Monday, September 5, 2011

Starring Los Angeles, as "Los Angeles"

That night back in April where I decided to go to UCLA already seems like a distant memory (and yes, I still have yet to sit in a classroom. It's been an eventful couple months). But I had decided where to, in the words of a certain nefarious athlete, "take my talents" for graduate school, and so in a celebration I watched Thom Anderson's brilliant film essay "Los Angeles Plays Itself" on YouTube. It rocked my world, and in his deliberate, nearly-three hours of questioning how Los Angeles manifests itself on film and how its true character coolly eludes adequate representation, it actually provided me just one more in a very long list of reasons to go to Los Angeles and study.

Sunday night, the Aero Theatre in Santa Monica hosted a screening of Anderson's film, which has yet to receive a DVD release (though he hinted that one may be in the works). The director/scholar was there to talk about his work at the end of the film for what felt like a good 75 minutes, with a crowd who was eager to explore with him his process, what he loves about the city, and the implications of the mythical character of Los Angeles.

Now, I'm no expert. I've lived here for three weeks. I've seen many places, played the part of tourist, and am slowly starting to play the part of resident. I must acknowledge that "Los Angeles Plays Itself" is, on a second viewing with dozens of people who wanted nothing more than to talk about it seemingly endlessly, one of my new favorite films. It's not just for the care Anderson puts into his arguments about the city, or how many topics he traverses. It bounds -- sometimes free-form, sometimes more deliberately -- through the mystique of Hollywood, the mythology of the city's foundation versus its actual history, the history of many popular landmarks, and how Hollywood has transformed the city's meaning through its cinema. It also manages to elicit a very precise political argument about different classes and races, about the erosion of the city and the need to preserve it.

Anderson accomplishes this through two modes: A voiceover text, delivered in a very dry tone that's filled with a subtext of passion and ironic observation, and film clips. There is some supplementary footage -- showing how buildings look today versus how they looked in films in the 40s, showing popular locations and some not-so-popular locations throughout Los Angeles -- but mostly this sticks to the clips. At just under three hours, it plays like a magnum opus. Some in the audience called it a valentine, many expressed thanks for how much information -- visually and orally -- it was able to convey, but for me, it represents an important new way for my field to think about itself.

Much as Anderson wants to confront us with our perceptions of Los Angeles, I was confronted with how he seems to transform film criticism in the process. It's one thing to watch "film essays" on YouTube, but it is something entirely different to become absorbed in it in a theater. For years, film studies has labored under trying to do visual analysis in the written word. It works, but you have to take a lot of time to describe what you're talking about. The way Anderson complements text/voice and image are at times profound. He alternates between analysis, commentary, and poetry. In the moments where he stops to peruse his own recollections of Los Angeles, the film is actually quite powerful, especially when he's relying in clips to counteract these recollections.

These film essays are an essential new frontier for film theory and criticism. Thom Anderson says he's working on an expanded book on the topic as well as supervising a restoration of his film (which was edited on DV) for a DVD release. He took many questions on topics ranging from methodology to spirituality, and even though he at times seemed to shrink in the spotlight, not quite sure how to address an audience that simply wanted him to keep talking, the passion for Los Angeles reflected across the man with the mic and the people in the seats.

And as someone falling in love with the city for the first time, exploring it through my medium -- film -- and in my preferred mode -- film criticism -- is something wholly rewarding.

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