing in mind, but did you revisit hundreds of films?

TA: It turns out that of all the movies shot at least partly on location in Los Angeles — few of them are famous. I was mostly familiar with those, and those were the films that interested me most at first — especially the ones that purported to be, in some sense, about Los Angeles, like Chinatown, LA Confidential or Blade Runner. That was the starting point. But as I worked on it, I think my main method of research was mentioning to people what I was working on, and invariably everyone I talked to would say, “Well, have you seen this movie?” Sometimes I had, sometimes I hadn’t. Some were films I’d never heard of, especially films made in the Seventies and Eighties. When they suggested a movie, I would always get it and that suggested other possibilities. The whole thing grew. I got interested in a lot of sidetracks. The film coalesced when LA Confidential came out. This was a movie about Los Angeles set at a time when my consciousness of the city was just forming.

As I said in the film, for me Dragnet offered a more truthful portrait of the Los Angeles Police Department as it existed in the early Fifties than LA Confidential did; although Dragnet was supposed to be idealized, it was actually more devastating. Maybe LA Confidential is a fair portrait of the police in the Thirties, when the police culture was dominated by this old-fashioned corruption. But the Fifties were the beginning of a sort of paramilitary police force.

SS: In the film, you display how the second coming of Dragnet took on the counterculture of the Sixties.

TA: In the late Sixties, it did deal with the social tensions and problems of the times, but in a kind of alternative universe. That’s the best way I can describe it. It was obsessed with the pernicious effect of drugs on young people. And, to a lesser extent — this is something I cut out of the film — with racial relations in the city. There was one program where Sergeant Friday appears on this television show and he’s questioned about the police and police brutality by this black guy with an Afro, shades like H. Rap Brown tinted blue and a dashiki with a spiderweb pattern. He calls himself Mondo Lubamba, and he introduces himself as president of the Black Widow Party. Another thing about Dragnet is, in the first Dragnet series of the early Fifties, there were quite a few Latino characters in the program, but absolutely no black characters. And in the Sixties series, there were quite a few black characters, but no Latino characters.

SS: The point you made early in the film that Los Angeles was more of a destination than a place — do you still feel the idea applies?

TA: Maybe as much as ever. It doesn’t have the civic consciousness of Chicago. Let me put it this way: When I was in Chicago recently, in January, I spent a bit of time walking around downtown, because I hadn’t been there in a long time. Of course there’s great architecture in downtown Chicago, but what struck me more, in a way, was the consistency of it. The fact that the worst of it is pretty good. This suggested to me, beyond the talents and abilities of individual architects, that there was a kind of civic consciousness that made it possible. I don’t think that exists in Los Angeles. In a way what’s remarkable about the architecture in downtown Los Angeles is exactly the opposite: Even good architects made mediocre buildings.

Los Angeles is a pretty dysfunctional city. Is there any other city in the world that can’t run a funicular railway safely? Or another city that can’t figure out what to do with the river that runs through it? The Los Angeles River could be like the Thames or the Seine. Or it could be turned into a parkway like the San Gabriel River, which is just a few miles east of it.

SS: “Where did Los Angeles go wrong?” is an overarching theme in your film. Can it get better, or will it only get worse?

TA: What will happen here? I think for a lot of rich and middle class people, the greatest problem in Los Angeles right now is the breakdown of the automotive transportation system. It will be interesting to see what happens, and if that will lead to a fundamental reorientation of the parts of the city that those people inhabit.

Since I made the movie, the bus system and public transportation system in general has gotten better. But it’s on the verge of getting worse because, over the next couple years, they want to raise fares more than 100 percent. They’re losing money. It’s attributable to the investment in subways and so-called “light-rail” projects. The ridership on those systems has never been very high because the idea of those systems is not to serve the public that actually uses public transportation, but to attract another public to using public transportation. The trouble with that is, for most people, it’s still a lot more convenient to drive around by car, even with the problems that exist. The thing about transportation — and this applies to freeways as well as subways and light-rail — is, the more wealthy the neighborhood, the stronger the resistance to any of those sorts of projects. So now the people who live in Beverly Hills and areas like that are feeling the consequences.

A film like Who Framed Roger Rabbit? idealizes the trolleys. At that point in time, at the end of the Second World War, it made sense to build freeways. The freeway system worked great. It still does if you’re driving around late at night. The thing about Los Angeles is it was the first city to build a big network of urban freeways, and the first city to stop building them. It actually has fewer miles of freeways, per-resident and per-automobile, than any other American city today. The freeway construction stopped in the Seventies, when it was still starting in a lot of cities. After that, there wasn’t the political will to continue building them. It obviously has disadvantages — it destroys neighborhoods. But you could argue that the problem with the freeways in Los Angeles is that there aren’t enough of them. For example, they were, at one time, considering one that would go along the route of Santa Monica Blvd. and go through Beverly Hills to the beach. Obviously people in Beverly Hills didn’t want that, so they built the Santa Monica Freeway farther south. It didn’t go through any rich neighborhoods. It’s the same with the rail line that they’re thinking about rebuilding along an old trolley route, from Exposition Park along the line of the Santa Monica Freeway. But there still won’t be any public transportation that runs through northern Santa Monica, Westwood, Beverly Hills or West Hollywood, unless they build the Wilshire Boulevard subway, which seems unlikely to me. . Those are the people who have the most problems getting around today — the people who live in the richest neighborhoods. Maybe the solution is to turn the sewers into highways, like in Guanajuato, Mexico. I like its subterranean avenidas very much. Of course, here they would have to close down these roads when it rained or when there was an infestation of giant mutant ants.



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