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KCET: Thom Andersen’s Collected Essays Map Los Angeles’ Relationship to Film

“This is the city: Los Angeles, California,” begins the narration of Thom Andersen’s “Los Angeles Plays Itself.” “They make movies here. I live here.” When I first heard those words, spoken over an assembly of black-and-white shots of freeways, studio lots and theater marquees from Los Angeles movies of the 1940s and 50s, I, too, lived that city. In fact, I’d only just moved there. A friend who’d settled in years earlier had invited me over to watch Andersen’s nearly three-hour-long documentary on the myriad depictions of the city in film as a way of introducing me to my new city. He’d acquired a bootleg DVD of it while studying at CalArts under Andersen himself, a formidably knowledgeable and dry-witted presence not just in the classroom but at the theaters around the city and elsewhere that have screened “Los Angeles Plays Itself” every so often since its release in 2003.

Potential intellectual-property trouble over the clips of more than 200 different movies used in Los Angeles Plays Itself held up a proper DVD release, so for quite some time there was no other above-board way to see it. Andersen’s wide-ranging post-screening Q&A sessions, though, made attendance almost compulsory for even enthusiasts of Los Angeles on film who did have a quasi-legitimate copy of their own. I went to at least five or six of them in my first four years in Los Angeles, but then, if I’d moved there for any reason other than sheer fascination with the place, I did it for the moviegoing. The Los Angeles County Museum of Art’s film program exerted an especially strong draw, repeatedly bringing me down from Santa Barbara, where I lived before, with its promise of French and Italian New Wave, 1970s road movies, the Korean experimental social-comedies of Hong Sangsoo, and much else besides.

Alas, not long after I set up house in Los Angeles, LACMA sacked the man making those choices. It wasn’t his first time on the chopping block: “In 2009 film-lovers in this sprawled-out city had come together with a remarkable cohesiveness to protest the cancellations of film programs at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art,” Andersen writes in a Film Comment piece from early 2012. “As a newcomer to Los Angeles, the museum’s CEO and director Michael Govan couldn’t understand the program’s special niche in Los Angeles film culture.” The public response stayed the executioner’s hand, but only for two years. Then, “in a brilliant Pontius Pilate maneuver, Govan ousted the museum’s outspoken, passionate film programmer Ian Birnie for good,” replacing him with the high-profile critic Elvis Mitchell, a “controversial but really unassailable” replacement.

The loss, though immediately palpable, didn’t then seem like a fatal blow to Los Angeles film culture: we still had the American Cinematheque, with the Egyptian in the Hollywood and the Aero in Santa Monica; we still had the Quentin Tarantino-owned New Beverly; we still had the avant-garde-oriented Filmforum. We still had the ramshackle but wonky and highly adventurous Cinefamily: “Its programmer Hadrian Belove lacks the suaveness of Elvis Mitchell,” Andersen writes, “but he can do what he likes without looking over his shoulders for big donors.” Not anymore: financially insecure even in the best of times and dealt a fatal blow when the storm of “sexual misconduct” accusations sweeping through the film industry forced Belove out, Cinefamily shut down for good earlier this month.

Read the whole thing at KCET. (See also my interview with Thom Andersen on Notebook on Cities and Culture.)