In cinema, the camera is the dispositif, or the manifestation of phantasmagoria. It’s a relatively mechanical presentation of the Plato’s cave allegory: what we see are only ghosts, phantasms, illusions of the visual. Inside the camera, everything becomes relative; everything is filtered through the complicated mechanism of light. These representations have always been a part of cinema, a contraption of magic and lonely mirage, mere illusions projected at 24 frames per second. Whole territories can be mirages, mere representations of what the human mind can engineer. Through cinema, everything becomes a different thing. Cinema is the theatre of illusion.
This manifest representation is what Thom Andersen both loves and hates. As a follower of Deleuzian ideas (he would make a film essay completely devoted to Deleuze and cinema – The Thoughts That Once We Had, 2015), Andersen is a believer in realism and the separation between classical and modern cinema, particularly neorealism. In his masterpiece film essay Los Angeles Plays Itself (2003), Andersen (a resident of the city of Los Angeles) addresses this vast mirage that is his city: Los Angeles as a subject, as a background and as a character. How much has the machinery of Hollywood transformed this city into a different creature through the gaze of cameras? The film is composed of masses of footage from different Hollywood films, in almost every genre, to carefully analyse how the city, its historical buildings, its more iconic locations, have been part of the recreation of fantasy in the film industry. Has Hollywood betrayed its own city? Andersen meditates throughout the whole movie, and the answer seems to be: yes, it has.
The first part of Los Angeles Plays Itself is devoted to the demystification of the Hollywood phenomenon. Not only is the town not the central location where cinema productions happen, but it is also a town where only a very small percentage of people work in the film industry. Thus, there’s a big part of Los Angeles that we don’t know – the flat, downtown side, so poorly portrayed in cinema, the part of the city that is alien to the mystical enigma that draws thousands of people looking for their own chance to shine, to make it in Hollywood. Los Angeles is not a city of the rich and famous either; the majority of its population is comprised of working-class people living in the suburbs. Andersen’s Los Angeles is a city with its own identity and history, a distant reality from the severely distorted representation offered by a film industry that thrives on illusion.
Why is this a matter of urgency? After all, what cinema does is create a kind of magic; it’s always a representation, always a kind of illusion. What Andersen is trying to understand, though, is how these mechanisms of representation can perpetuate old and abused stereotypes. Richard Brody of The New Yorker says it properly: “Andersen shows that movies are both recording devices that display political perversions of civic life – including racial prejudice, police brutality, real-estate depredations, and economic inequities – and propaganda machines that perpetuate them.”1 After all, it’s not that L.A. (an acronym that Andersen hates) is just misrepresented as a place in films, it’s the vast number of stereotypes present in Hollywood that misrepresent the film industry’s own internal turmoil and what it has to say about different social issues. It’s a complex situation.
Inside this whole rediscovery of Los Angeles’ true identity, one of the elements that plays a most important role inside the city is its architecture. L.A. is home to several landmarks and greats works of architecture, and Andersen revisits them all, not only through films but also through his own camera. Architecture might be the biggest mirage inside Hollywood’s view of the city, and this is represented by the ideas that it has about the city’s constructions. For Hollywood, a magnificent work of modern architecture can serve as a gangster’s hide-out, a place for corruption, or a rich bachelor’s place. Buildings are stripped of their noble origins to serve the fantasies of filmmaking, become mere utilitarian places, mansions, laboratories, and so on and so on. But the gargantuan industry in Hollywood doesn’t stop there: it creates fictional places in order to insert them in the city’s landscape. Thus, not only is the city’s architecture misrepresented, but it is also intervened in: fictional gas stations, motels that serve no-one, inhabited giant mansions that serve only as locations. The film industry transforms it all, and Andersen is trying to save his city from oblivion.
What architecture can do for film is phenomenal, however, Andersen’s ideas about the role of architecture in his city lie near to those of Pascal Schöning: “It is when we touch the depths of personal and collective memory that architecture and cinema reveal their constructive force. It is when architecture and cinema deploy their physical means, their interactions and their assemblage that they show their mythopoetic inspiration. The production of images by cinema is the epitome of the physical construction of space by architecture.”2
What Andersen is trying to do is restore the city’s identity, asking us to accept it as it is, to dispel the myth and undress the codes of Hollywood, to see beyond the mirage. It’s a noble endeavour from one of cinema’s true thinkers: a step towards reality in order to see the light.
Los Angeles Plays Itself (2003 USA 169 mins)
Prod. Co: Thom Andersen Productions Prod: Thom Andersen Dir: Thom Andersen Scr: Thom Andersen Phot: Deborah Stratman Ed: Seung-Hyun Yoo
Narrator: Encke King
- Richard Brody, “Los Angeles Plays Itself”, The New Yorker, 1 April 2016, https://www.newyorker.com/goings-on-about-town/movies/los-angeles-plays-itself ↩
- Pascal Schöning, Manifesto for a Cinematic Architecture (London: Architectural Association Publications, 2006), p. 27. ↩