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    A bus hitches a ride during the filming of Swordfish. in Los Angeles Plays Itself
    A bus hitches a ride during the filming of "Swordfish."

    On the side of the angels

    "Los Angeles Plays Itself" is a unique idea for a documentary, showing the movie capital of the world through the movies it makes, revealing serious lessons about L.A. with humor and even love for a city the world loves to scorn.


    No, this is not the 1972 male-on-male hardcore flick "L.A. Plays Itself," although that's one of the couple hundred films excerpted in this documentary — and our deadpan narrator does enthusiastically refer to it as a "gay porn masterpiece."

    Written and directed by: Thom Andersen.
    Narrated by: Encke King.
    Cinematography: Deborah Stratman.
    Edited by: Yoo Seung-Hyun.
    Cinema Village 22 E. 12th St. (212) 924-3363

    No, this "Los Angeles Plays Itself" is no porn movie, but maybe you could call it movie porn. It's an orgy of movie scenes filmed in Los Angeles, set in Los Angeles, and about Los Angeles — or to be more gentlemanly, maybe it's a love letter to the city that happens to be written in the local vernacular.

    Director Thom Andersen, a 57-year L.A. resident, has packed so many ideas into his dense (I took 19 pages of notes), wide-ranging, three-hour montage/essay that it's hard to do it justice in one short article, but the theme that comes through most consistently is this: Don't believe the Los Angeles myth you've seen onscreen. From the sunny, bourgeois comfort of "L.A. Story" and "Grand Canyon" to the hard-boiled, corrupt mystique of "Chinatown" and "L.A. Confidential," the film celebrates the celluloid legend of the place — before trying to cut it off at the knees.

    Our first look at L.A. (Andersen refuses to call it that, but who wants to type "Los Angeles" 30 times in one story?) focuses on its falseness — on the faux reality that goes into producing images for the world's consumption, and the ways that falsity spills over into the city's real life. Buildings abandoned for decades are now preserved for use in movies, and an entire McDonald's restaurant in City of Industry has never sold a single McNugget.

    Los Angeles Plays Itself  
    There are some funny moments when we see some of the city's few distinctive buildings used in film after film, the same interior serving as a Burmese hotel in "China Girl," a World War II British hospital in "White Cliffs of Dover" and a destroyed apartment building in "Blade Runner." Unlike cities with well-known landmarks, like New York and San Francisco, Los Angeles can play anyplace because it doesn't have a strong visual identity of its own. It's a blank slate.

    Anybody can send a monkey up the Empire State Building or bury the Statue of Liberty under sand or snow — but suppose you want to make a disaster movie and set it in L.A. What are you going blow up to symbolize the heart of your city under attack? The Hollywood sign? Uh, well, yeah. We see a scene of the hilltop letters crumbling in flames, and it's more like a joke than a tragedy. So much for the soul of Los Angeles.

      Falsity spills over into the city's real life. Buildings abandoned for decades are now preserved for use in movies, and an entire McDonald's restaurant in City of Industry has never sold a single McNugget.
    But the city does have a soul, Andersen insists. It took many years and a European eye to discover some of what was there all along. Roman Polanski's "Chinatown," for all the faults Andersen will find with it by the end of the documentary, is one of a number of films that begin to show L.A. as a big city with big-city problems. This is noted with some pride, like a black eye brought home as a trophy from a particularly good bar fight.

    And the city has been there all along for those in the frame of mind to see it — that is, those not in cars. Jake Gittes, Jack Nicholson's character in "Chinatown," learns this when thugs trash his car and he's left "emasculated," as the film points out, forced to beg his automotive superiors for rides — or go on foot. This is how you can see the urban heart that really beats underneath the city's silicone-inflated chest, the movie suggests. "Who knows the city?" narrator Encke King asks. "People who walk."

    Take a bus and you'll see a different city, the movie says. I did ride the bus on my first trip to L.A., and I found just what Andersen says — in the city where "nobody rides the bus," the buses were packed. "Nobody," as it turns out, includes a large proportion of working-class minorities — Mexican, black, Filipino, and so on, almost as lively a mix of people as you'd find in New York. This is not the stereotype of Los Angeles, partly because it isn't part of the image that Hollywood projects of Los Angeles — or the lives of the affluent, luxury-car-driving people who create that image. If you really love L.A., then love the people's L.A., not just the celluloid one.

    Los Angeles Plays Itself  
    This is Andersen's final point, and for illustrations he dwells on a handful of what he calls "neo-realist" views of minority existence in Los Angeles: "The Exiles" (1961), "Killer of Sheep" (1977) and "Bush Mama" (1979). "Neo-realist" in this case seems to be another word for budgetless, plotless, and almost entirely unseen by humankind, which is a strange choice after so many much more recognizable scenes. The idea, perhaps, is that the truth is revealed by abandoning the contrivances of Hollywood filmmaking. Never mind that all minimally watchable stories have contrivances; the true image underneath the Hollywood image finally exposes the true city underneath the artificial city.

    If this is Andersen's fundamental aesthetic and his ultimate message, then that might explain why there's almost no mention of more important but conventionally dramatic African-American films such as "Boyz N the Hood," "Menace II Society" and "Hollywood Shuffle." Mexican-Americans are represented by the opening scenes of "American Me" but nothing else. (How would Cheech and Chong fit into this exposition, you might wonder.) There's also only passing reference to the brilliant punk satire "Repo Man" and none of the documentary "The Decline of Western Civilization." Maybe it's inevitable that somebody's favorites would be left out while Andersen's rarities are put in .

      A hilarious dissection of "Dragnet" is worth the ticket price by itself.
    Regardless, "Los Angeles Plays Itself" is an absorbing film, not only didactic but consistently bright, funny and fun to watch. A hilarious dissection of "Dragnet" is worth the ticket price by itself. It's a very peculiar form of documentary, to be sure. At one point the narrator lauds the 1974 car-chase movie "Gone in 60 Seconds" as an "anti-humanist masterpiece" for practically eliminating the people and only focusing on the cars, and this film is to any normal documentary what "60 Seconds" is to drama. After a while, you become conscious that you haven't seen a single real person in hours, and yet that doesn't take away from the film's message. For film buffs or idea buffs, this is a three-hour tour worth taking.

    JULY 28, 2004

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