Criterion Prediction #192: Los Angeles Plays Itself, by Alexander Miller
Title: Los Angeles Plays Itself
Director: Thom Anderson
Synopsis: A detailed chronicle that examines the relationship between the famed California city and the varied ways it’s represented in the movies. Anderson’s exhaustive research unveils countless films and filmmakers whose relationship with Los Angeles ranges from adoring to contentious as well as turning an eye to the years of civic and bureaucratic corruption that serve as an inspiration for beloved classics such as Chinatown, American Me, L.A. Confidential and Who Framed Roger Rabbit?.
Critique: Anderson commits himself to his work in a way that would otherwise sink the likability of a lesser documentarian; the first-person narration is catty, opinionated, brash and at times condescending. He’s anything but subtle, unafraid to call bullshit on anyone, whether it be a schlocky Death Wish sequel or the venerated work of Michael Mann. He’ll throw shade at Ridley Scott but liken Jack Webb’s direction of Dragnet to the likes of Ozu or Bresson. The very notion of a catty and opinionated first-person narrator who is a sounding board for the director might sound overwhelmingly counter-intuitive to the (relative) objectivity of the genre. But Anderson doesn’t offer glib insights and Los Angeles Plays Itself is a far cry from any conventional documentary. It’s a cultural analysis of Hollywood and the history of Los Angeles as an essay film where Anderson hosts a one-way conversation where everything from architectural symbolism, geographical license and high and low tourism is interpreted, as well as a modicum of misnomers that are synonymous with filmic lore, to the point where the legacy of misinformation has become just as mythic as the movies themselves.
While documentaries about films, filmmakers or genre-focused fare tend to devolve into a rambling narrative of self-congratulatory talking heads and stock footage. Anderson airs clean, dirty and perhaps ancillary laundry because his ambition is more significant than exposition or navel-gazing. It’s easy to make a movie about a subject you love, but Los Angeles Plays Itself ferrets out the lesser known, alternate history behind the titular city and the films that issued from it. Hypnotic, droll and relentlessly re-watchable, Los Angeles Plays Itself is essential viewing for any curious fan of the moving image.
Why It Belongs in the Collection: There’s a rough-hewn, DIY feel to the work of Anderson and the result, a film like Los Angeles Plays Itself, has a solid reputation but is still relegated (relatively) to academics and film scholars. While Cinema Guild’s DVD and Blu-ray is a substantial contribution, the film and many other titles distributed through Cinema Guild would fit in Criterion’s wheelhouse–the work of Hong Sang-Soo, Alexander Sokurov and Radu Jude, to name a few–but their home video distribution model is somewhat limited. Perhaps Janus Films will make make a deal.