Neil Young’s Film Lounge – Los Angeles Plays Itself



USA 2004 : Thom ANDERSEN : 169 mins

On the back of two successful screenings at the London Film Festival in October, Los Angeles Plays Itself has been booked in for a two week run at the capital’s ICA from December 10th. This will hopefully be the start of nationwide exposure for what is one of this year’s genuinely unmissable releases. Andersen is a lecturer at the California Institute for the Arts (‘CalArts’) – as is fellow avant-garde documentarian James Benning, whose experimental duo Los and El Valley Centro come to mind as we watch this 169-minute portrait of Los Angeles told through clips from the films shot there over the last century. We’re also not a million miles away from the dry detachment of Patrick Keiller’s London and Robinson in Space – Encke King fulfilling the omniscient-narrator role occupied by Paul Scofield in the Keiller films.

But Los Angeles Plays Itself really is one of a kind, stitching together dozens of extracts from other films to provide a social and economic history of the city. Andersen covers many established ‘classics’ – Chinatown, Heat, LA Confidential, Blade Runner, The Long Goodbye, Point Blank – but brings to each the fiercely intelligent eye of a resident who is intensely proud of his adopted city. And his range is impressively democratic: Oscar-nominated titles jostle for space alongside obscure straight-to-video entries like A Passion To Kill and Dead Homiez which earn their place by providing particular shots of particular areas in the sprawling megalopolis.

But there’s a third category of excerpts which provides the real meat for Andersen’s polemics: underground movies like Haile Gerima’s Bush Mama, Charles Burnett’s Killer of Sheep, Kent Mackenzie’s The Exiles and Billy Woodberry’s Bless Their Little Hearts – all of which depict locales (like the much-missed Bunker Hill) and harsh struggles undreamt of by the well-heeled denizens of Hollywood. Andersen’s political analysis is incisive and persuasive, but Los Angeles Plays Itself is no dry academic exercise: his “idiosyncratic panorama” functions on many levels, not least as a riotously entertaining – and frequently hilarious – journey through this “fabulous city” and the myriad celluloid fables it has spawned.

29th November, 2004
[seen 28th October 2004 : National Film Theatre, London : public show – London Film Festival]

review written for Tribune magazine

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by Neil Young