Los Angeles Plays Itself
Here’s an unusual documentary worth checking out from Thom Anderson about the least photogenic yet most photographed film town of all. Los Angeles is the equivalent of Middlesex; boring, ugly, but near enough to studios to provide cheap exterior backdrops. However, it wasn’t always like this. Anderson’s film looks at the history of the city through the lens of the Hollywood camera, and we start to see how a place with an intriguing past had the bumps flattened out of it (sometimes literally) until it became a perpetually blank canvas for movie-makers.
If London carries too much weight of the past (and it still looks old, even allowing for the current spate of rape ‘n’ pillage taking place) then L.A. carries no past at all, which turns it into a perfect dreamscape. But it wasn’t always this way. Once there was a vibrant Downtown area and even an Old Town, with a funicular railway line running vertiginously across the streets. But the L.A. Police Department drove black people out of Central Avenue to end ‘racial mixing’, and developers destroyed quirky Bunker Hill, flattening it out and driving away all life from it.
Through hundreds of clips from mainstream and experimental movies in a long two-part study (now available on DVD) we see these ghostly neighbourhoods restored on celluloid, and you find yourself watching backdrops rather than foregrounded heroines and heroes. The city is transformed from a place known intimately by those who took the bus or walked, to one which everyone viewed from behind a windscreen. We see the nearest L.A. has to iconic buildings, the Bradbury (site of ‘Blade Runner’ and others) and the central station, and the streamlined Art Deco beauty of the Pan Pacific Auditorium, which ended up in the so-bad-it’s-rather-wonderful ‘Xanadu’ and mysteriously burned down in 1982, right in the middle of arguments about its land. I visited it just before it was destroyed, while I was still living there, and took a set of photographs of this astonishing building.
So Los Angeles became L.A., its Mulholland Drive glass-boxes becoming locations for movie henchmen, its downtown areas rendered invisible, only its most affluent centre used for films. Its very anonymity allowed it to double for towns in almost any other state. As you’d expect, the film ‘Chinatown’ represents much of what went wrong with the city, touching on the corruption scandals, but Anderson interestingly cites ‘Who Framed Roger Rabbit’ as being more accurate in its allusions to corrupted officials and property rights.
It’s a very personal view of the city, so there are some major omissions. Virtually no Sunset Strip locations, nothing from the Valley, no beaches at all, no Malibu, but it’s a rich enough subject even allowing for Anderson’s occasional detours, and a lot more interesting than watching many of the films that were shot here.