Architecture on Film: Los Angeles Plays Itself

21 January 2009 7.00pm

Los Angeles Plays Itself

Weaving all manner of footage into a fascinating dissection of LA as the world’s greatest living film lot, this illuminating piece of cinema-urbanism examines the city as background and character through a narrated collage of over 200 clips. One of cinema’s most intelligent and entertaining essays, it charts Hollywood’s ‘war against modern architecture,’ alongside an examination of the starring roles certain buildings have played across multiple movies. From Blade Runner to Laurel and Hardy; a keen look at the truths and fictions a life in the movies has woven into LA’s urban fabric. Essential viewing.

USA 2003. Dir Thom Andersen. 169 minutes

The screening is introduced by Kodwo Eshun, writer, theorist, and founder of the artist's collective Otolith Group.

Read Philip French's review of the film, here.

Programme Notes by Kodwo Eshun

According to Variety critic Robert Kohler, Los Angeles Plays Itself (2003) began its life in 1999, partly as a lecture series at California Institute of the Arts where Andersen taught, and continues to teach film composition, and partly as a response to Curtis Hanson’s noir LA Confidential (1997).  For Andersen, L.A. Confidential epitomises the way in which Hollywood systematically ‘denigrates’ the modernist residential architecture of Los Angeles; Richard Neutra’s Lovell Health House, which can be historically located ‘the first great manifestation of the International Style’ in Southern California which functioned as a socialist salon throughout the 1930s, is travestied as the palatial property of a porn tycoon by Hanson, who actually claimed a personal sympathy with mid century-modernism. The fate of the Lovell House suggested that the generic imperatives Hollywood’s war against modernism were stronger than any director’s individual sympathies. Los Angeles operates as something like the ground zero for this war of fiction against function; it is where the distinctions between ‘reality’ and ‘representation’ become ‘muddled’.

Nowhere is this more apparent than in Roman Polanski’s Chinatown (1974) whose impact and influence for Andersen, is entirely malignant. Scriptwriter Robert Towne took ‘an urban myth’ about the founding of Los Angeles on water stolen from the Owens River Valley and made it resonate as an ‘original sin’, a ‘ruling metaphor’, even for non-fictional critiques of Los Angeles development by urban geographers, such as Mike Davis, whom Andersen, is in part, in sympathy. Chinatown’s intricate geography of corruption cast a baleful spell over future filmmakers whose retrospective or prospective fictions of the city would tend, from then on, to rotate around a secret, occluded history. From the 1970s on Andersen finds fewer and fewer examples of cinema capable of evoking the public history of Los Angeles. Only the films emerging from the LA School of UCLA Berkeley trained filmmakers such as Haile Gerima’s Bush Mama (1976), Charles Burnett’s Killer of Sheep (1977) and Billy Woodberry’s Bless Their Little Hearts (1984) offer another perspective; a neo-realism that exalts the modest and attends to the quotidian with a gentleness and a seriousness. By dint of their attentiveness, these films might be seen as documentaries, whose principled literalism saves the honour of Los Angeles, and by extension of reality itself, which for Andersen is local, vernacular, surrealist.

LA Plays Itself then is an epic project of cinematic reparation, restitution and revenge; Encke King, its male narrator, is, by turns, partisan, jaundiced, unfair, stern, opinionated, judgemental, embittered, brooding, sulking, generous, morose and disgusted. He has a grudge against Hollywood; accordingly he does not narrate his evidence so much as indicts it. Andersen’s previous film Red Hollywood (co-directed with film theorist Noel Burch in 1995) exhumed the forgotten films of the Hollywood Ten, the left wing scriptwriters and directors accused of Communism by the House Committee on Un-American Activities. LA Plays Itself returns the favour by summoning sequences from films into montages to stand trial for crimes committed by Hollywood against Los Angeles.

‘We might wonder,’ he broods, ‘if the movies have ever really depicted Los Angeles.’ The narrator, an obvious stand in for Andersen himself, refreshingly, never hides his dislike for films or for critics like David Thomson; for directors like Billy Wilder, ‘a snob’, Woody Allen, or Henry Jaglom; or for characters like Walter Kneff in Double Indemnity (1944). This partisan spirit is matched by his desire to celebrate an overlooked canon; much like Manny Farber’s preference for the pulp B-movie of white termite art to the middle brow self-consciousness of elephant art, Andersen hymns now forgotten films such as Atomic City (1952), Bunker Hill (1956), The Exiles (1958-1961), Gone in 60 Seconds (1974) and LA Plays Itself (1972) Fred Halsted’s gay porn masterpiece, which recapitulates the ‘loss of Eden’ in its movement from the ‘idyllic rural canyons’ to the ‘already mean streets of Hollywood.’

These films are geographically literalist. Instead of operating with a geographical license that is usually an, ‘alibi for laziness,’ which ‘cheapens and trivialises the real city,’ Andersen proposes a geographical literalism. Against the editing of two distant locations into one fictional montage, he insists on the importance of editing which works with cinematic sequences that are obliged to operate within the constraints of the urban. When fiction comes up against the obstacles and blockages of parked cars and bollards and signage, the result is a cinema of conspicuous destruction; more importantly, the result is a cinema of low tourism that functions as an archaeology of the image, a precious document of  working class neighbourhoods that have been destroyed. Nowhere is this more exemplified than Bunker Hill (1956). In a bravura montage, Andersen retrieves footage of Bunker Hill, the residential neighbourhood at the top of the Angels Flight Funicular, the shortest railway in the world. Angels Flight was built in 1901, destroyed in 1969 by the Community Development Agency of the County of Los Angeles, and reconstructed in 1996, a block South of its original location. It was then closed in 2001, only a few days after filming. For Andersen, Angels Flight now operates as a simulacrum, a ride to nowhere because Bunker Hill, the neighbourhood that it served, had been destroyed, leaving the movies as an unwitting documentary of  a 10 year period of destruction. The fictional reconstruction of the life, death and afterlife of Bunker Hill is the most poignant episode in an essay whose ambition and anger makes it one of the most important films of the 21st Century.

Download programme notes here.