When he was younger, Thom Andersen wanted to come to New York and work for the Maysles brothers. But he didn’t have faith in his own camera skills, and he says, “I think they were only hiring women.” Andersen, whose Los Angeles Plays Itself is about how movies “betray my city,” has an instinct not only for self-deprecation, but for self-effacement. His new documentary is one of only six films the director has made since 1965. That’s a Kubrickian rate of production.
In his latest work, Andersen is responsible for “research/text/production,” but gives the first on-screen credit to Yoo Seung-Hyun, a formidable editor who stitched together clips from more than 200 films to explain how “the most photographed city in the world” could be so misrepresented. “I guess I’ve been surprised by the popularity of this movie,” Andersen says, “because it was going to be a lecture,” originally intended for his students at the California Institute of the Arts, where he has taught film and video making since 1987. Andersen had seen L.A. Confidential and was frustrated that yet another studio picture—worse, one not without artistic merit—had told lies about the history of his city (whose name, he believes, should never be abbreviated). When his fiery, political lecture grew to 169 minutes, Andersen built an intermission around a movie-house scene taken from The Exiles (1958), Kent MacKenzie’s neglected drama about Native Americans visiting the Bunker Hill neighborhood. “I kind of thought of it as a double feature, like an old-fashioned movie,” he says.
Los Angeles Plays Itself is essentially a very personal essay, yet, in contrast to a recent documentary trend, Andersen never appears on-screen. And his text, written in the bone-dry, rapier tone he uses in conversation, is narrated by Encke King, a friend and a New York filmmaker. “It’s difficult enough editing a film without having to constantly listen to your own voice over and over,” Andersen says. “Anyway, Encke has known me for a long time. I thought he could do a good job of playing me.”
The director is fearless in tarnishing Hollywood gems, even when, as in the case of Chinatown, he admires their craft. But Andersen stresses his fidelity to the films themselves, which “impose a certain discipline on you. They are what they are—sometimes you wish a shot were 10 seconds longer. Kind of like a preview in a way—we make the movies, even bad movies, seem better than they are.” He adds, referring to a scene in which Charles Bronson chases his prey through a video arcade with a rocket launcher over his shoulder, “I think we make Death Wish 4 entertaining.”
Los Angeles Plays Itself doesn’t want to change our minds about particular films so much as change the way we watch them. Andersen intends to snap us out of our lazy habits as moviegoers, our predilection for passive rather than “voluntary watching.” And he wants to draw our attention to a city we’ve never seen, found only in forgotten independent releases. “You have to go outside of Hollywood and look at independent films that are made outside of what in Los Angeles is called the film industry,” he says. “There’s another kind of realist cinema that we need more of that represents the way people actually live.” We also need more filmmakers and viewers like Andersen.