Screening Los Angeles: An Interview with Thom Andersen

By E. Steven Fried

One of the great pleasures of SIFF 2004 was the opportunity to see Thom Andersen’s 169- minute video essay, Los Angeles Plays Itself. Utilizing hundreds of unauthorized clips of obscure and well-known films [you will never see this on DVD] Andersen poses the question:why is the most filmed city in the world rarely faithfully portrayed in movies? Surveying a filmography from A Muddy Romance to The Million Dollar Hotel, Andersen explores the way Los Angeles has been used as a location, as a metaphor and as a subject in motion pictures. He questions the ‘histories’ presented by Chinatown and L.A. Confidential as well as the future depicted in Blade Runner. He critiques the use of architecture, examines the evolving portrayal of the police and appreciates the aesthetic of L.A. Rebellion directors Charles Burnett, Haile Gerima and Billy Woodberry. After three hours, you will know more about Los Angeles and film than you did before.

Thom Andersen

Beginning March 26th, the NWFF will be showing most of Andersen’s work. In Addition to Los Angeles Plays Itself there will be screenings of Eadweard Muybridge, Zoopraxographer and Red Hollywood, a documentary on the blacklist featuring interviews with the late Paul Jarrico, Abraham Polonsky and Ring Lardner Jr. (Click here for the complete calendar and information on showtimes and tickets.)

A native-born Chicagoan, Andersen studied film at USC in the early 60’s. During that decade he made several short films, three of which will be screened. — —–, an 11-minute montage of the music scene in downtown Los Angeles, intersperses shots of bands groovin’ at The Trip, Pandora’s Box and the Whisky A Go Go with the manufacturing of records and juke boxes; Olivia’s Place captures the long-defunct Santa Monica diner and Melting has something to do with a strawberry sundae.

Andersen has been a programmer at the LA Filmforum and currently teaches film theory and history at CalArts. His most recent film, Get Out of The Car will be shown on the 29th. A 30-minute tableaux of billboards, murals and the ghosts of vanished landmarks, it will be followed by a lecture from the director. Indeed, Andersen will be in attendance at every screening. In addition, he’ll be presenting Kent Mackenzie’s The Exiles on the 27th, followed by a discussion of the film.

I had my own brief chat with Andersen, in which I asked a few questions about Los Angeles as a place and as a location.

E. Steven Fried: I think to the extent people think of Los Angeles they think of movies or the entertainment industry. And they think that’s all there is to the place. But when I read about the history I was surprised to discover that at one one time one of the main industries was oil production and there was a slew of industries that came and went through the region from the mid 19th century on.

Thom Andersen: Right.

What I find interesting is that it’s been a nexus of so many things that have played an important role in America. Not just entertainment, but defense, aerospace and manufacturing.

I guess the motion picture industry is what’s unique to Los Angeles. Other things have been equally or more important to the economy of Los Angeles. Motion pictures or entertainment… record companies started moving here in the 60’s. Television started moving here in the 50’s as well, from New York. But, of course, that is the way it looks from the outside. When you live here it’s different, I guess. You take that for granted. I guess there’s this idea in the United States that New York is a prototypical city. But New York is quite exceptional. There are not too many cities like New York, that are so vertical. Great cities like Paris, Berlin, Vienna, Rome, London, didn’t have that vertical growth. Didn’t have it till quite recently. So Los Angeles is more of the prototype of 20th century American cities.

Yet New York is usually thought of as being America’s most European city.

I’m not saying Los Angeles is like a European city. They’re so much denser than Los Angeles, which is why they’re more walking cities. Los Angeles wasn’t a walking city. It was still a small town up until 1900 when it became a city through mechanized transportation. Streetcars at first and then automobiles. So its growth into a city is contemporaneous with the rise of the automobile, which is the standard pattern of cities throughout the United States that grew after Los Angeles; like most of the cities of the Southwest and cities in the South like Atlanta. Those cities are closer to the pattern of Los Angeles than 19th century cities.

To what extent does the pattern of growth of Los Angeles contribute to the stories that are told about it?

One of the things about Los Angeles is that it went through all these changes really quickly. First it was a Mexican city. Then it became a really white city. Then there was mass migration, though later than New York or Chicago. Most of the industries that made the city have disappeared. There are still oil wells here, but it’s not the way it was. There are still aerospace companies, but most have left. At one time there was an idea that it would be a financial hub. Now it’s becoming… well, it’s not a Mexican city, it’s a Latino city again. It’s the dominant ethnic group in Los Angeles now.

How about the Asian influence, is that rising?

Absolutely, yeah. Especially Chinese. There’s been a very dramatic transformation of… well, the San Gabriel valley, east of downtown Los Angeles is where the boom in Chinese migration has come. And at a certain time there was a resistance to that in the city, but that’s passed. Cities like San Gabriel or Monterey Park, Alhambra. But that’s passed by now. So that’s been the most dramatic change. The first major important ethnic group that came were the Chinese in 1860. The Japanese and Filipinos and then Koreans in the 1960’s, 70’s. There’s a good film about Chinese communities that was made by a Chinese filmmaker from China. It’s called Be There or Be Square. From the 1990’s. I don’t think it was shown much in the U.S. At least outside of Chinese communities. So, any generalization you make about Los Angeles is going to become obsolete fairly quickly.

For a while it seemed popular to describe Los Angeles in almost apocalyptic terms.

I guess there was a feeling in the late 80’s and early 90’s. The uprising in 1992. A lot of crime relative to today. Natural disasters. But yeah, there isn’t that now. I guess the Mexican drug war is the new thing that represents a threat. I don’t know.

There’s a section of Los Angeles Plays Itself where you’re discussing Chinatown. You say it began a trend of films that asked ‘When did it all go wrong?’ There was a nostalgia that was being expressed. There was a tendency among certain writers to try to pinpoint the moment at which Los Angeles took a wrong turn. I’ve noticed this as well in some of the things I’ve read. As in Who Framed Roger Rabbit?, people would reference the decline of the Pacific Electric Railway and the development of the freeways. Some would discuss the rejection of the Olmsted park plan and for some it was the paving of the Los Angeles river. Is that a perennial feeling or was there a discrete period of time when people expressed these things?

I suppose in my movie I propose another example which is the defeat of public housing in the early 1950’s, which wasn’t just a local phenomenon of course, but something that happened all over the country. Also the decline of the labor unions with the passage of Taft-Hartley in 1947. So I guess I’m guilty of the same thing myself. Yeah, I mean the water project made it possible for Los Angeles to be a great city. It could have chosen to be Santa Barbara, which at one time was probably the same size as Los Angeles. Maybe for some people it was paradise, a rich peoples’ resort town.

In Kenneth Anger’s “Hollywood Babylon” there’s a subtext that the best time to live in Los Angeles was in the 1910’s and 20’s when the film colony was a nice little club in the midst of a quiet, undeveloped place. And then, when the movie industry took off in the 20’s and 30s’ the hoi polloi moved in and this brief moment was lost.

Yeah, I can recall similar feelings being expressed about the change that occurred in the 1970’s. There had been a very restrictive immigration law that restricted immigration to Europeans. Quotas that prevented Asian immigration. And when that was repealed in the 1960’s, the pattern of immigration changed. People who couldn’t immigrate before moving into Los Angeles and communities being set up. Not only Asians but also Armenians. Quite a big part of Los Angeles now. Glendale is primarily an Armenian community. Hollywood or East Hollywood had become Little Armenia, although it’s also Thai Town and for some people of my parent’s generation it was the end of the Los Angeles they knew and loved. That wave of immigration more than the black migration of the 1930’s and 40’s. Maybe because the new immigrants weren’t as segregated. They were more visible than the blacks, who were forced to live in certain parts of town so that people who didn’t live there didn’t have to notice them if they didn’t want to. But the new immigrants moved all over. So, yeah there’s always that and I’m sure it will continue.

Image from "Los Angeles Plays Itself"

I wanted to ask a question about one of your early films from the 60’s that’s going to be shown at the NWFF. I don’t know how to refer to it. The title is denoted as two dashes. Did you shoot all the material in that film or was any of it from pre-existing sources?

I shot almost all of it.

So you were shooting a lot in clubs and bars. At one point it looks like you’re in a record pressing plant.

Yeah, that’s right. It’s somewhat incredible to think today that Capitol Records actually pressed all their records in Hollywood.

Oh, so that was the plant for Capitol Records?

Yeah, a few blocks from their tower.

Also, I couldn’t help notice in Get Out of The Car the use of The Penguins ‘Memories of El Monte,’ an early Zappa song co-written with Ray Collins. So I have to ask: Did you see The Mothers play in the 60’s?

Well, actually I did, yeah. At an early stage in their career when they were wearing identical suits like The Beatles, but they weren’t playing that kind of music. They were playing the kind of music they became famous for. But they were trying to present themselves as a Beatles-type rock band.

I have a hard time picturing Zappa that way.

Yeah, I don’t know if it lasted too long.

Did you, by any chance, see the Magic Band?

No, I didn’t. There were a lot of important bands I missed.

There’s a section of Los Angeles Plays Itself where you discuss the television series Dragnet, which you profess a fondness for. One of the shows I really enjoyed as a kid was Columbo. I always though of that as a great Los Angeles show, because he went everywhere and encountered a variety of people. Did you enjoy Columbo?

I uh… [laughs]. I was more a fan of the idea than the actual show. It was kind of formulaic, I couldn’t watch it that much. So I don’t really remember the use of locations. The few times I watched it I felt that Law & Order didn’t really work in Los Angeles. I didn’t know if you’ve ever seen that.

There was a Law & Order series set in Los Angeles?

Yeah, Law & Order: Los Angeles. I don’t know what’s wrong. I doesn’t seem to work. Not as gritty. Obviously it’s not because there aren’t gritty places here.

I don’t know if this could be considered a trend or not, but it seems like in the last couple of years there have been more romantic comedies explicitly set in downtown Los Angeles. I was thinking of (500) Days of Summer. In that film Joseph Gordon-Levitt’s character is an aspiring architect who takes Zooey Deschanel on a tour of his favorite buildings.

Every time there’s an attempt to restore residential living to downtown Los Angeles there’s a series of films that allude to it. That was true in the 80’s. I guess the most striking one from that period is one I didn’t mention, Choose Me by Alan Rudolph. It’s set just east of Little Tokyo in a kind of loft district. At one time they called it the Artist’s District and put the apostrophe before the s. I guess because only one artist lived there. Typical of Los Angeles.

They recently had a retrospective of Rudolph’s films in Seattle. He’s a local guy. They showed Choose Me, but more interestingly they showed a film you can’t get on DVD, Remember My Name, which I really quite like a lot.

Yeah, I think it’s his best. I didn’t like Welcome to L.A. that much, but I don’t remember it well. So yeah, the new films are, you might say, responsive to building lofts in the perimeter of downtown in the old industrial districts. Turning old loft buildings into lofts, which is… well it’s kind of busted, but it was going for ten years. I mean I guess it’s still going on, but property prices have fallen more in downtown Los Angeles than any other section in the city. I actually know a few people who can afford to live in downtown Los Angeles or actually in the industrial part. So, yeah I was interested in that film.

There was another one. I didn’t see it, but there was a film from 2007, In Search of A Midnight Kiss.

Yeah, that actually was, I think, better probably. More low budget than (500) Days of Summer but it’s more of a… I think it’s a better film. It’s a film about a blind date on New Year’s Eve, a Craigslist arranged date. And the date is kind of a tour of downtown Los Angeles, specifically Broadway and they travel to a lot of the same places you see in (500) Days of Summer. The park at the top of the Angels Flight. A privileged spot in (500) Days of Summer. I thought the claims as far as downtown office building architecture in Los Angeles in (500) Days of Summer were rather unconvincing. Look at these buildings. I could say, okay what’s so special about that? I mean they’re urban office building architecture. Pretty dull. And it’s only at the end when they have the Bradbury Building, which is obviously one of the most interesting. Although even the Bradbury Building… When we were filming Los Angeles Plays Itself my colleague Deborah Stratman, who did the cinematography, was struck by the over-fastidiousness of the restoration. She said this would have been much better in Chicago where this would have been just another old building.

You mentioned Bunker Hill and you have a section in Los Angeles Plays Itself about it. Did you see the adaptation of Ask The Dust? What did you think of it?

Well of course they couldn’t find a location in Los Angeles that could reproduce what Bunker Hill looked like in 1930, so they just built a set in South Africa, which is fine. I suppose the problem is, well it’s kind of like A Single Man… Well, Andrew Sarris put it this way. He said there’s something wrong with a director who’s attracted to literature that he knows he’s going to betray. Why make a film of a novel you’ve admired for years if you’re going to fluff it? There’s a certain class of films that are literary adaptations that follow the book up to a certain point, then fluff the ending. They make it like a more conventional Hollywood movie. And that was the problem I had with Ask The Dust. So it wasn’t that good for a movie adaptation of a Los Angeles novel. Did you see The Black Dahlia?

The Brian De Palma? That sort of came and went.

Yeah, the problem there is that James Ellroy’s literary imagination is no match for true crime writers. They have more lurid explanations for the Black Dahlia killing. One guy blamed it on his father and another one claimed that she was killed by Bugsy Siegel on orders from Norman Chandler, the publisher of the Los Angeles Times. So what Ellroy came up with was really pallid in comparison.

Since you completed Los Angeles Plays Itself have there been any Los Angeles films or films that have been shot in Los Angeles that you’ve enjoyed?

I enjoyed The Decay of Fiction by Pat O’Neill which, I guess, was contemporaneous with my film. About the Ambassador Hotel, which was torn down finally, after many years in limbo.

Yes, I’ve read about that film. I really want to see it.

I liked Inland Empire, my favorite David Lynch film.

I’m surprised. In the “Cinema Scope” piece you wrote on Mulholland Drive you seemed to take a very critical view of Lynch.

With Inland Empire what I had first regarded as arty in his work I began to realize was vulgar. I started to appreciate his films more after seeing that.

The Formal Life of Thom Andersen plays March 26-29 at NWFF. Visit the NWFF website for schedule and other information on the screenings.