Bright Lights Film Journal

Los Angeles in Theory and Practice: Thom Andersen’s Los Angeles Plays Itself

“In a powerful and precise encomium, Andersen extols the virtues of what he deems to be a kind of homegrown neo-realism.”

I. Reality Is Rich

It may be difficult to detect upon first viewing that Thom Andersen’s Los Angeles Plays Itself is in fact a manifesto, but not every manifesto is written in a torrent of typefaces, categorical statements and exclamation points. Some of the more radical programs of the 20th century were written in little more than concrete and plywood, and Andersen’s video essay is just such an understated achievement: radical in form but modest in appearance. By examining one of the most fundamental, yet least considered, aspects of the cinema — the transformation from a 3-dimensional world to a 2-dimensional image — Andersen offers us something like a new film theory. Instead of praising films based on their formal characteristics alone, Andersen’s criteria for what makes a movie good, beautiful and true seem to stem from his provocative statement: “As a rule, reality is richer than our imaginations.”1 By examining the storied history of shooting on location in what may be “the most photographed city in the world,” Los Angeles Plays Itself reveals not only the various attitudes that filmmakers and their films project upon their hometown, but the ideologies contained within each mode of looking. Andersen argues that the most celebrated “films about LA,” including Chinatown, Blade Runner and LA Confidential, are in fact cynical visions of the futility of resistance. Against this entrenched myth of a fallen city forever paying for the sins of its city fathers, he posits an alternative history, one that the movies themselves recorded, if sometimes inadvertently. The breadth of Andersen’s inquiry is generous, running from pre-code talkies to experimental pornography, but he is ultimately drawn to an insurgence of neo-realism that reveals the most about the parts of the city that we see the least. Though at times the reality that they limn is dark, they elide the cynicism that can rot an otherwise excellent film. They are as radical as reality, something to which Los Angeles Plays Itself also aspires.

Like much of the best criticism, Los Angeles Plays Itself is entertaining as well as enlightening. That the analysis can be cutting provides more than one belly laugh, but dry humor and drier timing don’t prevent Andersen from delivering a kind of secular sermon on the cinema as sacrament, ultimately instructing us as to why films are important and why it is important to watch them closely. Indeed, Andersen’s essay, far from trivial, is a timely achievement. Arguably, we now receive more information visually than verbally, and Los Angeles Plays Itself, a movie about how to watch movies, teaches us the visual literacy we so desperately need. For as Andersen demonstrates, those who have the power to control images have the power to control discourse: Chinatown has largely usurped history.2

If, like most of us, your idea of Los Angeles comes from the movies, you might imagine a wasteland of communities cut by freeways and stitched back together with strip malls; of gang warfare on an apocalyptic scale and clouds of crack smoke choking out the sun; or of a pseudo-city populated only by vacuous, rich people idling along Wilshire in their convertibles, apparently unaware that less than 10 percent of Americans make more than a hundred thousand dollars a year.

Andersen doesn’t exactly dispel these notions so much as complicate them. For like any city, Los Angeles is not one, it is many. Of course, Los Angeles is also a city like no other: as Reyner Banham suggests, it speaks the language of movement, not monument.3 If New York is an ever-changing palimpsest, infinitely amenable to the lens because it compresses time into a vertical plane, Los Angeles is the spatialization of time itself, where travel and the city are synonymous.4 Thus, argues Andersen, from Chinatown to Killer of Sheep, transportation is the “subsidiary theme” of nearly every essential Los Angeles film. Andersen is sympathetic to the dilemmas this peculiar movement-landscape presents to filmmakers. Being more horizontal than vertical, it takes time to get from one place to another and movies must contend with the unphotogenic, “quasi-private space” of the automobile or else elide geography altogether. But sloppy solutions to this delicate problem earn the narrator’s scorn, eliciting some of the film’s biggest laughs.

Speaking in person, Andersen is apologetic about the appearance of his work. Unauthorized and independently made, it is culled from various video sources, which at times does detract from the quality of the image. But the beauty that Los Angeles Plays Itself offers is the beauty that comes from clarity. The text, read by Encke King, delivers complex arguments with such precision that they seem self-evident; and while repeated viewings allow one to enjoy the economy with which these arguments are crafted, one can appreciate and comprehend the essay in a single sitting. Like a well-designed building, its structure is both logical and graceful. A modernist, Andersen relies on the inherent qualities of his materials to prescribe form, letting a minimum of material carry maximum weight. Witness the introduction: the words, “Movies bury their traces, choosing for us what to watch, then moving on to something else,” are spoken over a crane shot from 52 Pick-Up wherein our eyes are directed from a car crash in the background to a figure approaching in the foreground. The figure eventually fills the frame and we have no choice but to look at him. Rather than obvious or pedantic, this strikes me as luminary. Over the course of 169 minutes, Andersen reveals what continuity editing has cleverly concealed for years: not only do films have ideas, but images in themselves are ideas that communicate directly with the viewer.

Los Angeles Plays Itself also teaches us to look beyond the surface of an image, harvesting fiction films for their “documentary revelations.” Even the most contrived film is a record of something, which gives Andersen the opportunity to write history with the images he culls from a wide array of acknowledged classics, forgotten gems, and otherwise forgettable B pictures. These alternate routes through the cinematic cityscape add up to an alternative history of Los Angeles: the story of its underclass and its underground, of its bulldozed buildings and its lost neighborhoods. In a particularly moving passage, Andersen excavates Bunker Hill from its cinematic ruins, reconstructing its history by showing it in its various starring roles and analyzing what those roles signify. Mirroring its real-life decline and fall from bourgeois neighborhood to bourgeois office block, Bunker Hill plays prosperous, bohemian, “blighted,” and then barren before being replanted with lipstick-tinted office towers. The fact that “the movies loved Bunker Hill” means that its fate is well documented. We discover a neighborhood not unlike what many claim Los Angeles lacks, which the “Lords of the City” decided they had to destroy in order to save. Andersen writes the epitaph for Bunker Hill, to be inscribed on its postmodern mausoleums: “There once was a city here, before they tore it down and built a simulacrum.”

II. What Is Neo-Realism?

Every image records, but some images record more than others. Los Angeles Plays Itself argues that the best films rely upon reality rather than simply fitting it into a pre-established fiction. In a powerful and precise encomium, Andersen extols the virtues of what he deems to be a kind of homegrown neo-realism. Kent Mackenzie’s The Exiles, Haile Gerima’s Bush Mama, Charles Burnett’s Killer of Sheep, and Billy Woodberry’s Bless Their Little Hearts achieve a clarity in their description of Los Angeles unavailable to movies that remake the world in their own image. But it’s not that neo-realism has any greater claim to reality — Killer of Sheep is full of anachronisms and surreal touches — it’s that it depicts a part of the world we otherwise wouldn’t see. Neo-realism isn’t merely an unthinking literalism, it is a different way of photographing time and space that fundamentally alters the form of the film.

This final and perhaps most profound section of Los Angeles Plays Itself paraphrases the opening chapter of Gille Deleuze’s book Cinema 2: The Time-Image. Deleuze’s criticism is, like a gem, brilliant and multi-faceted, using cinema to reflect upon philosophy, or more accurately, revealing that cinema is philosophy: a way of thinking in images. Andersen distills Deleuze’s ideas into a few, elegant lines: “Neo-realism describes another reality and it creates a new kind of protagonist. Dorothy, the bush mama, is a seer, not an actor. There’s a crack in the world of appearances and she is defenseless before a vision of everyday reality that is unbearable.” These, perhaps the most potent lines in all of Los Angeles Plays Itself, pinpoint why some films can record more than others — their characters demand it — but the concision of the argument may elide its complexity, for Andersen’s medium demands that he be lean where Deleuze can elaborate.5 Describing a protagonist much like Dorothy in Bush Mama, Deleuze writes: “The character has become a kind of viewer. He shifts, runs and becomes animated in vain, the situation he is in outstrips his motor capacities on all sides, and makes him see and hear what is no longer subject to the rules of a response or an action. He records rather than reacts. He is prey to a vision, pursued by it or pursuing it, rather than engaged in an action.”6

For most of Bush Mama, there isn’t much that Dorothy can do. Ultimately, her act of defiance, however necessary, however brave, won’t erase the systemic inequalities. Instead of making this film cynical, however, Dorothy’s intractable situation forces her to be a witness and for much of the film she is “prey to a vision . . . rather than engaged in an action.”

Of course, the same might be said of Jake Gittes in Chinatown. While he certainly “shifts, runs and becomes animated in vain,” he isn’t a viewer or a seer in the same way that Dorothy is, for his vision is still subordinated to the needs of action. Unlike Dorothy, Gittes sees only what he needs to see, only what he seeks out — and in the end it doesn’t matter anyway. Chinatown invents a world in which we are powerless, where it’s unimportant whether or not we ever uncover the truth because there isn’t anything we can do about it. Perhaps as a result, the Los Angeles that Chinatown conjures, though undeniably powerful, is largely chimerical.

What separates Chinatown and Bush Mama besides their protagonists? For Deleuze, whose conception of cinema comes from his reading of Henri Bergson, there is an important distinction between what he refers to as “the sensory-motor image” and “the pure optical-sound image.”7 The sensory-motor image is purely instrumental. As Morgan Fisher says, “you see only what it does and not what it is.”8 But if something happens to sever this sensory-motor linkage, something to break this purely utilitarian relationship, then a different type of image can appear. Deleuze writes:

A cliché is a sensory-motor image of the thing. As Bergson says, we do not perceive the thing or the image in its entirety, we always perceive less of it, we perceive only what we are interested in perceiving, or rather what it is in our interest to perceive . . . . We therefore normally perceive only clichés. But, if our sensory-motor schemata jam or break, then a different type of image can appear: a pure optical-sound image, the whole image without metaphor, brings out the thing in itself, literally, in its excess of horror or beauty, in its radical or unjustifiable character.9

Dorothy can see what others around her are incapable of seeing because her sensory-motor link has been severed and her senses have been freed from the necessities of action. Therefore, instead of experiencing a thing only in relation to herself, she experiences the thing in itself.

The very form of the film reflects this dramatic shift. Rather than having a single, narrative arc, Bush Mama evolves through a series of episodes, the episodes themselves braided from several streams of time whose chronology we can only deduce at the conclusion of each braid. The simultaneity of past and present in Bush Mama is unlike the simultaneity in alternate parallel montage (Griffith) or montage of attraction (Eisenstein). It is a new form whose function is to describe a new reality, and, in so doing, it creates a new kind of time. Deleuze writes of the new cinema, “between the reality of the setting and that of the action, it is no longer a motor extension which is established, but rather a dreamlike connection through the intermediary of the liberated sense organs.”10 The loss of motivity leads to a separation of cause and effect and thus time itself is freed from the mooring of continuity. This allows Bush Mama to drift from past to present in what Andersen describes as “spatialized, non-chronological time of meditation and memory.” Spatialized time: that could be a description of Los Angeles itself. But of course this kind of time — an “image” of time itself — doesn’t belong to movies about Los Angeles alone. Thinking of the Italian neo-realists and their successors, Deleuze writes, “thanks to the loosening of the sensory-motor linkage, it is time, ‘a little time in its pure state,’ which rises up to the surface of the screen.”11

This is also a useful way of thinking about Los Angeles Plays Itself. Andersen’s essayistic interventions jam the “sensory motor schemata” of narrative film so that an image of Los Angeles “without metaphor . . . in its excess of horror or beauty, in its radical or unjustifiable character” can “[rise] up to the surface of the screen.” Andersen’s essay frees images from the yoke of instrumentality, revealing the city for what it is and allowing us to see what we otherwise cannot. It is at once theory and practice; not content to simply describe the new cinema, it embodies it. And this is Andersen’s great achievement: to have created a manifesto in both form and content. Like the work that it admires, Los Angeles Plays Itself teaches us to see.

  1. Andersen, Thom. Lecture attended by the author. Compare to Lenin’s oft-quoted quip to Marcu: “One can never be radical enough; that is, one must always try to be as radical as reality itself.” []
  2. “No artificial drought was required to fool the voters,” Andersen informs us. In fact, the public was all too aware of the scandals surrounding the construction of the Los Angeles Aqueduct. Because it was what the people wanted, it still passed in a landslide. []
  3. Banham, Reyner. Los Angeles: The Architecture of Four Ecologies. University of California Press, 2001. A fan of the place at a time when friends were hard to find, Banham also wrote, “Los Angeles does not get the attention it deserves — it gets attention, but it’s the attention that Sodom and Gomorrah have received, primarily a reflection of other people’s bad consciences.” []
  4. A patchwork city of small towns strung together by rail and, later, asphalt, Los Angeles is like film itself in that here you can measure distance in time. New York, by contrast, has a cityscape like an abstract expressionist canvas: though created over time, it appears to us all at once. Its history is evident on its vertical plane. []
  5. One of the benefits that the written word has over its cousin, the video essay, is that it is less bound to time, allowing readers to return to difficult passages. Though tempo is important in all writing, it is crucial in cinema, where the pace of the text is nearly as important as the words themselves. While you can rely upon the images that accompany the text to communicate, thereby reducing the amount of information that must be verbalized, it is also possible for the images and the text to compete: pair a dense idea with a complicated image and the audience might fail to grasp either one. []
  6. Deleuze, Gilles. Cinema 2: The Time-Image. Trans. Hugh Tomlinson and Robert Galeta. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1985. 3. []
  7. Here, it might be helpful to think of the word “image” as closer to impression or sensation, the Greek aesthesis. []
  8. Fisher, Morgan. “(   ).” The Seventh Annual Views from the Avant-Garde. 2003. Web. 26 Jan 2009. http://www.filmlinc.com/archive/nyff/avantgarde2003mf.htm []
  9. Deleuze, op. cit., 20 []
  10. Ibid, 4. []
  11. Ibid, xi. []