Thom Andersen: “Los Angeles Plays Itself,” Part Three

“The best films about Los Angeles are, at least partly, about modes of transportation. Getting from place to place isn’t a given. Cars break down; they get flat tires; they get towed.” Thom Andersen’s narration of the trials of Chinatown’s Jake Gittes, a man without wheels after his car crashes head-on into a tree while being shot at by San Fernando Valley farmers, demonstrates how diminished even a cynical detective can become when deprived of a vital Los Angeles badge of identity: “ The loss of a car is a form of symbolic castration, in the movies and in life.” Gittes’ dependency on other drivers is more disturbing to him through the rest of the film than his sliced nostril that slowly heals from scene to scene.

Jack Nicholson as Jake Gittes, "Chinatown."

In Sunset Blvd. Joe Gillis (sounds a bit like Jake Gittis) is jumpstarted into the nightmare delusions of silent film queen Norma Desmond when his car, about to be re-possessed by pursuing goons, blows a tire on Sunset Blvd. and he screeches into her driveway.

Michael Douglas abandons his car in Falling Down when he faces traffic gridlock and begins an ever more violent odyssey across an urban Los Angeles wasteland. In many of these films, it is our car that keeps us insulated from the chaos seeping out of the mean sidewalks.

As in his analysis of the myth versus the reality of “water wars” in Chinatown, Andersen looks at Who Framed Roger Rabbit? as a parallel narrative of greed and corruption. The once upon a time illusory golden era of Los Angeles public transportation via the red and green streetcars, is deconstructed by Andersen. The true villain is revealed: not the auto manufacturers, but the city itself:

The real postwar struggle over mass transit reached a climax in 1949 when a proposal for a new light rail network was narrowly defeated in the City Council. An alternative to cars and buses was defeated not by General Motors and its allies, but by the promoters of decentralized suburban development.

Pacific Electric's Red Car.

Edward James Olmos’ American Me is one of the few studio films that documents Chicano experience as a crucial part of Los Angeles history, and even here, it is mainly of the WWII media-frenzy of the “Zoot Suit Riots.” I have been keenly aware of a lacuna in cinematic Los Angeles’ documentation of Latino experience ever since my own first studio feature as cinematographer, Boulevard Nights, a 1978 movie shot on the streets and in the “varrios” of East Los Angeles and on Whittier Blvd. It was a film that had limited release at the time; twenty years later, I showed it to a mostly Latino class at Hollywood High School. I expected an indulgent tolerance from the teenage audience of an old film; I was amazed at how they took the story of the two brothers, the young cholo, Chuko, and the car club, mainstream emergent, Raymond, to their hearts. It highlights how constricted Hollywood movies still are to the cultural diversity of our world-class city and how feeble the studios’ attempts to engage themes that are meaningful to minority audiences. It’s difficult to see the problems of Boyle Heights minimum wage workers sitting at the sushi bar at Nobu.

Andersen ends this part with a look at that most dystopian of all futuristic views of Los Angeles, Blade Runner. Today, its 2019 projection of an unlivable city seems as much pure fantasy as did the Kubrick film “2001” to our eyes in 1990. Thank God, our techno and socio-underpinnings aren’t yet as dyspeptic as many movie directors prophesized.

In part ten, Andersen revisits L.A Confidential. This time, it is an in-depth look at a film that he says, “gets it right.” The scandals that stalk the Los Angeles Police Department are based on real as well as fictional incidents. One set plays against the other in a dark dance of what Andersen calls a “private history” of Los Angeles. The fictional conspiracy of a rogue group of cops to take over the rackets from real-life mobster Mickey Cohen reeks of a foul-smelling truth. It focuses into a single, sordid nucleus all the grift and graft that was endemic inside the L.A.P.D. in the early 50s. The Jack Webb TV show Dragnet tried to proffer a strongly rank alternate view of incorruptibility.

Webb’s Sgt. Joe Friday, unintentionally, embodied the condescension and emotionless paranoia that was widely seen as the dominant chord of Chief William Parker’s Blue Knights, a style that was meant to intimidate both criminals and citizens. Webb’s lean visual style became a signature “house style” for many “Mark V” TV productions. The bare bones aesthetic reminds Andersen of some unlikely cinema masters:

Its creator and star Jack Webb directed each episode with a rigor equaled only by Ozu and Bresson, the cinema’s acknowledged masters of transcendental simplicity.

I doubt, however, that he means to elevate Webb to the transcendental troika of Schrader’s seminal study.

Andersen’s discussion of the street style of many L.A.P.D. cops is one that many of us who grew up in Los Angeles in the 50s and 60s can recognize. I lived for several years in fear (until I could afford a better car) of being rousted by a cop for the cracked taillight and shredded top of my beat-up, convertible Mercury Comet.

As for the legacy of Chief William Parker– who was born (appropriately) in Deadwood, South Dakota, served in the force for 39 years, and died while still in office in July of 1966—they named a new headquarters building after him. The Parker style infected the force for decades after his death and became grist for many of the “cop films” of the following decades, including ones based on the novels of Joseph Wambaugh.

But the movies didn’t want to touch the most far-reaching scandal of the early 50s. It doesn’t generate much “action-traction” for a film, but Andersen’s newsprint montage makes a case for its crucial historical importance.

Actually the real scandal of the day was on the front pages of the newspapers almost every day from December 1951 to May 1953. It took a public battle to destroy public housing, a tragedy from which Los Angeles has yet to recover. The defeat of public housing doesn’t demonstrate that the people are powerless. Just the opposite. After its opponents began to denounce public housing as “creeping socialism,“ the people voted it down. The LAPD and its chief William Parker spearheaded the campaign against it. Parker leaked Intelligence Division files to discredit city housing authority spokesman Frank Wilkinson as a Communist. Then just before the municipal elections of 1953, Parker helped smear incumbent mayor Fletcher Bowron, a public housing supporter, for being soft on Wilkinson. Bowron lost by 30,000 votes, and the new mayor killed public housing for good.

The LAPD didn’t control the rackets in the fifties; it controlled the city. The police corruption in “L.A. Confidential” is quaint by comparison.

The changing image of the Los Angeles police and of the criminals they confront in mainstream movies veered further away from any connection to the real city of Los Angeles, and to the many challenges to societal cohesion seen in the many fantasy/action police movies of the 80s and 90s. On one hand, killing machines like Schwarzenegger’s Terminator or dandy cops like Stallone’s Cobra opened the floodgates for dark portraits of the police as tormented, suicidal, hen-pecked, sexually deviant, Armani-suited, or even hippy-esque Tibetan prayer bead toting, simulacrums of the entire unwieldy Los Angeles law enforcement entity. Duvall, Hopper, Gere, Pacino, Gibson, Segal, along with a revisionist nod to Elliott Gould’s detective Philip Marlowe in Altman’s The Long Goodbye, are major stars who essayed variations on the theme of the dysfunctional cop.

On the other hand, Steve Martin in L.A. Story and Diane Keaton in Hanging Up engage a satirized and sanitized Los Angeles that is the antithesis to John Cassavetes’ dark, dark human comedies, almost a world without police presence in their denizens’ privileged, Caucasian enclaves.

Part eleven and the final part twelve are not embedded by request. Access them with the hotlinks below.

Los Angeles Plays Itself–Part 11/12

The final part of Thom Andersen’s Los Angeles Plays Itself begins with a look at Lawrence Kasdan’s Grand Canyon, a 1993 omnibus study of a city that has become ever more multi-cultured, even as it has become more racially polarized. The film attempts to cut through some of the fog of fear, racial stereotypes and ethnic Balkanization that is Los Angeles as it races toward the Millennium. Andersen chides Kasdan a bit for the film’s embrace of simple solutions—but it seems to me that Kasdan does not mean his white characters’ retreat to quotidian platitudes to be taken literally. It is the enormity of the divide among us that compels even the well intentioned to satirize their own comfort zones. The final scene does indeed escape Los Angeles for a soaring view of the eponymous natural wonder, but the film’s title resonates with a reminder of the racial and social chasm that separates us.

It is no accident that Grand Canyon serves as a final statement on the progress or the devolution, depending on your perspective, of a city that began its career in the movies as a city without an identity, to becoming a city that contains the melting pot identities of dozens of ethnicities and races.

El Norte looks at that dominant ethnicity, the immigrant Mexicans who have made large parts of downtown Los Angeles a population cousin to Mexico City. In Gregory Nava’s film, young Rosa Xuncax, noticing how the human landscape changes downtown after office hours, asks her friend Nacha, “Where have all the gringos gone?” The older woman answers, “Oh, Lord, you don’t think gringos want to live with Mexicans, do you?”

The three hour mash-up of film clips that frame the thoughtful investigation of Los Angeles as myth and reality concludes with a look at a quartet of low budget, black and white, independent features—movies that dare to turn away from the broad, loose tapestry of Hollywood to offer us alternate histories of Los Angeles—tightly knit, close focus studies of the oft-ignored and overlooked—quiet, if desperate, heroes. This coda begins as an elegy, revisiting the night streets of The Exiles and its seminal influence on three black directors: Haile Gerima, Charles Burnett, and Billy Woodberry. The key characters of these films are walkers and bus riders, not drivers.

Who knows the city? Only those who walk, only those who ride the bus. Forget the mystical blatherings of Joan Didion and company about the automobile and the freeways. They say, nobody walks; they mean no rich white people like us walk. They claimed nobody takes the bus, until one day we all discovered that Los Angeles has the most crowded buses in the United States.

Bush Mama, Killer of Sheep, and Bless Their Little Hearts are hints at a cinema that might have evolved out of the “auteurist” 70s, a cinema of Los Angeles bold enough to examine itself and its future as embryo and metaphor for the social issues of the country as a whole.

Instead, our escapist fantasies gorged themselves with ever more preposterous dystopian cinematic apocalypses. As technical resources increase, visual effects digital technology trumps more modest human-scale characterizations. And the market-driven insistence of 3-D presents an unneeded insulating buffer of fake depth for all of us who don’t have the heart to stare into the flat screen of real life.

The link for the final part 12 is below:

Los Angeles Plays Itself –Part 12/12

This three-essay traversal of Thom Andersen’s feature is no substitute for seeing it as he intended—on a large screen, in a dark theater, with an audience and an intermission. Fortunately, you soon have a chance to see it that way.

Here are some upcoming play dates. Mark your calendar:

September 3 & 4  – 7:30 PM at the Aero Theatre

November 25 & 26  – 7:30 PM at the Egyptian Theatre

The filmmaker at the former site of EL Monte Legion Stadium, "Friday Night: Be There or Be Square."

John’s note: A heartfelt thanks to my friend Thom Andersen for his help in preparing this essay and for being a great sport in not protesting too much at its much-fragmented YouTube presentation.

Next week: my personal musings about the possibility, or not, of trying to define a cinema canon— at a time when many pundits preach the “death of cinema.”

About John Bailey, ASC

John Bailey, ASC

John Bailey’s cinematography career encompasses such mainstream Hollywood films as Ordinary People, The Big Chill, Silverado, The Accidental Tourist, Groundhog Day, In the Line of Fire, As Good as It Gets and A Walk in the Woods, and such offbeat fare as Tough Guys Don’t Dance, That Championship Season, Swimming to Cambodia, A Brief History of Time and The Kid Stays in the Picture. He lives in Los Angeles and New York.


  1. James McGrew

    John: Met you briefly one night many years ago when my cousin Tom Tarbet was driving us down a dark road and picked you up. You were about to start studying cinematography at USC, and boy, did you. I kept an eye out for your work ever after. Congratulations on your great work and your apparent love and deep interest in Los Angeles, and your incredibly insightful and articulate writing regarding our city.

    About the L.A.P.D. and corruption: my mother, Frances K. McGrew, was the first woman detective on the force. Her friend, Charles Stoker, was a sergeant on the vice squad and had evidence on Parker and was trying to make it stick. He was hounded off the force. As a very young child I can remember my mother discussing the situation Stoker was in, and my grandparents asking if she thought the LAPD would fire her. So, just a blast from the past for you. Check out Thicker’N Thieves by Charles Stoker. Best to You… Jim McGrew

    JOHN’S REPLY: Thanks so much for your comment, James, and the walk down memory lane. I started film school at USC the fall of 1964 when the graduate program opened. Tom and I were roommates for several years at Loyola University as undergrads.
    I was raised in Los Angeles and the culture of the time is baked deeply in my psyche. For good and bad, LA did have a real identity then. Now, it is more another branch of the pop monoculture tree. Thom Anderson’s wonderful documentary on 20th century LA as seen in the movies is an extraordinary work.

    1. Jim McGrew

      I was raised in Los Angeles also. After living many other places, whenever I come down the hill on Highway 5, into the Valley, I feel I am at home again.

      My strongest memory from childhood is standing in the middle of Ardmore street (not a lot of traffic there in 1950) where it makes a T with Lemon Grove, and looking straight up Ardmore to see the Griffith Observatory miles away, perched against the ridge, with the mountains seeming to sparkle with greens and browns against a seriously blue sky.

      A few years after that (1954?) I witnessed an event that would lead to the loss of that blue sky. One Saturday morning I stepped out of our apartment and found a bunch of my friends, neighborhood kids, standard around and staring at strip of total destruction stretching out before us. A familiar street in our neighborhood had been decimated — deconstructed and hauled away. How we could not have seen this until that morning is inexplicable. This seemed to have happened overnight as we slept. We walked slowly down this street. Homes that we had known were no longer there. In their place, loose boards and bits of plaster and glass were scattered about, twisted and bent pipes sticking up out of the ground. Not long after that the bulldozers and other earth-moving equipment appeared on our street to begin cleaning up the carnage and begin building up earth to create a raised bed. This would make possible the construction of the next section of the Hollywood Freeway.

      I was about nine or ten and did not like what was happening to our neighborhood. One night I went to those earth-movers and dropped big dirt clods into their gas tanks. Then I told my mother what I had done. She posted notes on the machines explaining why they might be having problems. Later, in 1960 when I was in high school and lived in the San Gabriel Mountains, Big Tujunga Canyon specifically, on Gold Creek, that I first noticed smog making its way up into the canyon. It did not take long for our newly mobile city of the 1950’s to wreak havoc with the previously beautiful light and skies of Los Angeles.

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  3. Mohammad Khawaja

    I’m so glad you decided on traversing through this fascinating film. It’s the kind of perspective that is completely absorbing because it lets us see where the curtain falls on both the fictional and real Los Angeles. I’ll be calling it Los Angeles now instead of L.A. after reading Thom’s point on the name of a city. Only airports are called by their abbreviation in conversation and a city should be known by its better name.

    I would like to see you and Thom can do a live interactive commentary with an audience during one of the scheduled screenings. It could be similar in approach to the kind of session Werner Herzog and Ramin Bahrani did together for Aguirre the Wrath of God during the Conference of World Affairs in Colorado. Since Thom’s film is much longer the interactive commentary could be spread over two days/screenings. It could be a terrific experience for an audience.

    Real life and history will always be so much more enjoyable and fulfilling than fiction. We all need to encourage each other to use the alchemy that is filmmaking to look a little more deeply at our cities, communities and lives. Reading your three parts reminded me of my days in Tulsa when I would be completed absorbed by Garrison Keillor and his radio proram the Prairie Home Companion. He made the places, stories and events come to life. That’s exactly what Thom and you have done so well with these parts. It’s also why I really feel these words should be read out loud to audiences, separately or using one of the screenings as an interactive session, or spoken over the radio so that it encourages people to think about their native city.

    I’d hope that LACMA, MoMA or a film festival would decide to construct a series of screenings and events about Los Angeles highlighting Thom’s film and inspired by your commentary. The program could bring together a cross section of very strong voices, overlooked films (such as Boulevard Nights and American Me), and members of the different communities to really examine the myth and reality of living and dying in Los Angeles.

    I was startled after viewing Clint Eastwood’s Changeling and realizing that much of it was based on real events surrounding an abduction and corruption in Los Angeles during 1928. I guess it hit me because I’m not use to seeing many movies about what women had to go through in the 1920s and Eastwood’s film speaks to how vulnerable women were to police tactics and corruption during that time in the city. The fact that the police were able to intimidate a woman, put thoughts in her mind and quite willing to make her completely disappear is tragic and heartbreaking. I will be half a world away during the screenings of the film but really hope to see it in a theater over in Abu Dhabi or another place someday.

  4. Joe Reifer

    I really enjoyed your commentary and this film is superb. I was able to favorite all 12 parts and watch them auto-play in order on a YouTube enabled Blu-ray player. YouTube lifted their video time restrictions — the whole film could most likely be uploaded in one file now.

    John’s note: Thanks, Joe, for the updated info… Better yet, see the film next month at the Aero and the Egyptian.

  5. Pingback: Cinematographer John Bailey Completes His Look At Thom Andersen’s Los Angeles Plays Itself « Movie City News

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