Looking Back at L.A.
The city as background, character, and subject
by Patrick Dunn
The city of Los Angeles receives an often-withering examination in two noteworthy films screening at this year's Ann Arbor Film Festival. The first, Los Angeles Plays Itself, considers the city as portrayed on film with fascinating and deeply obsessive thoroughness. Over nearly three hours, writer-director Thom Andersen, a film professor at California Institute of the Arts and longtime L.A. resident, dissects the way the city has been filmed as a background, a character, and a subject itself. Andersen's exhaustive knowledge of the city and complex affection for it imbue the picture with character and true insight. He loathes the way movies portray L.A. as a town devoted solely to the entertainment industry, the way they abbreviate its geography and even the way they abbreviate the city's name itself. (He theorizes that the "L.A." handle originated in, and was popularized by, the movies.)
Andersen illustrates his essay with clips from hundreds of different L.A.-set films, from Double Indemnity to Who Framed Roger Rabbit? to Blade Runner. Although it's an excellent creative choice, it's also placed the film in an odd limbo since Andersen completed it in 2003. Because of the thicket of copyright issues surrounding the many excerpts, Los Angeles Plays Itself has never seen commercial release (although it is available to stream on YouTube). Andersen will be present for the film's screening on March 29, as part of a festival-long retrospective of his work.
Director Penelope Spheeris's The Decline of Western Civilization is less obsessed with L.A. (make that Los Angeles), although it would certainly fit into Andersen's musings on "the city as background." Her 1981 film paints a shocking, electric portrait of the city's punk rock scene at the time, rendering its title more literal and alarmist than ironic. Spheeris relies heavily on riveting live footage of legendary bands like Black Flag, the Circle Jerks, and X. She expertly captures the aggressive energy of the rockers and their slam-dancing audiences with restless, in-your-face camerawork that
stands as some of the best concert footage ever. In between, Spheeris interviews the bands and, even more interestingly, their young fans. The comments she draws out on the punk movement and the social ills that spawned it are often damning. Standing on a smoggy L.A. roof, a concert promoter speaks about how "the air in Utopia is poisoned," making young people "desperate" and "bored." Later, a teenage fan expresses his frustration with the city and its "ugly old people, the buses, the dirt." Spheeris's film is a work of unsettling brilliance, deftly capturing her subject's spirit and questioning its dark heart. The director will appear when Decline screens on March 28.
Brief films, briefly noted: Like Los Angeles, two of the festival's short films turn an obsessive eye on past cinema. Most fascinating is Mathias Mueller and Christoph Girardet's wordless short Cut, which screens on opening night--it's a disturbing montage of disfigurement and decay from recognizable films. Director Jessica Bardsley creates an interesting autobiographical reflection on her fascination with shoplifting in The Blazing World, juxtaposing her experiences with those of actress Winona Ryder, both in Ryder's real life and in Girl, Interrupted. The festival runs March 25-30.
[Originally published in March, 2014.]