Where Angels Fear to Tread

By Nick Bradshaw

los-angeles-plays-itself-thom-andersen.jpgLos Angeles Plays Itself, 2003

‘This is the city,’ Thom Andersen growls over an aerial shot of his smog-shrouded hometown at the start of Los Angeles Plays Itself. ‘They make movies here. I live here. Sometimes I think that gives me the right to criticise.’ And criticise he does, scouring over 200 feature-film clips for documentary impressions and distortions to mount a stout and surly entreaty for a side of Hollywood’s host city that the movie machine rarely recognises. The result is both Andersen’s ‘city symphony in reverse’, and a trenchant treatise on the intersection of modern politics and semiotics. Andersen teaches film and video at the California Institute of the Arts.

Nick Bradshaw: Your film takes issue with a couple of Los Angeles shibboleths – the idea that no-one walks in the city, and that all its inhabitants work in the movies. Another is that no-one is originally from Los Angeles.

Thom Andersen: There’s a certain truth to them all. There are parts of the city where nobody walks. Parts of downtown are deserted after hours, like Bunker Hill since they rebuilt it. At night it’s quite eerie. But just a couple of blocks away east is Broadway, which is a big Latino shopping district, crowded with people. The generalisation that ‘nobody walks’ expresses the fact that, for a lot of white people, black and Latino people are invisible. I’m not originally from Los Angeles, but I grew up here from the age of three. When I was about 12 we spent one semester in New York City – my father had a postgraduateship at Columbia University. When I got out of college I had this plan to go to New York, but it didn’t work out. I did spend about ten years in Buffalo, New York and Columbus, Ohio, but realised I wanted to move back to Los Angeles, and finally was able to. I suppose I don’t know a lot of people born and raised here. It’s still a magnet for people from elsewhere.

NB: When did you first suspect the movies might not be an accurate reflection of the city?

TA: I guess that shouldn’t come as a big surprise. Originally I was more struck by the ways in which the movies were like the city – by seeing places and things I recognised in the movies. It only occurred to me later that that was surprisingly rare. But the real impulse for my film was the way that movies misrepresented the history of the city, rather than its geography or appearance. LA Confidential confirmed everything I’d been thinking for a while, maybe since Chinatown first appeared.

NB: Were you already familiar with your ‘public history’ of Los Angeles when you first watched that film’s ‘secret history’?

TA: No, I don’t think so. I mean, you can’t blame Chinatown – it’s not, as some people say, bad history. Robert Towne was simply inspired by the history of the building of the Los Angeles aqueduct, which he read in Carey McWilliamsSouthern California Country, which I suppose was the best history available at the time. And I think Chinatown itself probably inspired more thorough scholarship, which in turn informs my movie.

What bothers me about Chinatown is how it contributes to the popular notion that there’s something illegitimate about the very existence of Los Angeles, because it’s sustained by water from elsewhere. In fact giant cities as we know them today would be almost impossible without the ability to divert water from other places. There’s a kind of geological determinism at work there that’s just wrong. In fact you could say the opposite: Los Angeles is located in the largest basin on the Pacific coast of North America so, far from being illegitimate or unnecessary, it’s kind of inevitable.

The other thing I still object to in Chinatown has to do with the cynicism of the ending that Polanski imposed. That’s what creates the film’s political conservatism. There’s a Los Angeles writer called DJ Waldie, who is, I think, the finest writer about Los Angeles, and my movie inspired a recent text he wrote on Chinatown. He says what I wanted to say more eloquently:

"In the end the story of Los Angeles has dwindled to a conclusion we are powerless to affect, like a landscape watched in the rear-view mirror of a car fleeing a crime scene. At the end of our story, this is Chinatown, only Chinatown, and we’re only along for the ride."

And that applies as well, I think, to LA Confidential.

NB: The film is assiduously iconoclastic. Chinatown may be your biggest prize white elephant, but Joan Didion and David Thomson get it in the neck too. And your readings of many other films are very fresh.

TA: Well, there wouldn’t be any point to a project like this unless you did that, right? For me art is all about describing things that are obvious, yet unrecognised, so they can be acknowledged and maybe acted upon. I do think in this movie I managed to stick to saying pretty obvious things, and maybe mostly things people hadn’t thought of before. When it comes to Los Angeles it’s pretty easy to disagree with most people who’ve covered it, because they usually have a provincial point of view – that is, most of the people they know are other writers, or other people in the movie industry.

But things are changing. There’s a new Los Angeles literature now flowering from people born here, who grew up not in what’s called the West Side of Los Angeles, but in the eastern and southeastern suburbs, where most people live. And I think soon there’ll be a new kind of cinema produced. A couple of CalArts graduates, Andrew Garza and a guy called Francisco Romero, are Latinos who live here; they made some interesting movies. But there’s been kind of a resistance to them, because they’re about commonplace, ordinary things.

NB: That’s one question the film begs, when you’re looking at the relationship between reality and representation in all these films, is whether film might not have a natural predisposition to lean towards myth-making. Maybe when you’re throwing something up on a big screen, the first temptation is to rearrange it?

TA: Make it bigger than life, better than life? Yeah, there’s a place for that, but there’s another way as well. Maybe that’s why we admire Ozu. His movies aren’t slices of life, they’re all about key moments, the most dramatic transitions in a person’s life: marriage, death. But he manages to make movies about ordinary death, as opposed to violent, extraordinary death. So there’s plenty of drama, but it’s the kind of drama that actually exists in our lives. And I think Charles Burnett and Billy Woodberry do that as well. Although they’re also inspired by the desire to represent lives that aren’t acknowledged at all in Hollywood cinema.

NB: It’s an irony that what first attracted filmmakers to Los Angeles was its environment, and yet, as you point out, the city’s horizontalness, its sprawl, makes it hard to ‘get right’ on the vertical screen. Some of the corollaries of that sprawl are the clichés of Los Angeles’ suburbanisation and civic atomisation. To what extent are you taking to task films that propound those clichés, and shun a hidden civic Los Angeles? And to what extent are you actually critiquing the plans and designs of Los Angeles’ concrete elite – which, of course, might then be reflected in the films they make?

TA: There are two lines in the movie that are like throwaways, but to me they’re the most important. One is a comment on the bleakness of Chinatown’s ending, where I say: “This is history written by the victors, but as usual it is written in crocodile tears.” The other would be almost at the very end, over Billy Woodberry’s Bless Their Little Hearts: “So many men unneeded, unwanted, in a world where there is so much to be done.” For me, those are the politics of the movie. I think it is critical of a number of institutions in Los Angeles – the police and the transit authority particularly. In a way I wish I could have made a more political film, but that seemed to be moving too far away from the movies themselves. So those lines are just kind of hints; I hope people pick up on them.

NB: There used to be a sense of the city as being on the western edge, the test bed for developments in western secularism. What do you think now that Mike Davis, perhaps the city’s most famous chronicler, is moving his attentions to Las Vegas?

TA: He’s also moved his attentions to San Diego. And for a while it was Hawaii. But, maybe more crucially, to the new third world cities. Reading his Planet of Slums in New Left Review, it does make me feel that the problems of Los Angeles are somewhat trivial in comparison with those of some third-world cities. Los Angeles used to be the city of the future; now it’s a future that’s come and gone. The recent and cataclysmic destruction of third-world agriculture in the last few years has created other patterns of migration and other kinds of cities. I suppose those are now the cities of the future.

Nick Bradshaw is a film writer for Time Out London and co-edits the film section of Plan B magazine.