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Los Angeles Plays Itself

Reviewed By Chris Parry
Posted 09/18/03 11:47:01

"There will never be a better documentary about Los Angeles than this."
5 stars (Awesome)

You always have to be suspicious about a documentary that contains almost no new footage. Constructing a story with pieces of celluloid that have already been used in other productions is perhaps a bit of a free ride; a jigsaw puzzle adventure rather than a film in its own right. At least, that's what I thought until I sat down to watch Thomas Andersen's three part documentary series on Los Angeles' place in film, Los Angeles Plays Itself. If you've never been to LA before, this documentary will make you want to go soon. But if you've spent a little time in the City of Angels, this love letter to the hub of the west could even draw a tear or two.

Thomas Andersen isn't a big name in the film industry. He doesn't have a string of successes to his name or a burgeoning rep as a PBS documentarian - he's just a guy who studied filmmaking, drove a cab, programmed a few festivals and settled in as a faculty member at the California Institute of the Arts School of Film/Video.

Does that qualify him to be the ultimate cinematic historian of the city of Los Angeles? Not by a long shot, but his undeniable knowledge, passion and love for the place sure as hell does.

In preparing this project, Andersen smartly identified that no other city in the world has had more of its history put to film than LA. From the onset of talkies way back in the 30's to the supernova years of James Dean, Marlon Brando and Marilyn Monroe, through the war time, the depression, civic corruption, free love, and the big budget dominance of the Hollywood industry today, the common backdrop of a multitude of films has been Los Angeles. Even when it's not playing itself, the landmarks, the landscape, the people and the places can easily be identified as LA. From Johnnie's Cafe, the famous location of Miracle Mile, to the Bradbury Building, made famous for decades by film noir directors and disaster picture producers, before finally being transformed into a futuristic ruin in Ridley Scott's Blade Runner. From the hulking old observatorium that saw James Dean knife fighting in Rebel Without A Cause to the Angelyne billboards destroyed so wonderfully in Volcano.

It's all here; all of that and a whole lot more. Chinatown, Escape from LA, Cobra, LA Confidential, Who Framed Roger Rabbitt, Double Indemnity, LA Story, Bush Mama, Grand Canyon, Bless Their Little Hearts, porn, schlock, drive-in movies, exploitation films, epics, franchises, blockbusters and indies.

Andersen paints a picture of LA using scenes that others had created before him, but lashes the narrative together in a style that is one part humor, one par drama, one part university lecture and multiple parts nostalgia. I was heartbroken to learn hat Johnnie's Cafe is closed, and intrigued to learn about the destruction, rebuilding, and subsequent closure of the Angels Flight. Iwas reintroduced to the wonders of Polanski's Chinatown, with a historical perspective added to show me that the film isn't just a great work in its own right, that it actually borrows from real events.

Andersen explores the city as background, character and subject in ways that I could never have imagined were possible. The sheer scope of the films shown and the ideas, places and people remembered truly required someone with a lifelong history with the place, the medium, and of learning itself. I personally have a great passion for LA - I feel that anyone who has been but never got off the tourist bus and found their own way for a few days has missed the entire point. Every corner you turn in LA asks you to remember where you've seen it before. Every building has been seen on screens from Macau to Morocco. Every chink in its armor has rusted and adapted and become art.

Boys'N'The Hood. Tango and Cash. Die Hard. Terminator. Unlawful Entry. East of Eden. The Exiles. Even the TV series Dragnet. To us these films are pieces of entertainment, or maybe history if we take the medium seriously enough. But one thing they all have in common is that in the background, or the foreground, or as a supporting player, LA features prominently, and if you look hard enough, you can watch it growing up. Los Angeles Plays Itself gathers all of those family photos from the LA album and sorts through them, telling a story that has never stopped being told and probably never will.

With a droll, even cynical, voiceover by New York filmmaker Encke King, the film does occasionally lapse into the overtly petty. Out of context pieces of James Dean performances tend to be used as comical humor rather than as the groundbreaking moments they were, for example, which might serve to alienate some of those who don't look down their nose at the commercially successful, and it also has to be said that Andersen's fascination with architecture does tend to override other factors of the project. But did that stop me from enjoying this project immensely? Not in the slightest.

A fantastic series, a superbly constructed history lesson, and perhaps the realization of a life spent gearing up for such a task, Los Angeles Plays Itself should be a work preserved for the ages, and maybe even added to in a few decades time. A must-see for any movie fan.

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