It's been a good week for movies. After catching one of the last showings of The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou, I learned that the Belcourt Theatre was hosting a festival of the best films that didn't play in Nashville in 2004. So far I've seen Guy Maddin's Cowards Bend the Knee and Thom Andersen's documentary-essay Los Angeles Plays Itself. (Yes, that means I've seen two of J. W. Hastings's One Note Wonders in the last week, and more on that subject later.) I'm hoping to catch the re-release of Orson Welles's Confidential Report and F for Fake, and Overnight, a documentary about the rise and fall of the director of one of the most asinine movies I've ever seen, The Boondock Saints, entirely for schadenfreude.
But I've been thinking the most about Los Angeles Plays Itself. Thom Andersen's essay in cinematic form is a comprehensive study of the representation of Los Angeles, the most-photographed city in the world. He suffers no shortage of examples, of course, from contemporary blockbusters and longstanding critical darlings to bygone pieces with wonderful names like Putting Pants on Philip (1928) and What! No Beer? (1933). Andersen's project is to place the background of these films into the foreground, to look at all the defensive and cynical and clichéd and self-serving and occasionally insightful ways the movies have portrayed their capital city.
Andersen's study is most effective when it offers comprehensive surveys of multiple films or close readings of pivotal ones. In one early sequence, Andersen tallies the many incarnations of iconic locations like Frank Lloyd Wright's Ennis House or the Bradbury building, which plays out as a Hollywood melodrama of its own: the building starts as a late 19th-century attempt at utopian architecture and ends up in Blade Runner. But even there, Andersen finds a surprising ray of hope: for all that it's become synonymous with urban dystopia (the "official nightmare" of Los Angeles, Mike Davis says), Blade Runner does represent "a modern city planner's dream" with its bustling downtown life and high pedestrian traffic.
Andersen's tongue is lodged firmly in cheek during that little rehabilitaton, but it's indicative of his refreshing tendency to ignore the received wisdom and just watch the films; his fresh eyes reveal details that have been hiding in plain sight all along, buried underneath too much critical tradition. Nowhere is this stronger than his reading of Chinatown, in which he dismantles the myth that Roman Polanski's film presents a historically accurate exposé of that carefully buried original sin, Los Angeles's theft of water from the Owens Valley. Andersen does a great job of reminding us that most politicians tend to commit their crimes in plain sight, with the full approval of the public; I hope to show this section when my graduate class gets to Polanski.
My personal fascination with Los Angeles and southern California makes me pretty much the ideal target audience for this movie (as the Mike Davis and Joan Didion books over on the sidebar will attest; Andersen references both, and not always positively). However, it isn't perfect. The film is often formless, a serious problem at nearly three hours, and it ends at its most shrill point.
I think Andersen wants to go out on a note of solidarity, praising movies that represent the Los Angeles that most of its residents live in, but it rings false because he's just spent the last twenty to forty minutes - time dilates oddly in this film - denigrating a large proportion of them, including anybody who owns a car or thinks owning a car is important in Los Angeles. (And this after he does brilliant readings of cars in Chinatown, Double Indemnity, and Blade Runner.) In this final section Andersen only accords credibility to directors or critics who make movies or write books about African Americans, Latinos, Native Americans, the poor - and even then they'd better shoot it in a neorealist style. It's an unfortunate example of the confusion of "diversity" for alienation and condemnation that too many people mistake for contemporary liberalism, and films like Andersen's only fan the flames. And then it ends.
Up until that point, though, Los Angeles Plays Itself is a rambling, entertaining, fascinating, almost endlessly insightful look at how the world capital of unreality (back off, Vegas) simulates itself.
As for those One Note Wonders: by now everyone has noted the limited range of Wes Anderson's movies and everyone seems to be waiting for him to break outside it. I think Anderson's challenge is that he's already made the perfect movie about an adolescent's conception of adulthood in Rushmore, and he hasn't gotten far enough away from it by making his subsequent movies about adults who live out the fantasies of childhood and adolescence. (The shot of a joyless Bill Murray carrying a child on his shoulders at the end of The Life Aquatic is the perfect condensation of Anderson's films. Great soundtrack, too.)
But to suggest that The Life Aquatic would play better as an action comedy directed by Ron Shelton (writer of Hollywood Homicide and Bad Boys II) is to celebrate mediocrity. One note perfectly played sounds better than a couple of merely competent ones - and I'm not sure that Bull Durham to Tin Cup reveals an expanded range so much as a more conventionally naturalistic, more acceptably middle-aged, but equally limited one. Wes Anderson makes movies from the worldview of the disaffected adolescent and the burned-out middle-ager; Shelton doesn't even cover both.
Next up: why Ghost Dog shouldn't be a fish-out-of-water buddy cop movie by Brett Ratner.