Los Angeles Plays Itself

An illuminated billboard at dusk


A movie for every day of the year – a good one


04 September Founding of Los Angeles, 1781

On this day in 1781 a group of 44 people (plus four soldiers) known as the Pobladores founded the “city” of Los Angeles. Or as it was known then El Peublo de Nuestra Señora la Reina de los Angeles sobre el Río Porciúncula (the Town of Our Lady the Queen of the Angels on the Porciuncula River) – California (or Las Californias) being still part of the Spanish empire in those days.

The group comprised 11 men, 11 women and 22 children, and were a racially mixed bunch who had been recruited with difficulty in Mexico. The descendants of the Pobladores – many of whom became vastly rich on the huge tracts of land a grateful government granted them – now meet on this day every year to recreate the last nine miles of the walk into the city. And these days, having been silent on the subject for a long time, they’re not quite so touchy about their multiracial origins.



Sign reading "Jackie Chan's Rush Hour Was Shot Here"
Movie City


Los Angeles Plays Itself (2003, dir: Thom Andersen)

A documentary for movie nuts, history hobbyists, lovers of cityscapes and LA fiends, Thom Andersen’s 169 minute essay on his home town is divided into three sections – Los Angeles (he hates the demeaning abbreviation LA) as backdrop, as character and as subject. With clips from more than 200 movies to back him up, Andersen does for LA (sorry) in some respects what Terence Davis does for Liverpool in Of Time and the City: composes a love letter that also exposes running sores, rights wrongs, busts myths and creates new mythologies.

Andersen might be an academic at the California Institute of the Arts, but this is no LA 101 overview, it’s a tightly argued, ideologically driven thesis about how his hometown has been cinematographically used and abused, how it’s the most photographed city in the world yet the least photogenic, how East Coasters like Woody Allen, or the countless disaster-movie producers who love blowing it up, just don’t get the place.

Against a barrage of excerpts from The Postman Always Rings Twice, Chinatown, LA Confidential, The Omega Man, Kiss Me Deadly, Blade Runner, even Laurel and Hardy movies, Andersen presents his ideas as a goad, as a starting point for debate. And he attempts to excavate the “real” Los Angeles that keeps on chugging along below the misrepresentation and cultural vandalism.

If you’ve read Mike Davis’s magisterial City of Glass, this is something like the visual counterpart. And if you don’t buy the general Andersen thesis, the movie clips alone are well worth the investment of time.



Why Watch?

  • It gives Los Angeles back to those who use it most
  • Andersen is intelligent, opinionated, crotchety and dry
  • Sacred cows (Woody Allen, Robert Altman) are slaughtered
  • There are a shitload of great clips



Anderson’s fascinating documentary is finally available to buy. You can get it here on Amazon

I am an Amazon affiliate



© Steve Morrissey 2013