Los Angeles Plays Itself

Los Angeles Plays Itself poster

Dating back to 2003, this somewhat confidential documentary had gained an almost cult status among Los Angeles cinephiles before finally getting a proper release on Blu-Ray, DVD and streaming.

A labor of love written and directed by local film scholar Thom Andersen, Los Angeles Plays Itself documents LAs’ onscreen incarnations, from the early days to modern cinema.

The film provides an in-depth look at the city’s representations, whether it’s on the big screen or on TV. Starting with emblematic locations such as DTLA, Union station and Bunker Hill (to name a few), the film then forays into thematic territories, from corruption to architecture and minorities.

What’s striking is how much details and information is available here, as besides the classics, Mr. Andersen showcases lots of long forgotten and little-seen works to back up his narrative. While there is plenty of food for thoughts here, I must admit I was particularly entertained by some amusing moments, including Los Angeles being used as a placeholder for China or Switzerland – as a side note, these segments seem to venture outside of the title’s boundaries though.

Rather than intertwining interviews and footage, which is a pretty standard format for documentaries, Mr. Andersen simply applies a narration over movie clips. Showing actual sequences is certainly the best way to vehicle the filmmaker’s theories but a monotonous voice-over quickly turns Los Angeles Plays Itself into some tedious and rigid classwork-style presentation, which isn’t surprising since Mr. Andersen is a professor, teaching contemporary cinema at California Institute of the Arts.

With so much material to cover, the filmmaker – to his credit – tries to give us as much as possible but, on the long run, this makes Los Angeles Plays Itself look like an overstuffed work, especially as it’s almost 3 hours long. There is so much to absorb that, after a while, you tend to forget what you saw before, which is a shame and makes it hard to digest – it’s kind of like trying to go through the Paris Louvre museum in a couple hours. A better approach would have been to make it into a mini-series, which would allow you to better assimilate the content – and to tell you the truth, I did watch it in 3 parts.

What I found more problematic though are Mr. Andersen’s subjective narration and movie tastes. While he’s obviously free to do whatever he wants with his own work, such a subject would probably have benefitted from a team effort and a more neutral approach. Often condescending, most particularly when it comes to showing his disdain for some works and name dropping the likes of Ozu, the filmmaker also baffles when spending too much time on material that doesn’t seem to deserve it. For example, he criticizes profusely the influential sci-fi movie Blade Runner but praises the TV show Dragnet and other obscure B-movies. Even more surprising, we get to see several clips from the Steven Seagal-starrer Glimmer Man while the likes of Quentin Tarantino and Paul Thomas Anderson are almost nowhere to be found.

Not as troubling, but still disappointing, Mr. Andersen doesn’t seem to know how to conclude, ending this documentary abruptly. While I do understand that such a premise is a work in progress by nature, this makes it look incomplete. Fascinating but flawed and uncontrollable, Los Angeles Plays Itself is a laudable effort worth watching but might have been too heavy for his author’s shoulders.

Director: Thom Andersen – Running Time: 2:49 – Year: 2003 – Country: USA
Click here to watch the Los Angeles Plays Itself trailer
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Fred Thom

Fred Thom

Editor-in-Chief/Founder/Film Critic at Plume Noire
The founder and editor-in-chief of Plume Noire, Fred Thom covers film festivals and writes movie reviews. He was born in Marseilles, France and is now living in Los Angeles, California.
Fred Thom

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