Thom Andersen: “Los Angeles Plays Itself, Part Two

Edendale (now Echo Park) circa 1920—where the studios began.

America’s greatest cities often have monikers: “The Big Apple,” “Mile High City,” “Baghdad by the Bay,” “Big D,” “The Windy City,” “Gateway to the West,” “The Big Easy.” Most of these are booster-ish. And what about Los Angeles? “LaLa Land,” “Lotus Land,” “Tinseltown,”(allowing for the city’s conflation with its dominant industry). Only one such name for Los Angeles, which casts a nod toward its Hispanic origins, “The City of the Angels,” seems exempt from condescension; but in the movies, the pervasive attitude toward Los Angeles is one of  sour self-loathing.

Perhaps this dark vision of Los Angeles reflects the simple fact that it’s at the end of the highway west, Route 66’s dead end of dreams at Ocean Avenue, overlooking the beach below its cliffs, a psychic terminus kept vibrant by moving toward the retreating rainbow of illusion that finally sinks into the horizon of the Pacific: the palisades of Santa Monica as the cliffs of dashed dreams. What better revenge for filmmakers than to destroy, at least on celluloid, the city that causes such despair?

It is said that Los Angeles is the city that creates many pop culture trends before the rest of the country. It is also the city that seems to have such a low boiling point of its masscult image that it positively delights in its own cinematic immolation. Maybe, Los Angeles filmmakers relish this destruction because, as Thom Andersen says, it is simply “there,” the most readily available piece of urban geography, easy to exploit, as it has been since the 20th century’s early decades. An era of halcyon innocence prevailed when Echo Park Lake could stand-in for any known body of fresh water and when main street Culver City was a Dreiser-esque Main Street for the whole of small-town Midwest.

Downtown Culver City, Main Street, USA.

A recent photo book illustrates the geographical diversity of greater Los Angeles. An illustration of a Paramount studio map carves up areas to double for worldwide filming locations.

Amazon.com — Location Filming in Los Angeles link

California as the world's location.

Part five of the YouTube of Thom Andersen’s Los Angeles Plays Itself  begins with Los Angeles being vaporized in Independence Day and the 1953 War of the Worlds. After the chaotic conflagrations of this introduction, the second section of Andersen’s film emerges from its ashes—“The City as Character. The novels of James M. Cain and Raymond Chandler reveal Los Angeles as a near en-souled personage, neighborhood by street, by house address. The Billy Wilder film Double Indemnity makes “the city almost a co-conspirator.” Andersen suggests further that Los Angeles seemed in many of the noir movies to become “the world capital of adultery and murder.”

He then analyses how half a dozen movies provide a veritable road map to parts of the city and its suburbs—even allowing that real locations in Nicholas Ray’s Rebel Without a Cause were photographed to look like studios sets: the irony being that in many cut-rate film noir features, the real, threadbare city streets were actually photographed on the facades of the studio “back lot.”

Robert Aldrich's atomic apocalyptica, Kiss Me Deadly, is a road map of Los Angeles’ mean streets, from the actual, upscale address of Mike Hammer’s apartment (10401 Wilshire Blvd.) to Bunker Hill’s once proud Victorian mansions turned SRO rooming houses, with the Grand Central Market and Angels Flight anchoring its perimeter. Hammer’s Corvette convertible and its rear-mounted camera gives us a tour of 1964 Los Angeles. The wrecking balls were already destroying Bunker Hill and the iconic Pan Pacific Auditorium (now the location of a post office), after years of neglect, burned down on May 24, 1989. Downtown’s Bunker Hill, home turf of John Fante’s seminal Los Angeles novels, was depopulated to make room for the new Los Angeles, whose inflated temples of civic pride like the Music Center proclaimed Los Angeles’ high-culture ambitions.

Amazon.com — Dreams from Bunker Hill link

Andersen waxes with the nostalgia that only someone of a certain age can, one who has seen the “Googie” drive-in restaurants and coffee shops that once defined the city, disappear, to be replaced by KFC, Starbucks, and McDonalds. Defunct supermarket chains such as Market Basket and “full-service” gas stations provided sustaining fuel for a society on wheels. It’s no accident that gas stations were not only obligatory locations for many Los Angeles movies, but a trope for the social fabric itself.

Ed Ruscha's iconic "Standard Station."

The real nitty-gritty look of nighttime, downtown Los Angeles has never been more limned as “character” than in Kent MacKenzie’s 1961 USC Cinema thesis feature film, The Exiles. Though he had left USC by the time Thom Andersen and I arrived in the mid 60s, his vision of the city seen through the eyes of Native Americans struggling with machismo, tribal identity, and alcoholism was, and remains, unique—until the release of Los Angeles Black Renaissance films that are a window into both the cultural richness and the grinding poverty of its minorities. The 2009 restoration of Exiles on DVD includes MacKenzie’s student short film Bunker Hill, a swan song to the city just before it disappears under the rubric of “urban renewal.”

Milestonefilms.com — The Exiles link

The enduring relevance of The Exiles is demonstrated in its selection in 2008 by the Berlin Film Festival and a year later by the National Film Registry, sadly, thirty years after the director’s death.

There is a delicious irony in seeing the clip from Omega Man of one-time NRA president Charlton Heston parroting back “alternative culture” aphorisms from the rock-doc Woodstock.

Andersen then launches into a fascinating analysis of what he terms “low tourist” directors’ visions of Los Angeles (Hitchcock) and “high tourist” directors, mainly outsiders and foreign-born ones such as Demy, Deray and Richardson who view Los Angeles from a more benign, if not Arcadian, perspective. For Andersen, a quintessential “low tourist” director is John Boorman, whose first American film is the 1967 Point Blank. “People who hate Los Angeles love Point Blank,” warns Andersen. The vulgar costumes, OTT production design and deliberate architectural aridity of the film showcase Los Angeles as a violent, soulless landscape, the antithesis of the human-scaled Paris that is its stylistic New Wave referent. It is this jejune mix of expected “LaLa Land” lifestyle clichés with Godardian sound and picture disjunctions of time and space that for me makes Point Blank an emblematic movie about the city. Another delicious irony is Andersen’s citation of 40s experimentalist filmmakers Maya Deren and 60s Andy Warhol as very high “high tourist” directors.

Although much of Antonioni’s only American film Zabriskie Point does not take place in Los Angeles, there is a mesmerizing tour of East Los Angeles’ famed “Farmer John” murals that harkens back to the director’s documentary origins.

A section of the Farmer John Murals in East Los Angeles.

The West Side vision of France’s Jacques Demy in his only American film, Model Shop, features Gary Lockwood, sitting in his Venice Beach home sited next to a pumping oil well. Los Angeles is a city of “pure poetry,” he muses.

An “intermission” shot of Yvonne Williams sitting in a downtown movie theater in The Exiles serves as an actual break in the theatrical screenings of Andersen’s film. Most of the rest of YouTube’s part eight is an in-depth tour of the Roman Polanski/Robert Towne exposé, Chinatown, with a side trip to the 1967 Watts Riots recreated in the 1990 feature, There Goes My Baby. That week of civil unrest in South Central ushered in a belated wake-up call for the city: Los Angeles is not just a semi-tropical idyllic garden of laid back lifestyles for the privileged, but the cauldron of an angry ethnic stew, just like any Eastern, rust-belt, post-industrial city spilling over with the disadvantaged and unemployed. I remember driving westbound on the Hollywood Freeway the weekend of the “Watts Riots” and spotting a caravan of armored military vehicles heading toward the Harbor Freeway interchange, on its way down to South Central, as angry black men on radio and TV chanted to the press, "Burn, Baby, Burn."

Returning to the metaphor of Chinatown and its mostly Caucasian ambience, Andersen asks, “Isn’t the notion of Chinatown as a forsaken hell hole of civic negligence a displaced vision of Watts?” A Los Angeles native myself, this prescient metaphor had eluded me. Andersen’s mix of Chinatown’s dramatic, fictional leaps, intercut with all too real newsreel footage of William Mulholland’s grand vision of an irrigated Los Angeles with water stolen from the Owens Valley, ends this week’s essay.

Yet, there is a certain reverie that inhabits Los Angeles, a kind of residual wash left over from the persistent illusions of its silver-screen incarnations. As Andersen says,

The questions began. How did we go wrong? When did we go wrong? Although Los Angeles is a city with no history, nostalgia has always been the dominant note in the city’s image of itself. At any time in its history, Los Angeles was always a better place, “a long time ago“ than in the present.

Next week I’ll conclude this three-part examination of Thom Andersen’s documentary and give several upcoming screening dates to see this rewarding film on the big screen.

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