It is no wonder that CalArts professor Thom Andersen’s documentary plays out like a long-winded lecture. Heavy on the visual appeal, but lacking in emphasis or enthusiasm, “Los Angeles Plays Itself” comes across like the most glorified three-hour long PowerPoint presentation known to man. To film aficionados and Los Angeles residents alike[[,]] the premise seems as good as any: get a gifted movie buff to rummage through the archives and compile an extended slide show about Los Angeles in Hollywood cinema. Unfortunately, unaffected narration (thanks to Encke King, who does the best impersonation of Ben Stein on XANAX I’ve ever heard) and obscure film selection (wait, you haven’t seen “The Exiles”?) drags the project down by the time you reach the half-way mark.
The documentary starts off rather emphatically as the drone of King’s voice is quickly swallowed by images of Los Angeles landmarks and movie sets, not to mention an awesome behind-the-scenes shot of a bus being airlifted by helicopter through downtown during the making of “Swordfish.” Andersen all-too-fleetingly examines the city behind the films as he showcases just how prevalent movie sets and film crews are in an everyday stroll through the Los Angeles suburbs. The first chapter in this novel-length piece focuses on the city as backdrop for innumerable Hollywood films, an irony that the writer/director quickly points out as he calls L.A. the most photographed, but least photogenic city in the world. Andersen then launches into a diatribe on how moviemakers have transformed the streets of Los Angeles into countless other locales, both real and fictional, punctuating his thoughts with clip after clip of ill-placed palm trees that rapidly become redundant. Still, the cityscapes herein provide for some of the most picturesque and diverse visuals the film has to offer, methodically and poignantly cross-referencing film excerpts with detailed architectural history.
Far less compelling are the two subdivisions of Andersen’s argument, which take up the vast majority of the documentary. Herein he presents the notion of L.A. as both a film character and the film’s subject through countless scenes (compiled from over 200 movies) that stretch themselves thin for nearly two and one half hours. Though the lengthy discussion of Roman Polanski’s “Chinatown” begins as both relevant and informative, Andersen takes so long to conclude his argument that we quickly become more engaged with looking at a pre-maniacal Jack Nicholson than listening to the history behind L.A.’s water facilities.
Call it the curse of the MTV generation, but the documentary’s most fascinating and thought-provoking moments appear mainly through fast-paced montages of Los Angeles landmarks that gained notoriety through their movie roles. As an L.A. native, I found myself riveted by the 30-second snippets of Johnny Depp brooding exquisitely in front of the Westin Bonaventure Hotel where my senior prom was held, and Alicia Silverstone lying face down in the parking lot of the Circus Liquor near my house. Likewise, Andersen does a compelling job of dissecting and discussing Los Angeles architecture as he tours buildings such as Union Station, the Griffith Park Observatory and Frank Lloyd Wright’s remarkable Ennis-Brown House. The seemingly innumerable transformations of the heavily filmed Bradbury Building are some of the most startling as futuristic clips from “Blade Runner” are contrasted with period piece scenes from “Murder in the First” in an attempt to show how cinematography and direction can alter a location.
Perhaps most unfortunate is that “Los Angeles Plays Itself” suffers from the age-old problem of strong thesis, weak argument. Andersen makes a valid point when he proclaims that Los Angeles leads a double life as a fictional movie town and a real city blinded by the glitz of Hollywood, but then bogs himself down with too many irrelevant historical details and lengthy film-by-film analyses. Though students in the field may appreciate the exhaustive critique-come-case-study feat that “Los Angeles Plays Itself” accomplishes, I will continue to doubt the educational merits of a 20-minute long discussion on the role of the freeway system in “Who Framed Roger Rabbit?” especially as Andersen chooses to ignore both L.A. film classics “Beverly Hills Ninja” and “Beverly Hills Cop.”