Los Angeles Plays Itself



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.



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

A documentary for movie nuts, history hobbyists, lovers of cityscapes and LA fiends, Thom Anderson’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, as subject. With clips from more than 200 movies to back him up, Anderson does for LA (sorry) in some respects what Terence Davis does for Liverpool in Of Time and the City: composes a love letter that exposes running sores, rights wrongs, busts myths, creates new mythologies. Anderson 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, Anderson 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 Anderson 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
  • Anderson is intelligent, opinionated, crotchety and dry
  • Sacred cows (Woody Allen, Robert Altman) are slaughtered
  • There are a shitload of great clips




© Steve Morrissey 2013



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



4 thoughts on “Los Angeles Plays Itself”

  1. Thom Andersen uses hundreds of scenes from a multitude of movies throughout the past century, to express his opinions about the true Los Angeles in this cinematic essay. He takes the common opinion that Los Angeles has no discernible culture, and presents two basic reasons why this opinion is so prevalent.

    1. Los Angeles used to be a culture rich city until the richer, more affluent, citizens decided that it’s more profitable to have apartment complexes, high rises, and strip malls.

    2. There is quite a bit of culture remaining in Los Angeles, but because everyone is too busy driving themselves from point A to point B as fast as possible, they don’t see it.

    Whether you agree with his opinions or not, the film is worth a look (although nearly three hours long) to see all of the footage of Los Angeles over the years, and how it portrayed LA at the time.

  2. A fantastic film covering all of the bases of the way in which Los Angeles is seen through the eyes of Hollywood. Full of wonderful insights, this film is an in depth study more than it is a crowd-pleaser. Also a great source of information for film-buffs…a plethora of little-known facts and behind-the-scenes information. Some of the movies are blockbusters, others you may not have ever heard of, but each film that Thom Anderson studies and quotes proves to be a unique take on the subject. If you love DVD special features, you will love this movie. If you love Los Angeles, you will love this movie. If you HATE Los Angeles, you will love this movie. If you don’t know yet, or know nothing about LA, get your hands on a copy of this movie. It will make it easier to decide.

  3. You may have noticed other comments here saying that the film is long, boring and has a droning voice over. While it is 3 hours long and has a narrator with a voice like a sedated Billy Bob Thornton, Los Angeles Plays Itself is one of the most fascinating film-crit documentaries ever made.

    The director assumes that the viewer has a certain level of understanding of film theory, and that would probably help when the narrator starts citing David Thomson, Pauline Kael, Dziga Veryov and Ozu, but it’s not entirely necessary to enoy the film either. All you really need is an understanding that a real place – the city of Los Angeles – is also a fictional place – the LA of the movies. The documentary is like an extended home movie made up of clips from films and interspersed with sections created by the director.

    What holds it all together is an examination of Los Angeles as a place in films (locations, buildings), as a stand in for other places (Africa, Switzerland), as a record of places lost (buildings, neighborhoods, people, cultures), as focus for nightmares and dreams (SF like Blade Runner and Independence Day) and more.

    While the voice over could have been paced a little better and be bit more "up", this film really rewards viewers who are willing to accept the documentary on its own terms. I found I just couldn’t stop thinking about it and now, when watching movies shot in LA, I keep remembering moments from Los Angeles Plays Itself.

  4. I watched this movie at the ‘Rotterdam Film Festival’ in The Netherlands and beforehand had no idea what to expect. After a few minutes it became clear to me that the movie was a collection of hundreds of movie-fragments, all located in the city of Los Angeles. Being a movie freak I was very interested from that point on, and Thomas Anderson didn’t let me down. A terrible amount of time and research must have been spent making this movie, and it pays off! Having been in L.A. myself I really liked all places that are shown in the movie, and all movie-fragments being shown. Unfortunately, a lot (I think to many) of old movie fragments are shown (1950-1960), which makes it a little ‘unrecognizable’, at least for me. After part two of the movie, I had seen so many peaces of ‘old material’, and together with listening 2 hours to the voice of Mr. Anderson, I became to tired to go for the 3rd hour. Nevertheless, I can really recommend this movie to anyone who likes watching movies, and likes learning more about them and about a city that was so very important in movie making!

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