Friday, October 14


Los Angeles, You Played Yourself

There are many reasons why I count Vertigo among my very favorite films but it would do no good to pretend that its setting in my native Frisco isn't one of the big ones. Likewise, it's too tempting not to count among the flaws of a film like Basic Instinct its terrible sense of Frisco geography. Even a film like The Graduate loses its ability to keep local audiences sucked into the story when Dustin Hoffman drives the wrong direction across the Bay Bridge and visits the Berkeley Zoo. (What Berkeley Zoo?- that looks like Monkey Island at Fleishacker to me! Yes, Frisco's zoo once bore a name that means "butcher" in German.) If you've ever lived in a place that's been filmed by Hollywood crews, you know these kinds of dissections. When I lived in Chiang Mai, Thailand I couldn't escape it; conversations about the use of the local airport in filming Air America periodically bubbled up, even though that film had pretty much vacated general consciousness years before. Apparently, even those living directly under the very shadow of the Hollywood sign can be fascinated by what the entertainment industry's cameras capture when turned toward its own home. Thom Andersen's essay film Los Angeles Plays Itself is exhibit A. It opens today at the Roxie, joining another documentary tribute to cinephilia that's been playing for a week already though I haven't seen it yet, Henri Langlois: Phantom of the Cinematheque.

Los Angeles Plays Itself was one of my favorite films seen last year (it had a couple local screenings and was accompanied by a series of Los Angeles-shot films at the Pacific Film Archive) because it aligns with my desire to view films as more than vessels for stories, or even aesthetic artifacts, but also cultural, historical and geographical records. And it does so taking full advantage of Andersen's vast knowledge, strong opinion, and dry wit. His thesis boils down to "if we can appreciate documentaries for their dramatic qualities, perhaps we can appreciate fiction films for their documentary revelations," and he does just that, using pertinent clips from an extensive and extremely genre-diverse collection of films to trace a history of the city of Los Angeles, its flagship industry of image-making, and the often uneasy symbiosis between the two. He looks at how films have utilized architecture to express character and emotion, pointing to the repeated use of certain buildings like the Bradbury Building (used in D.O.A., Marlowe, and Blade Runner among others.) He talks about Hollywood's portrayal of the city's dirty cops and politicians, and though he's not as concerned about the Owens Valley water grab (pointing out that what our forebears did to Hetch Hetchy up here was even more destructive) as the makers of Chinatown were, he still appreciates that film as an illustration of the struggle to get around town without a car. He shows how different directors had different touristic approaches to the places they film, distinguishing "low tourists" like Woody Allen from "high tourists" like Roger Corman and Andy Warhol. Europeans like Demy were usually of the latter variety, he argues, but Hitchcock was low through and through, which is why he preferred to shoot in picturesque Frisco and only made one film partially set in Los Angeles (Saboteur.)

Three hours fly by. Though Andersen's stream-of-consciousness is fascinating to listen to, narrated as it is over a parade of rare and familiar film clips (literally everything from the Music Box to the Exiles to Hanging Up), I also found the film absolutely inspiring. First of all, it made me want to see more of the films excerpted. There will be plenty of opportunities coming up for such a follow-up; Night of the Comet plays October 25 at the Parkway and This Gun For Hire October 26th at the Yerba Buena Center. Zabriskie Point will be at the Castro November 30 and December 1, and though the Noir City festival showcased Los Angeles-set noirs (including the title Andersen most regretted leaving out of his film when asked at the q-and-a last year, Joseph Losey's remake of M) in its 2005 edition earlier this year, the January 2006 version will also have a strong showing including the Blue Dahlia, Suspense, Nocturne, and the Big Sleep at the Balboa and Nobody Lives Forever and Hollow Triumph at the Palace of Fine Arts.

I also think Los Angeles Plays Itself will be a great inspiration to filmmakers, critics, scholars and curators with an eye toward geographical readings of films. I can't wait to see a Frisco filmmaker with strong opinions about Vertigo, the Graduate, the transformation of Union Square in light of Coppola's The Conversation, the disappearance of the eerie locations from the Lady From Shanghai (most recently the now-demolished aquarium), etc. make a film of this type. I might even try to figure out how to do something like it myself one of these days, though I'm certain I won't come up with anything nearly as rich or (dare I say) entertaining as Andersen's film. Meanwhile, it looks like this Promiscuous Cinema program on the latest SF Cinematheque calendar might be an event in the same spirit.

When I saw Andersen present the movie at George Eastman House in nearby Rochester, he said that one of the films he most regretted not including was Fast Times at Ridgemont High. (It's near and dear to my heart, I've seen it many times).

I recently saw a good Hawks movie that was set in Frisco during the gold rush, Barbary Coast (with Edward G Robinson, Joel McCrea and Miriam Hopkins). In it, the main roads of the city were still unpaved and if you stood too long in one place in the middle of the street, you started to sink into the mud!
Considering that I'm a fan of all four of those names as well as films set in my hometown, you really would think I'd have seen Barbary Coast by now. But I haven't. Perhaps I've been a tad wary of it, worried about its rare mentions in discussions of Hawks films. Alternately, you could say I'm saving it for a chance to see it projected in a cinema. That's usually my standard excuse for not having seen something.

As for Fast Times at Ridgemont High, I like it but have never had any particularly personal affection for it, outside the great Oingo Boingo song "Goodbye, Goodbye" that plays over the end credits. They were my favorite band in high school and inevitably ended all their concerts with it. What makes it so dear to you, girish?

I'd much rather rewatch it than anything else Cameron Crowe has had a hand in, I must say.
I think I like Fast Times because it runs against the grain of the flaky teen pic stereotype. Awkward teenage courtships; teen sex and pregnancy; the quotidian banalities of working at the mall; idiosyncrasy of character; and its easy, unforced humor--they all make it a very poignant and "realist" film for me. There are many small touches in it that feel documentary-like.

I'm a big Hawks fan but only lately have I been catching up with his early stuff (like Barbary Coast and Today We Live and Tiger Shark) and I'm surprised at how strongly "Hawksian" these movies are. Andrew Sarris has a great account of these earlier films in his book "You Ain't Seen Nothin' Yet", which is what started me on this path.
Speaking of Henri Langlois, Phantom of the Cinematheque, when I saw the 2 hr. length listed at Film Forum, I just figured that it was misprint, but I see that Roxie shows a similar duration. The one I saw at National Gallery was around 3 1/2 hrs. and even then, I think that was already edited from a 4 or 4 1/2 hr. film. Poor Langlois; like the current Cinematheque board minimizing the extent of his contributions, even his own tribute documentary seems to be increasingly getting minimized.
I was hoping, based on the topic here, that you were going to drop your proposed title for a similar film about all the films shot in Vancouver, BC - "Vancouver Doesn't Play Itself". Or did I just let that out to everyone else here for them to steal that title from you? Ooops!

Yeah, I couldn't think of a good way to work it in. It's probably for the best that you let the cat out of the bag; it's really a film that a Vancouverite should make anyway. Or at least someone who's been there more than once in their life.

That's too bad about the Langlois doc, but I hope to see it there anyway.

I've only seen three pre-Bringing Up Baby Hawks films: the Criminal Code, Scarface and Twentieth Century. Girish, do you have a particluar favorite early Hawks recommendation?
Brian: I'd love to see someone take a crack at San Francisco the way Thom Andersen did with Los Angeles. Thanks for the great post, which has encouraged me to relive my experience with Andersen's film and remind myself of some of the movies I haven't seen that it brought to my awareness. I'll be in the Bay Area later this month, and hopefully one or two of those screenings you mentioned will coincide. And just because I found it so interesting, we got into a discussion on my blog earlier this year around the question "Are there any films that are in love with Los Angeles?" The question came up totally unrelated to the showing of Los Angeles Plays Itself that I ended up catching at the Cinematheque down here, but it was fulfilled in such a strong way by that film that I thought I'd provide a link to that part of my blog where we began talking about titles that we thought might answer the question. That discussion led to a consideration of Los Angeles Plays Itself. Here's where it started:

P.S. My best friend, a Bay Area resident, discovered the Metro quite by accident last weekend and was thoroughly bewitched. Any word on the stability (or lack thereof) of its future? I hope to see it myself someday!
Brian, I'd recommend any of these: Today We Live, Tiger Shark, The Crowd Roars, Ceiling Zero, or Barbary Coast. I like them all, esp. because his themes, characters and worldview show up strongly in all of these. Scarface is probably my favorite of his early films. One I've never been able to see is Road To Glory with Warner Baxter. It's a huge fave of Guy Maddin's, and reading his accounts of it make me want to see it even more.
Dennis, last I heard the Metro was up for sale, but no rumors of buyers yet. It truly is a single screen gem. I only wish it played films I wanted to see more than once every year and a half or so (my last visit there was for the Village, and before that the Solaris remake. Looks like In Her Shoes is there now; not gonna happen.)

Love your entry on Los Angeles films. Ed Wood is a great pick. And between your and girish's words about it, I'm hankering for a Fast Times at Ridgemont High refresher.

Girish, I missed a screening of Road to Glory about a year ago and am still kicking myself. I've been meaning to tape The Crowd Roars from TCM (I don't have the channel but my neighbor sometimes records things for me) since Jaime Christley made me aware of it a couple years ago. But it doesn't play very often, I notice.
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