Top of the Docs #45 – Los Angeles Plays Itself

Welcome to Top of the Docs, Flip Screen’s hub for all things documentary. This weekly column takes a look at the crème de la crème of non-fiction media. This month we’ll be touring North America looking at documentaries focused on specific cities!

Surely no city in the western world has a history more tied up in movies than Los Angeles. What once stood as a giant real estate advert now stands for a powerful multi-billion-dollar industry that holds power and influence across the globe. But even away from its landmarks and famous strips, from stairwells to suburbs and beyond, Los Angeles quite literally is cinema, and Thom Andersen’s Los Angeles Plays Itself sets out to prove it.

Part epic-essay film, part history of the medium, Los Angeles Plays Itself is an exhaustive look at the history of Los Angeles on screen alongside the myths and factoids that surround the Hollywood enigma. From horrible tabloid stories, to little known locations, Andersen gives us a tour no open top bus could hope to match, delving into every nook and cranny of the city to give us incredible insight.

This film is however no compilation of great films set in the city. Andersen delves into how the city has affected the films it is in. What part does it play? Can simply being set in Los Angeles actually change a film? What does that say about the city? All these questions Andersen mulls over across the film’s nearly three-hour runtime.

Andersen looks at how films in Los Angeles lie about its geography, create false implications around areas and their history, and quite often create myths that bleed into reality. He examines class, looking into how filmmakers have lied about Hollywood’s gold lined streets, and its lack of affection for the areas that surround it. The film is as meticulous in its critique of the city’s treatment as it is in providing a cinematic history. And meticulousness is what sets this film apart, from classics such as Kiss Me Deadly to little known indies to Dragnet, Los Angeles Plays Itself is surely unrivalled in its level of detail when exploring a city’s history on screen.

Whether you go for the history of cinema, the thoughtful discussions of the city’s role, or the examination of how it has been treated by the film industry, Los Angeles Plays Itself is without a doubt an essential watch for all fans of documentary. Despite its hefty runtime, the film is thought-provoking and well-paced enough to keep you engaged throughout. Everybody who is a fan of film loves at least one movie set in Los Angeles, it’s a city unmatched in its relevance to the development of American cinema as the dominant force in Western culture. Los Angeles Plays Itself gives insight into how one city can mean so much, and how rather than simply host the a film, it can become one.

Trailer for Los Angeles Plays Itself

Header image courtesy of Thom Andersen