Los Angeles Plays Itself is pure dynamite.
Director Thom Anderson lays out an odd, compelling thesis: Los Angeles is a real city turned into a symbolic space, through the alchemy of Hollywood and movies. The city has, over the years, absorbed some of its cinematic reflection, and then been transmogrified into metaphor again.
With brilliant voice-over narration, and film clips from sixty or so movies, Anderson creates one of the best—and most important—documentaries in recent memory.
Quotable, thrilling, investigative, meditative, insightful—this documentary wanders through dozens of great films (and not so great ones), including Blade Runner, Chinatown, Sunset Blvd, Kiss Me Deadly, Falling Down, Outside Man, Zabriskie Point, Rising Son, American Me, and Marlowe. And if some of these are bad films, all of them become more intriguing viewed through Anderson’s prism of history, aesthetics, anthropology, art design and personal history.
I’ve always loved movies about movies—Scorsese’s Conversations with Marty is one of my first real journeys into the back alleys of cinema, and Odyssey: The Story of Film should be required viewing for all movie fans—but this is also a kind of not-so-secret, but forgotten, history of over 100 years of one of the U.S.’s greatest, and weirdest, cities.
He dissects half a dozen movies through the prism of transportation. “Loss of a car is a symbolic castration,” he says, and then lays out his evidence. This idea, of car equals masculinity (to white, wealthy Hollywood insiders) in Los Angeles, and without your car you are no longer man, appears again and again in dozens of films. And he reveals Who Framed Roger Rabbit? as an argument for good public transportation. (By the end of this segment, I agreed.)
He reinterprets—and for me, reinvigorates—bad action movies, Die Hard and Lethal Weapon 2, among them, as metaphorical attacks on Los Angeles architecture. Sounds bizarre? Well, it works.
Anderson is also opinionated. He has a miserly view of Woody Allen, for instance, who visits L.A. in Annie Hall. But he’s a canny critic of films with a great eye, and he offers a great study of film noir, as well as independent films about underrepresented ethnic groups.
He’s tightly focused but also conversational, with fascinating little asides and observations. By turns doomy and apocalyptic, acerbic and funny, insightful and even moving, I adored every exquisite minute of it.
The best thing Anderson does, though, is challenge the way I view movies. I’ve been too complacent about the connective tissue between films, relying on the auteur theory when this type of aggregate interpretation of a place is so much more meaningful.
Among the Thugs is a horrifying, ghastly first-person exploration of English soccer hooliganism, and its connection to racist neo-Nazi organizations, organized crime and something askew and semi-hidden in English culture.
Buford was an American living in England, when he witnessed a trainload of Liverpool fans running amok after a victory. He was aghast, but noticed that native Brits didn’t make much of it. So he investigated. He embedded. And what he discovered is a type of Heart of Darkness for sports fans.
Buford is a very fine reporter, a trained observer and an elegant stylist. He’s grappling not only with crowd theory and social violence but also youth culture, sports fandom, and deeper, darker strands of ingrained violence and nationalistic, nativist fervor.
One writer compared it to a real-life A Clockwork Orange, and this is apt. There’s a dystopian flavor to Buford’s experiences, cities abandoned to atavistic tribes. And the violence is obscene, almost pornographic—gouging, headbutts, knees to the groin, stomping faces onto sidewalks—pointless and absurd. For the hooligans are often people with regular jobs during the week, even families, who are addicted to breaking social norms through weekly drunken ultra-violence. And here’s the kicker: for a time, Buford enjoys it too. He likes the restless feeling before a crowd turns violent. And he argues that this crowd violence for a purpose provides the thugs with a surging adrenaline and identity heightened by taboo.
Buford negates narrative. Violence is random, ghastly and unconnected. It’s often one stranger smashing another. The English supporters are the worst in other countries, destroying cars and shops and bystanders and sometimes murdering people, a collision of cultures literally, as the English punch, kick, trudgeon, slap, choke, stab and slice their way through continental pedestrians, police, even a father who had the misfortune to be taking his baby for a stroll during an upcoming World Cup match. It is a torrent of brutality.
Jon Ronson’s Them and The Pyschopath Test are both modeled on Thugs, a big idea encapsulated in a variety of oddball characters and comic (or vicious or both) vignettes.
But Buford elides cause and effect. He avoids bullshit analysis. The hoodlums aren’t amoral, they’re viciously and proudly immoral. They enjoy the carnage. They enjoy inflicting pain on others.
Here’s a sample, of a supporter, assaulting a number of men for no apparent reason:
“Harry knew the landlord and asked if he would wait where was for a minute or two—he had something for him—and went off to retrieve it. Harry walked to his van parked across the street and returned with a spade. He used it to hit the landlord—twice, a full swing, crack, against the side of his head. Then he hit both doormen. He then picked up a park bench, lifted it over his shoulders and threw it through the window. Shattered glass was everywhere. The pub was packed, and the people inside started screaming and ran for the door. In the crush, there were several injuries. Harry waited until the pub was empty, entered it, picked up a stool and used it to smash the bottles of spirits and beer, the glass doors of the refrigerators and the wine bottles inside. Then he threw the stool into the mirror behind the bar. . . . And then he walked home and went to bed.”
A curative for “first” world arrogance, there’s pages and pages of this stuff.
Supremely unnerving, and worthy of its sterling reputation.