The best filmmakers value a backdrop as much as the action in the foreground, but most movies, as director Thom Andersen concedes at the beginning of his dazzling cinema-essay Los Angeles Plays Itself, are watched for their stories. This is especially true of movies set in his native Los Angeles, which he says is paradoxically the most widely photographed city in the world, but also the least photogenic. As Andersen quotes Roman Polanski, whose 1974 film Chinatown figures prominently in a section on L.A.'s shadow history, "There's no more beautiful city in the world, provided it's seen by night and at a distance." If it were possible to condense Andersen's sprawling, multi-pronged editorial into a single thesis statement, Polanski's words suggest Andersen's contempt for an industry that either falsifies his native city or renders it invisible. Even the popular acronym "L.A.," he suggests, reflects an inferiority complex engendered by the industry.

A professor at the California Institute Of The Arts, Andersen delivers what could adequately be described as a lecture in light, spreading his observations in an alluring monotone over an arsenal of movie clips. Though his tone periodically slips into scorn—much of it righteous, some unfair—Andersen's intellectual curiosity leads viewers on an evocative tour of the screen landscape, stopping at many cultural, architectural, and historical intersections. Less a critic than an ideologist, he possesses an overriding concern for street realism (particularly in acknowledging minorities and the disenfranchised) that tends to blind him to a film's other qualities. But Andersen offers plenty of evidence that the real Los Angeles has largely been left in the dark.

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Doomed to incompleteness even at nearly three hours, Los Angeles Plays Itself admirably wrangles its ideas into a loose three-part structure, exploring the city as background, character, and subject. Most of the time, Los Angeles serves as a blandly functional Everycity conveniently located outside the studio gates, but even then, Andersen sees it differently. In one fascinating sequence, he shows Bunker Hill's cinematic devolution from a respected middle-class neighborhood to an old-town hideout for crooks to the post-apocalypse of The Omega Man to the simulated city in Virtuosity. He also notices a trend toward destroying Los Angeles' landmarks in disaster movies, and the glee with which its quirky residents are vaporized into oblivion or cast off from a fault line. Meanwhile, downtown appears only in the past or the future: Ridley Scott's Blade Runner was viewed by many as an urban nightmare, but Andersen wryly notes that urban planners would have loved that much centralized hustle-and-bustle.

Some of Andersen's points are surprising, such as his backhanded praise for Dragnet, a long-running enterprise that he feels perfectly captures the tense relationship between the Los Angeles police and the ordinary citizens who suffer Joe Friday's condescension. Others are less agreeable, like an appraisal of Robert Altman that dismisses Short Cuts as depicting "lives of noisy desperation" and follows a clip of his "best" film, The Long Goodbye, with a remark about the problems of an "absurdly overprivileged" man making a personal film. Then there are the omissions: Where are native sons Quentin Tarantino and P.T. Anderson, the city's most devoted contemporary chroniclers? Where is Mulholland Dr. or Devil In A Blue Dress? Los Angeles Plays Itself couldn't possibly cover all this territory, but as a work of criticism, it's as provocative a conversation-starter as anything likely to appear on screen this year.

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