Apart from being broadly categorized as documentaries, The Act of Killing and Los Angeles Plays Itself don’t have much in common. The former, which was released on video this week, is a cinema verite history of the Indonesian death squads of the 1960s, related through the eyes, and lenses, of their unrepentant perpetrators. The latter, which is going into its second week at New York’s IFC Center, is a visual essay on the representation of Los Angeles in film, directed and narrated by noted Angeleno Thom Andersen. But in very different ways, they’re both movies about movies, how they shape our understanding of the world and how that understand shapes the world in return.
Los Angeles Plays Itself, which Andersen has remastered and slightly recut for its 10th anniversary, addresses the subject head-on, by examining the ways in which the city he loves has been represented, and misrepresented, over the course of a century. He hunts for signs of inadvertent archeology in century-old silent comedy shorts, and traces the evolution of the city’s Bunker Hill district from the thriving, racially mixed community of Kent Mackenzie’s The Exiles to its use, post-“urban renewal,” as a deserted wasteland of towering glass and steel in The Omega Man. The change, Andersen argues, was not natural or incremental, but a deliberate attempt by the city’s powerful to wipe out low-cost housing near the city’s center and replace it with pricey real estate.
“What if we watch with our voluntary attention rather than letting the movies direct us?” Andersen wonders near the beginning of his nearly three-hour film, which is a sustained exercise in reading against the grain. At times, Andersen can be simply pedantic, grousing about car chases that fracture the city’s natural geography, but he’s pushing towards a larger point about how movies create a reality more seductive, more easily assimilated, than the one we inhabit. Plus, he refers to the Philip Marlowe played by Elliott Gould in Robert Altman’s great The Long Goodbye as “a chain-smoking Jewish Don Quixote,” a phrase sufficiently poetic to overwhelm the film’s more prosaic passages.
Already a great film, The Act of Killing is even greater in its superior director’s cut, which also makes Joshua Oppenheimer’s documentary into what Pauline Kael called a “movie movie.” As its double entendre title suggests, The Act of Killing is about performance as well as death, specifically about the way the government thugs — or “gangsters,” as they call themselves — regard the mass killings of suspected Communists, a description that at the height of the bloodshed could be applied to anyone for any reason, especially if they expressed the slightest opposition to the government.
Because the forces that seized power in 1965 have held onto it ever since, the killers have been consistently held up as heroes, never forced to reckon with or even admit their crimes. (No one even seems to question the oft-repeated cant that “gangster” means “free men” in English.) It’s a kind of grotesque mirror of the truth and reconciliation process that South Africa, Rwanda and other nations have used to salve their societies’ wounds. Anwar Congo, who in a supreme irony bears a passing resemblance to Nelson Mandela, blithely recalls for the camera how he honed his techniques, even proudly demonstrating the methods he devised to cut down on bloodshed. After showing Oppenheimer (or his anonymous co-director) how he used wire to strangle his victims, Congo addresses the camera with a piece of wire still coiled around his neck, a horrifyingly perfect encapsulation of how little self-awareness his culture has forced on him.
To explore, and eventually break through, this mass denial, Oppenheimer asks his subjects to make their own movies, expressing their feelings about the mass killings they perpetrated. We don’t often see the results, but the process is astonishing, as Congo and others coach their “actors” to mime the victims’ death agonies, often, by way of explanation, acting them out themselves.
There are critics who find this immoral, even obscene, and so it is, although that doesn’t mean the same holds for The Act of Killing itself. It’s true that the film is one-sided, presenting little evidence of the killers’ victims beyond the opening titles, but as with The Wolf of Wall Street, the absence of victims is purposeful and pointed. The less they appear, the more you feel their presence, invisibly weighing on the film’s subjects. Without ever staging a dramatic confrontation, the film’s method does finally bring Congo’s guilt to the surface. It comes rushing up and out of his throat as he retches, making a sound unlike any I’ve ever heard issue from a human being. In making his own movie, and being a part of one, he’s lost control of his own narrative. He can’t keep the truth down.