Los Angeles Plays Itself: Cinema History Demystifies the Film Capital of the World

Many visitors to Los Angeles — indeed, many residents of Los Angeles — struggle for but never quite find a psychological pathway into the place. If only they had attended a screening of Los Angeles Plays Itself, CalArts professor Thom Andersen’s long-form video essay on his city and its countless representations throughout cinematic history. After its almost three information-dense yet rhythmically meditative hours, you may emerge with a clear, new understanding of southern California’s many-centered, 500-square-mile metropolis. If you don’t, you’ll at least come away with a clear, new understanding of the impossibility of understanding Los Angeles with any clarity whatsoever, and you’ll have taken an idiosyncratic, opinionated visual tour of hundreds of films new and old, respected and ridiculous, canonical and disposable.

Ideally, you’d watch Los Angeles Plays Itself at one of its regular southern California screenings, often attended by Andersen himself. Failing that, you can watch it in twelve parts (1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9, 10, 11, 12) on YouTube. The first alone will reveal the scope of Andersen’s cinematic purview, from He Walked By Night to Boyz N the Hood to Double Indemnity to Demolition Man. In all these movies, the immediately recognizable and the hopelessly obscure alike, Los Angeles appears: playing itself, more commonly playing other major cities, sometimes playing namelessly generic cities, and occasionally — and most fascinatingly — playing quasi-fictionalized versions of itself. Andersen advocates for pictures like H.B. Halicki’s “anti-humanist” 1974 South Bay car-chase spectacular Gone in 60 Seconds, which adhere to Los Angeles’ actual geography and aesthetics. But he mines even greater intellectual riches from the movies that treat the city as a sort of virtual reality, malleable into whichever urban vision audiences demand.

As you might expect from a project that grants such importance to the likes of Gone in 60 Seconds, Los Angeles Plays Itself respects few boundaries between “high” and “low” culture. Andersen finds as much in the grimly bustling East Asian future Los Angeles of Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner as he does in the hippie-dotted desert of Michelangelo Antonioni’s Zabriskie Point as he does in the “gay porn masterpiece” L.A. Plays Itself, from which the essay takes its name. Sequences from the glimmering mid-eighties Sylvester Stallone vehicle Cobra appear shockingly often, as do shots from other such seemingly marginal cinematic fare as The Replacement Killers, Swordfish, and The Glimmer Man starring Steven Seagal. Whatever Andersen points out about the portrayal of Los Angeles, whether in the classically obvious (Rebel Without a Cause, Chinatown), the solidly respected (L.A. Confidential, Killer of Sheep), the eternally hip (Repo Man, Night on Earth), or the redeemed spectacle (To Live and Die in L.A., Heat), you won’t fail to notice it the next time Los Angeles appears on your screen. As the most photographed city in the world, it shouldn’t take long.

We’ve added Los Angeles Plays Itself to our collection of Free Movies Online.

Colin Marshall hosts and produces Notebook on Cities and Culture. Follow him on Twitter at @colinmarshall.


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  1. Yojimbo says . . . | April 10, 2012 / 3:19 pm

    This is extraordinarily addictive stuff.

  2. Brizben says . . . | April 12, 2012 / 3:42 am

    I saw a lot of LA landmarks driving around in the video game LA Noire. In a way this spoiled some movie magic for me because now when I watch a movie sometimes I get pulled out of the moment and think “How did he drive from there to there?”

  3. Cal says . . . | June 19, 2014 / 12:32 pm

    video won’t play, says it’s private.

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