A user named smithrs has uploaded Thom Andersen’s elusive film essay “Los Angeles Plays Itself” to YouTube. The two-part film is something of a cult item in Los Angeles because Andersen made it without licensing the hundreds of clips he uses, so it only shows up about once a year in a local theater. I don’t believe it has ever been shown on television and it’s never been officially released on DVD, although it can be obtained as a bootleg if you know the right people.
Most folks who have seen “L.A. Plays Itself” say that it’s long (it is) and describe it as a documentary on the history of Los Angeles as reflected in films, but that’s not what it’s all about. “L.A. Plays Itself” is truly an essay – accompanied by film clips – that explores the manner in which moviemakers interpret and fictionalize Los Angeles.
Some of these films are quite obscure (I had never heard of “The Exiles” until I saw part of it in “L.A. Plays Itself”) and the quality of the clips varies from good to atrocious. But it’s a masterpiece of using film to examine the stories we tell ourselves about Los Angeles, particularly the historical roots of “Chinatown” and the degree to which Robert Towne altered the facts for his screenplay. Andersen notes, for example that William Mulholland was in favor of the aqueduct while the fictional Hollis Mulwray was killed because he opposed it.
Andersen sometimes appears at a Q&A after the film and, at least based on my experience, he is not as his best at a public speaker.
On the American Society of Cinematographers’ website, John Bailey has a three-part essay on the film that includes portions of Andersen’s essay:
Here are the links to “Los Angeles Plays Itself”: