This 2003 documentary by Thom Andersen was finally made available for the home video market in the autumn of last year. I’ll confess that I hadn’t heard of it. I’m pretty up on things, generally. I mean, I knew about the Helvetica and Linotype documentaries. I knew about Side by Side. But not this.
So maybe it was my head in the sand, maybe it was something else. It all seems to have been a little hush hush. You don’t need to think very hard to come up with a reason why it took more than 10 years for the film to appear on DVD. And the same thought will explain why, even now, you can’t buy a Region 2/European version.
Rights. Clearances. You’d think the media conglomerates would be friendlier towards education and more supportive of academic work or film historiography. This film does shade towards a personal polemic, but it is still fascinating, detailed, brilliantly done.
But although I looked, I could only buy an imported Region 1 DVD or Blu-Ray, and I couldn’t find a legitimate download.
I could find an illegitimate download. It was low resolution (640×480) and looked soft and painterly when displayed on my HDTV. When I first played it, the sound was not just a little out of synch, but a good minute, playing the voice-over over completely the wrong pictures. Using different playback software fixed this problem. My daughter complained that the voice over was monotonous, and it certainly can be at times. But I found it interesting enough to watch all the way through. It reminded me of Adam Curtis documentaries. The clips were there to support the polemic.
The complaint in the film is that Los Angeles is often distorted or misrepresented in films. Cars turn corners in the movies and are suddenly 30 miles away. Characters exit a building to find themselves on a street 15 miles away. Los Angeles is often called upon to play other cities, or different countries: New York, Chicago, Switzerland. People are portrayed as living either in the hills above the city or on the beach. Rarely do we see them in the midst of the vast suburban sprawl where most of the inhabitants live. There are some wonderful modernist buildings in the city, examples of progressive, utopian architecture: but they are usually depicted as the homes of crime lords and drug dealers: only evil people choose to live in modern buildings.
My favourite sequences in the film were
- the one about the Bradbury Building and all its appearances in film (including Blade Runner, which I’m going to see again tonight);
- The Bunker Hill history, showing how its gradual destruction and disappearance was recorded in the movies;
- The Chinatown sequence, discussing the background to the script, and the way in which the film’s fictionalised and temporally transposed story of water corruption serves to conceal the real scandals of Los Angeles history;
- and the LAPD sequence, discussing how the police are seen as an occupying force, working against the interests of the people they’re supposed to serve: are they the only police force whose motto is in ironic quote marks?
There is much, much more. Street corners, diners, motels, locations that turn up again and again. Things that get knocked down and rebuilt as simulations. The film puts to bed a lot of the myths about Los Angeles. It complains that it is the only major city known by its initials – and blames the movies. The idea that ‘nobody walks’ and that ‘everybody drives’ is exposed as an example of a white privileged viewpoint. In Steve Martin’s LA Story, there are only two black characters with speaking roles: they are both in the service industry.
It was interesting to see excerpts of forgotten, independent, neo-realist films such as Killer of Sheep, The Exiles and Bush Mama, depicting the Los Angeles ‘hidden’ by the movies, or only ever viewed through the lens of the privileged cop point-of-view, which sees brown people as the enemy within. These are ‘foreign’ films made in the heart of the city largely ignored by the film industry that is based there.
This page lists the films excerpted in the documentary, in order, including their repeated appearances. If you can get hold of a copy, highly recommended, rights be damned.