03 mai 2006

Los Angeles Plays Itself (2003/Andersen)

Los Angeles Plays Itself (2003/Thom Andersen/USA) ++

During nearly 3h, this documentary reviews movies shot on location in Los Angeles in a long series of clips to figure how the city hosting the cinema industry Meccha is represented by Hollywood fiction films. And of course this collection is ripe for goofs, discontinuities, inconsistencies and outrageous shorthands. The irony towards a notoriously superficial popular culture is lacking however... I didn't understand why the narrator took such a pompous tone and dramatized every geographical misinformation as if anyone would expect fiction drama (especially pop flicks whiches are the bulk of the films cited) to be educational, and pay attention to map accuracy, and buildings real-life functions... Everybody knows that cinema uses reconstructed sets or squatt actual locations to refurbish them with a new set design to suit the script requirements and material constraints. Shutting down a public street for a day of shooting is very expensive and much difficult to pull off, so geographical continuities are the least worry of movie producers. Let alone the audience who couldn't tell the difference anyway.

This ends up being a refined trivia factoid for IMDb geeks, which is amusing from a cinephile point of view, as thematic or geographical parallels are drawn between movies made years apart, across a diverse array of genres and situations. But it hardly justifies the intellectual pamphlet suggesting a scholarly study of social and political contexts should be at the heart of every bad movie production. How utopic and naive. Thom Andersen, who speaks through his narrator, introduces himself as a bitter native inhabitant from Los Angeles who blames Hollywood for failing to document a faithful rendition of the city he loves.
For instance, Hollywood initiated the use of the acronym shorthand "L.A.", he concludes : only a city with an inferiority complex could tolerate such offense... I guess same goes for NYC and DC then.

Hollywood movies are dubious and unreliable? What's new? Like if it mattered... That's why they shouldn't be taken at face value.
I mean the geography angle is probably not the first in mind to scrutinize the relevance of popular cinema culture. These people can't even get a plot straight. Deceiving screenwriting in mainstream entertainment is a global issue that affects not only the very place where a cinema industry has implanted itself (Roma-Cinecitta, Bombay-Bollywood. Moscow-Mosfilm, Paris...), but whichever lookalike location is the cheapest to respect the budget. Is there any city in the world that could claim an acute rendition by the movies? It's always postcards, stereotypes and embellishment...

I've never been to LA, and I don't think I got a more comprehensive picture of the city afterward than I had acquired through movies and TV... The documentary essentially cites fiction footage evidence, and too rarely compares with newsreel or reportage images. I wish Thom Andersen had been out in the street with his camera and offered his own travelogue of the genuine city life, to confront fiction to reality in the educational way that would correct the misconceptions propagated by Hollywood.

Andersen speaks of high-brow tourist filmmakers like Antonioni, Hitchcock, Polanski, Jacques Deray, Jacques Demy (incidentally all non-american and auteurs) who give a better representation of the city than low-brow tourist directors who make inconsequential plot-driven, cliché-cluttered flicks... who would have guessed? The name-dropping is a little facile just to make cheap cinema look cheaper with such a manichaean contrast.

I don't mean to defend mainstream flicks, but that's the least flaw, most superficial issue, one could reproach them... And LA doesn't need an onscreen presence to exist. Andersen seems concerned by a "literal" neorealist depiction of the city. Paradoxally, his grief takes the movies too literally. The utopic/dystopic idealization/stylization of the city, its artistic interpretation, high-brow (art-film) or low-brow (TV series or commercial), are what convey the strongest mythology in popular culture. The raison d'être of pop culture isn't to document but to translate and extrapolate the people's secret fantasy.

It's an easy game to pick random scenes and perform a reality check. The whole documentary is set up to illustrate a these established beforehand, and the biased selection of clips tells. Is it fair to Hollywood trends? Is it even fair to Los Angeles? There is truth in there, nothing that we didn't know already though, but a different series of counter-examples could as easily make a cheerful apologia of the affective relation between Hollywood and Los Angeles' real-life locations.

The project sounds excellent in a book form, with pictures, because the commentary is quite literary, written with solemn and emphatic tone. Unfortunately, the narrator's grave discourse and the funny zapping-images seem to run after two separate goals. If it's an homage to LA in movies the documentary shouldn't take itself so seriously, if it's meant to restore the true face of LA then the documentary shouldn't rely so much on the poorest pop culture.

It's a really interesting overview of the role of a location in fiction movies, to study social environment, political implications, cultural evolution in visual media. This historical patchwork through cultural and economical generations explores the representation of clichés such as policemen (LAPD), cop killers (bad cops, dead cops), social segregation (flatlands, hilltops, downtown), transportation (streetcar, bus, taxi, traffic jam, highway interchange, gas station, train station, airport, walk...), architectural styles (Modernism, Frank Lloyd Wright, Richard Neutra, revival...), tourists, clubs, landmarks...
The second half gets more investigative. It's full of food for thoughts regarding social and urban studies (demolition of some areas, racial segregation, cultural communities, public housing, public space), as well as it's historical developments (water supply, beach and hills constructions, land speculation).

Finally the last half-hour becomes a loving cinephile homage to a very specific quarter of LA cinema, the black independant filmmakers. With longer clips of Kent MacKenzie, Charles Burnett, Haile Gerima and Bill Woodberry, a neo-realist contemplative B&W cinematography, portraying the struggle of ghetto communities. An aesthetics reminding early Jarmusch that I would like to watch now. The Exiles (1961/MacKenzie), Bush Mama (1976/Gerima), Killer of Sheep (1978/Burnett), Bless Their Little Hearts (1984/Woodbury). These are the only titles the documentary made me want to track down.

The documentaristic research in Hollywood archive is impressive and certainly worthwhile. There is enough material for 2 films, and I would have prefered them treated separately for coherence. Each with their own due tone and angle, the first humorous for derision, zapping through clips and cinephile trivia (with a more appropriate commentary) and the second more serious and indepth, historical and political (with the same sententious commentary).

The film received excellent ratings so I expect vociferous disagreement, and it's ok. I just hope it wasn't offending for me to express a somehow dissenting opinion for relativisation of the general praise.

(s) ++ (w) +++ (m) + (i) ++ (c) ++

Recommended related articles (more positive review than mine):

3 commentaires:

HarryTuttle a dit…

Maybe people not very familiar with the streets of Paris couldn't notice the physical/logistic discontinuity of Jesse and Céline in Before Sunset... the film sets itself as a real-time continuity, yet Linklater select his locations for their scenic presence and photogenic qualities that suit best his story, and does't mind space-warp that make his characters turn the corner of a street that ends up on the other bank of the river, or a few miles away...
And this is perfectly ok actually. Even most parisians wouldn't pay attention.
This kind of liberties with reality, or poetic licence, is the prerogative of cinema for romanticization purpose.
Linklater's realism and time-continuity doesn't imply to bother with practical difficulties implied by a geographical continutiy.

HarryTuttle a dit…

The 2 articles linked above, by Rosenbaum and Andersen, have been published in french in Serge Daney's revue : Trafic #57 ! ;)

HarryTuttle a dit…

I wish I knew Andersen's other works, maybe he did make some documentaries on his home that are dealing with reality, that would explain why this one is more recreational folklore.

Nothing wrong with scrutinizing fiction for "documentary revelations", the compilation was really interesting from a filmbuff perspective, it's a valid object of study. But he then ignores the theoretical provision (the documentaristic aspect of fiction is only casual) that allows him to do so, and builds a straw man fallacy (why fiction is so unrealistic?) to prove his flawed thesis (Hollywood refuses to honor LA). 1) Hollywood barely strives for credibility, 2) Continuity liberties are opportune technique not a political statement to be called upon. So it's fair game to pick on inconsistencies, and it's fun, but the victimization of LA is a flawed conclusion.

Don't you think it would be possible to compile a different homage that focuses on how LA is a recurrant background throughout Hollywood history? Even with the same movies but another editing ignoring goofs. It's all about the slant. Look at the Swisszerland exemple, the scenery shot at a lake around LA. Depending on the commentary you could slant it differently (touristic promotion) by valuing the rich variety of LA landscape that could pass for Europe, instead of mocking cheap film production.