A Casebook on ‘Los Angeles Plays Itself’

Los Angeles Plays Itself

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.

Thom Andersen on Dusty and Sweet McGee | Fred Worden and Chris Langdon | George Lucas | the Watts Towers |

On the American Society of Cinematographers’ website, John Bailey has a three-part essay on the film that includes portions of Andersen’s essay:

Part 1 | Part 2 | Part 3

The entire text of the narration is here | The list of movies used in the film is here

Here are the links to “Los Angeles Plays Itself”:

Part 1 | Part 2 | Part 3 | Part 4 | Part 5 | Part 6  | Part 7 | Part 8 | Part 9 | Part 10 | Part 11Part 12

About lmharnisch

I am retired from the Los Angeles Times
This entry was posted in Film, History, Hollywood, Native Americans, Nightclubs and tagged , . Bookmark the permalink.

4 Responses to A Casebook on ‘Los Angeles Plays Itself’

  1. Mary Mallory says:

    Many of his clips come from movies not on DVD. The only prints he must have found for those were in pretty bad shape, and he must not have had the money to do much more than a basic transfer. That’s why some of the clips look really washed out, uneven, etc. Even if he had done some cleanup, he couldn’t have afforded to do the detailed work that would have been needed for some of the clips anyway.


  2. la peregrina says:

    That was wonderful, thanks for posting the links.


  3. Jeff Prescott says:

    Really enjoyed it!!!
    Great tip, Larry.
    (I spied one real Herald Examiner machine in one clip…maybe a quick, blurry glance at a downtown (Broadway) newsstand…and of course, the guy selling the “Examiner, morning Examiner.”
    Real cool.


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