In the beginning of Notfilm, a “kino-essay” on the unlikely 1965 collaboration of Samuel Beckett and Buster Keaton, writer/director Ross Lipman remarks that he has never enjoyed films about film. The reason: they cannot approach the work itself. With regard to his own film – a fascinating if at times academic (in the bad way) look into the creation of a 24-minute short – he may be right, as neither Beckett’s Film nor the making of the film come close to approaching even the minor individual artistic triumphs of Beckett and Keaton (indeed, some of the best parts of the movie are the old clips of Keaton or the TV versions of Beckett’s plays). It is the work of an insightful, competent researcher, and if it played on TV would almost surely be the most interesting show for a week, but it’s not great art.
Los Angeles Plays Itself, however, from the documentarian and professor Thom Andersen, proves Lipman wrong, as his collection of thoughts and musings about Los Angeles, combined with an extraordinary number of movie clips and other items, makes for a beautiful and insightful film, one that not only surpasses most of the films it quotes, but makes you want to see all of them again or, in many cases, like Messiah of Evil, for the first time. I’m happy I didn’t have access to a world of infinite steams, because I would have to go back and check out The Glimmer Man or The Replacement Killers, to mention just two films that get almost as much time as Terminator. Hell, after following Anderson’s keen eye for detail and setting, it makes you want to watch just about any movie. Immediately.
While Lipman’s Notfilm begins with a mystery (how the heck did Keaton and Beckett make a movie together), Anderson begins with a paradox. His concern is that Hollywood has come to define Los Angeles in the public imagination, both as a metonym for the city and through its selective description and portrayal of the town, but it has largely been wrong about the place from which it sprang. As Andersen notes (or proves really, given how forcefully he makes his case), directors from both California and elsewhere have chosen the beaches or the hills for the settings of films, leaving out the great middle who neither participate in the making of movies nor find themselves represented in the films (before Sean gets animated, he cites Jackie Brown as an exception). As he notes, just one in 40 Angelenos work in the entertainment business, and countless middle-class people (from Heat to Cobra) are depicted as living in posh hillside towns or beachfront properties when they could not possibly afford the rent. In Hollywood’s world, nearly everyone is white, travels with ease by car, and is involved with the entertainment business. You can argue with Woody Allen’s take in Annie Hall about the cultural achievements of the city (and Andersen does; there’s more than just making a right on red), but it largely reflects the vision of the place that Hollywood presents. In a shrewd response, Andersen notes that Allen's ignorance of Los Angeles comes from the same source as his ignorance of New York; he’s only interested in what the cultural elite of each place do.
While Hollywood’s portrayal of any city is almost necessarily skewered, Andersen makes the case that the people of his city have to suffer a double-whammy of sorts because the movies are made so close to home. In the first place, the city itself was re-appropriated to play “everytown, USA” because it was so close to the studios. Los Angeles become Main Street America, Chicago (in The Public Enemy!), Chinese Rice fields or, most improbably, Switzerland. Countless residents not only saw their neighborhoods repurposed, but saw incongruities in places they knew, like their home airport or train station being set in another city, or being destroyed in an apocalyptic event (as Andersen claims: “silly geography makes for silly movies”). In probably the best example of how Hollywood lies about Los Angeles, Andersen notes that one of the city’s points of pride – its extraordinary examples of modernist architecture – is turned against them by filmmakers. Once great and inspiring gems that argued for utopian ideals are transformed into locales for arch villains, most notably in L.A. Confidential, but also, most comically, in Jackie Treehorn’s lair with the Dude. And the final indignity: Andersen argues that the unsophisticated diminutive of “L.A.”, lacking the rythym and gravitas of Los Angeles might be the creation of the movies themselves.
As in the case of the Big Lebowski, you find yourself yelling at the screen for examples, and while most discerning film fans will quibble with a point or two – I wanted to see Andersen’s gloss on the Naked Gun, and was surprised to see only a brief reference to Boyz n the Hood - he almost always anticipates where you’re going. As soon as you start to think, wait a second, Lynch has done some pretty good L.A. films, there is Mullholland Drive. And though you have to wait forever to get to Chinatown, Sunset Boulevard, and L.A. Confidential, Andersen cleverly builds his narrative from mostly unknown films to the most iconic presentations. He also delivers dozens of dead-on appraisals of classic films, such as his take on why Blade Runner is so adored today in spite of its many nonsensical and incorrect predictions about the future. In a line so great I had to stop the movie to write it down: “Blade Runner represents a nostalgia for a past vision of dystopia that itself has become outdated.” If you like this, there are about three dozen more perfect apercus on classic films and actors (ok, one more: “Whenever there’s a disaster movie, there’s George Kennedy”).
Perhaps even more impressive than hitting the classics is the historical research Andersen puts into refuting some of the biggest lies told by Hollywood depictions, even in undisputedly great films. Blade Runner, for example, rather than giving us a dystopia gives us an urban planner’s dream: walkable downtowns, vibrant night activities, and an almost complete lack of car traffic. In Chinatown, the nefarious plot to steal the valley’s water is an inaccurate conflation of two periods of Los Angeles history, and the dirty dealing was not done in the secret records and archives, but on the front pages of the daily newspapers. L.A. Confidential similarly imagines a world of nonsense skullduggery, as Andersen smartly points out that the police had no need to be as underhanded and corrupt as James Cromwell’s police chief; the cops openly controlled the city and violated civil rights, a kind of policing that was not hidden, but celebrated. It is Dragnet Anderson argues, with its depiction of law enforcement as completely hostile to the citizens they are supposed to protect, that gives the true state of the L.A. police force (I’m serious when I say the whole 169 minutes of the movie could be on Dragnet). Not even Who Framed Roger Rabbit? is safe, as we learn that the highways were coming anyway and the much-vaunted streetcars were not so successful to begin with. Nearly every line is a lesson in history, if not film.
Given the vast number of sources that Andersen can draw on, it may be a bit unfair to compare Los Angeles Plays Itself to Notfilm, which has as its source a single film that, at least on first viewing, is just a little bit intriguing, a little bit boring, and a whole lot of confusing (the wonderful presentation at the Philadelphia International House showed Film first). Anderson has hundreds of movies to draw from; Lipman has one, and one that almost didn’t come about. What Lipman does have going, however, and what makes the film so interesting, is that while the film being made includes a certifiable genius of cinema (Keaton), it is actually made through a collaboration of three people with almost no knowledge of the medium. Beckett had never been behind the camera, director Alan Schneider had only directed plays, and the thing was dreamed up by Barney Rosset, the publisher of a literary press! While cinematographer Boris Kauffman came from good stock, Keaton is described by his longtime friend James Karen as basically being forced to sit around the set (without shade) while the novices tried to block out scenes and figure out the script. It’s so comic that it sounds like the set-up to a Keaton picture, which it basically is, except with Keaton’s formula of one part existential dread, nine parts comedy, reversed.
While the story of how Film got made is a good yarn – with the possibility of Chaplin appearing instead being one of many great What Ifs – Lipman does get bogged down a bit in details. His work to find Beckett’s voice and missing scenes from the film will make him a hero to academics and those in search of Beckettian trivia, but is it necessary to note that when flying to New York, it was so dark that the airport had to turn on the runway lights? Similarly, there’s a lot here on other work Beckett was doing at the time, and while the arresting Billie Whitelaw makes for a fascinating interview, she had literally nothing to do with the making of Film. The diversion to Leonard Maltin’s childhood memories are a wonderful light note, but do we need to hear him calling for his dog? More problematically, the interview with Rosset, whose memory is badly fading, leads to an ill-advised groping for artistic meaning.
While Notfilm and Los Angeles Plays Itself are obviously driven by the needs of their respective subject matters, they reveal that films about films might work best when motivated by the concerns of the directors themselves. Whether it’s Anderson, Zizek’s Pervert’s Guide to Cinema, or Mark Cousins’s epic case for innovation in The Story of Film, movies that begin with clear articulations and ideas might work better than film driven by curiosity. Notfilm makes a late, and entirely unconvincing, case for Beckett having anticipated the era of digital recording and projection (the “end of film”), but almost none of the first two hours points towards this conclusion and it feels like a grad student looking for a thesis in the hours before the paper is due. Andersen, however, has clearly lived his thesis his whole life, as the movie’s portrayal of his fellow citizens – particularly those who are poor, dispossessed, or of color – is the culmination of years of research, care, and thought. Though he might argue, all the sins of Hollywood’s past might just have been worth it, if for no other reason than to give us the beautiful act of redemption that is Los Angeles Plays Itself.