Sunset Blvd. to Mulholland Dr.: Los Angeles Films Itself


Thom Andersen’s visual-database-as-documentary Los Angeles Plays Itself, which opens at Film Forum July 28, runs close to three hours, but like the best Tinseltown productions leaves audiences hungry for more. Two month-long SoCal cinema series give viewers a chance to bone up on many of the films hijacked by Andersen for his narrated tour of urban history, as well as some prime examples that didn’t make the cut. “Paradise (Lost): Los Angeles on Film” includes the noir classics most famously associated with the city: paranoid gumshoers Kiss Me Deadly (1955) and Joseph Losey’s Californian remake of M (1951), as well as latter-day existential policiers like Michael Mann’s Heat (1995). A sampling of studio-world self-portraits shows how noir pessimism invades the genre’s evolution, beginning with innocent foundational myth A Star Is Born (1937) and veering into cynical auto-critiques like Sunset Boulevard (1950) and John Schlesinger’s sickly sunny The Day of the Locust (1975).

The series’ experimental and exploitation offerings also propose some less apparent genealogies. Maya Deren’s ontological labyrinth Meshes of the Afternoon (1943) reveals itself as ancestor to David Lynch’s equally inscrutable Mulholland Drive (2001). Taylor Mead and Dennis Hopper’s dippy beachside shenanigans in Andy Warhol’s Tarzan and Jane Regained . . . Sort Of (1964) flesh out into the druggy, porny meat-puppets of Paul Morrissey’s Heat (1972). The gargantuan atomic ants of Them! (1954) spawn two divergent invader species, both from high-Reaganite 1984: the ironic aliens of Alex Cox’s hardcore punk fantasy Repo Man and The Terminator‘s future-gubernatorial cyborg.

The Whitney’s tightly curated “California Dreaming” links together avant-garde films and gallery movies by male artists high on fumes from the dream factories’ libidinal effluvia. Kenneth Anger’s leatherboy lyric Scorpio Rising (1964) and hot-rod hymn Kustom Kar Kommandos (1965) sexualize masculine motorphilia; a somewhat flatter hetero redux is offered by Ed Ruscha’s Miracle (1975), which semi-successfully transposes his painterly wit into a conventionally shot vignette about a mechanic’s obsessions. Video artist John Baldessari produces movie-culture Rorschach tests from photos shot off TV in Ed Henderson Reconstructs Movie Scenarios (1973). The bearded Christ/Manson protag of Will Hindle’s psychedelic Saint Flournoy Lobos-Logos and the Eastern Europe Fetus Taxing Japan Brides in West Coast Places Sucking Alabama Air (1970) hallucinates girlie mannequins in Death Valley, while the would-be anthropologists of David Lamelas’s mock-doc death-trip The Desert People (1974) never reach their goal. Ultimately, the avant-garde’s snarky Thanatos resamples Hollywood’s own crash-and-burn apocalypso beat. As one Day of the Locust movie exec opines, “Hollywood’s a disaster area.”