I am, I confess, a late convert when it comes to Los Angeles. Back when I was a kid, I internalized the anti-L.A. bias expressed in, most prominently, the films of Woody Allen. It is only in middle age that I have come to appreciate the beauty of the place.
There’s a marvelous movie now out in limited release called Los Angeles Plays Itself, and I recommend it not just to people who are into L.A., but to anyone who loves cinema, and to anyone who especially enjoys movies that have a sense of place. Filmmaker Thom Andersen compiled hundreds of clips from movies set in Los Angeles, and intercut them with footage of the city from about a decade ago (the film was first released in 2003; this is a recut second version).
Andersen asks a telling question early on: If we can sometimes enjoy documentaries for their narrative qualities, can’t we also enjoy narrative films for their documentary qualities? Even back in the ’30s and ’40s, not all filming was done on studio backlots – so that very often, if you focus on the parts of the film frame not carrying the narrative burden, you are looking through a privileged window into the past.
And you never know where such a window might exist. A few years ago, in a documentary about Henri Langlois, the co-founder of the Cinémathèque Française, I heard something pretty hilarious: It seems that there is, in the United States, a university that has a massive archive of porn films — not in the film department, or even in sexuality or gender studies, but in the history of material culture. It turns out that if you want to know, with great exactitude, what the interior design, furniture, and furnishings of a typical American lower-middle-class dwelling were in a given year, you should consult the porn films made in that year. (NB. I have never tried to find out whether this is actually true, or which university it is that has the archive. The story makes intuitive sense, when you think about it; but it could also be that the professor of material culture at that university had to come up with a quick explanation for his wife as to why he had a library of 25,000 pornographic films.)
A couple of times, but only a couple of times, the narration in Los Angeles Plays Itself indulges in left-wing cliché. For the most part, the film clips speak for themselves, and show us the past of a real city, in its fictional representations. It is almost three hours long, and completely captivating from start to finish.