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Thom Andersen Plays Himself

Thom Andersen Plays Himself

Yesterday, I went to see Los Angeles Plays Itself, Thom Andersen’s fascinating deconstruction of the cinematic representation of Los Angeles. I was enthralled for the entire three hours, and I thoroughly enjoyed the highly personal approach to the history of film that Andersen took. It was clear to me that his somewhat curmudgeonly perspective on the city’s history in (and as the subject of) films was derived from his love of the place, love of film, and his highly cultivated understanding of the relationship between art and the experience of real-life. However, there was something deeply flawed in his analysis, and after a night filled with visions of Los Angeles spinning in my head, I think I found what I was looking for.


That is, while Andersen’s film is highly entertaining and a must-see for film fans as well as anyone interested in the history of urban space and development, in my mind, his intellectual approach to the question of representation really misses the boat. Instead of a book-length analysis of the film and its relationship to film history and the history of post-modern philosophy (which I would almost love to write,) I think it would be best to follow Andersen’s own technique and set up some categories, then attempt to describe my own complicated reaction to them. So, if you haven’t seen the film, I hope the following is worth a read. If you have seen it, I would love to hear your thoughts.

At the heart of Andersen’s argument is the idea of authenticity, or the distinction between what is real and true, and what is (in this case) manufactured and false. This idea manifests itself as the underlying concept behind all of Andersen’s arguments, and therefore figures directly in several of the film’s best segments.

A. Authentic Geography
One of Andersen’s first and most enjoyable arguments deals with the way in which geography and public/private space in Los Angeles is rarely authentic in its filmic representation. His examples are a lot of fun– car chases that begin in one place and make a right turn onto a street 30 miles away, the exteriors of buildings and neighborhoods that, upon the opening of a door, become completely different places, sets and buildings used as stand-ins for actual places (airport terminals, train stations, public squares.) Despite the charms of Andersen’s choices and the fun had exposing, let’s call them ‘geographic continuity’ issues with films, he only has a couple of small examples of what his ideal of an ‘authentic’ Los Angeles looks like (his best examples feature at the end of the film, but I want to save those for later.) He includes the classic car chase scene from the original Gone in 60 Seconds as an example of a geographically authentic moment, when cars make turns on to the streets they are actually adjacent to, and crash through store windows of actual stores in their actual locations.

This is all well and good, but there is a secondary critique that Andersen, in his defense of Los Angeles as an authentic place, neglects. The real question is, does Los Angeles have an authentic geography as a place at all? The reality is that the place itself is subjective. Like any city, and especially one that is NOT a subject (more on this soon) but primarily functions as the setting for a subject, there is no comprehensive or ‘true’ Los Angeles. There are only subjective versions of a lived experience in those places. Certainly, streets connect to other specific streets, buildings are adjacent to other specific buildings, but the manipulation and compression of that space into a new, fictional, subjective, and equally specific space is the function of art. His criticism later in the film of Diane Keaton, Robert Altman, and Steve Martin’s ‘privileged’ understandings of Los Angeles aside (we’ll save that one for later, too,) the idea that fictional representations of a real place diminish the idea of the place by not authentically reproducing its exact topography seems a minor point. One could dig back into arguments about the nature of an image, the license of an artist, the limitations and meanings of perspective, all as classic defenses of rearranging Los Angeles’ geography for a film, but the point remains that in any creative endeavor, the meaning of the change is what counts. Andersen never really explores the difference in meaning that is conveyed by a strict geographic (yet subjective) authenticity instead of an artistically manipulated one, he simply implies the importance of the former over the latter. Why so? Because that is how Thom Andersen experiences Los Angeles. What is the point of montage, then? Must everything be in real time and in a real place?

The prioritization of geographic authenticity strips away the important tool of time compression from film as an art form, takes away the creative application of actual space, and steals from the artist the ability to create subjective space, and thereby create meaning. Instead of the admittedly fun but meaningless exercise of critiquing the misapplication of literal space, Andersen might have done better to question the meaning created by the application of subjective space.

B. Authentic Subject
Andersen’s second criticism of the way in which film represents Los Angeles was, by far, the most frustrating for me. In the segment ‘Los Angeles as Subject,’ Andersen explores films that go beyond the anonymous use of Los Angeles as ‘setting’ to explore the way in which the actual story of Los Angeles itself, be it in the past or future, is portrayed in film. In a revealing interview with the GREAT online film magazine Reverse Shot, Andersen contradicts my understanding of his own point when he says:

“Let me say one thing in relation to Chinatown. To me, the key line of Los Angeles Plays Itself, which it seems a lot of people haven’t picked up on and I haven’t talked about, because it is kind of a throwaway, is at the end of the Chinatown section: ‘As usual, this is history written by the victors, but a history written in crocodile tears.’ What I mean by that is we here in the United States,and other countries too, I suppose, celebrate the losers of history while actually dishonoring their goals and their aspirations. For example, the only person now who has a national holiday named after him in the U.S. is Martin Luther King, Jr., and yet it’s his enemies who are running the country.”

While I certainly disagree with Andersen’s political assessment of Martin Luther King Jr. as a loser of history (to be fair, I don’t think that was the point he intended to make), I even more vehemently disagree that this point has any true expression in his film. The reality of his filmic argument is again focused on authenticity, but this time, he sees the myth of Los Angeles’ past in fiction as being an inauthentic representation of the city. His most detailed examples are Chinatown which creates a fictional water theft/land deal scenario that has been substituted in the American mind for the reality of the history of water and development in Los Angeles, and L.A. Confidential which amalgamates several scandalous events in Los Angeles’ history of police corruption. Andersen makes the point that these films manipulate the literal timelines of true events, fictionalize and create events for dramatic effect, and offer cynicism about public life and civic action to the detriment of the community. The moral of Chinatown is that inaction prevents pain and suffering, so cynicism must drive action. L.A. Confidential exposes man as eternally corruptible, and Los Angeles as the hothouse for that corruption. In reality, Andersen shows us, the sources of these films (the early century water deals and mid-century police corruption scandals) were exposed in the REAL Los Angeles, and civic life has developed through an active press and the democratic process.

Again, what Andersen neglects in his analysis is the implicit meaning of the films in their own historical context. Robert Towne and Roman Polanksi in the 1970’s weren’t trying to create an authentic representation of the civic history of Los Angeles, they were trying to deal with the corruption and political cynicism of their own time. A look at L.A. Confidential as more an expression of 1990’s Los Angeles police corruption than historical corruption would lend a far more nuanced view of the meaning of the film. In other words, by decontextualizing the time, place, and meaning of these films and narrowly categorizing their messages as being primarily historical, Andersen strips them of their true meaning. These, like all period films, are not so much a record of the past as the present in which they were made. Period and nostalgia give the artist the ability to specify both universal themes and topical issues without the stigma of being too timely as to lose their narrative cohesion. Just look at a film like Fahrenheit 9-11 which, albeit a non-fiction film, can barely be discussed without a shouting match. That both films STILL resonate (particularly Chinatown) with 21st century audiences says more about their universality and truth than their relationship to an ‘authentic’ civic history ever will.

C. Authentic Experience
Finally, as mentioned earlier, Andersen sets about the task of prioritizing experience itself as authentic and ‘inauthentic,’ but in this case, he sets up some very divisive straw men that, I believe, really hurt his film. Of course, the issue of authentic experience ties in several sub-categories, most of which I have already touched upon. But the fundamental key to authentic experience seems to lie in the following definition:

The authentic Los Angeles is one that Thom Anderson can either recognize as literal or empathize with politically.

And while I don’t disagree with Andersen that the films about Los Angeles that interest me most are those that give insight into working class experiences, racially diverse independent films that describe the African-American experience in the city, or gay-themed explorations of the world of hustlers (and the film is to be commended for bringing films like Bush Mama and L.A. Plays Itself back into our consciousness) I certainly do not believe that, as fiction, they are any more real because they don’t come from a place of privilege.

Condemning films like Hanging Up by Diane Keaton, or The Long Goodbye by Robert Altman, or L.A. Story by Steve Martin as being socially irrelevant because of their subject matter is one thing, but to condemn them on the grounds that they fail the authenticity tests of Geography and Subject while also, oh by the way, come from white, privileged filmmakers (thereby failing the Thom Andersen Authentic Experience test), is disingenuous. The real difference between Hanging Up and Bush Mama is not so much in their depiction of the ‘real’ Los Angeles, but in their real concern for the experience the films seek to depict. That is to say, in my opinion, the subject of Bush Mama— racial violence and economic injustice, is of far more vital concern than the daily lives of the three rich sisters in Hanging Up, but being neither a rich sister nor an African-American in Los Angeles, I couldn’t begin to tell you which was more ‘true.’ Since neither film is non-fiction and Andersen excludes the topic of documentary altogether in the film, the authenticity of the representation of subjective experience is irrelevant. The real question is: which is the better piece of drama? Which film do I enjoy more as a fiction? Which film deals with issues I care about and are relevant to my lived experience? When you ask that question, you introduce the real subject of the analysis, yourself. In this sense, Los Angeles Plays Itself isn’t much more than Thom Andersen playing himself. And that’s not all bad. He’s made a fascinating movie that had me thinking about these issues for hours on end, about my own subjective relationship to Thom Andersen and his ideas, and my own experience of his film. What’s more satisfying than that?

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