Christian Niedan’s Hollywood Interviews — Part Eight: The Essayist

by: Christian Niedan

The concluding chapter of an eight part series, recounting and expanding upon an array of interviews with an assemblage of Hollywood’s greatest storytellers and cult figures. The series continues with filmmaker, film critic, and teacher Thom Andersen….

Thom Andersen’s words inspired me to start a website about film locations in 2009. That site was Camera In The Sun, and those inspiring words were the narration to Andersen’s 2003 video essay, Los Angeles Plays Itself (LAPI). They tell of how L.A.’s architecture and neighborhoods have been portrayed in Hollywood feature films. LAPI utilizes clips from dozens of L.A.-shot feature films. Those clips are skillfully edited together by Seung-Hyun Yoo to accentuate the narration. The voice that reads the words with deadpan perfection belongs not to their author Andersen, but to Encke King. Still, the words themselves transcend image and audio. Combined with those elements, LAPI is less a documentary, than a three-hour poetic commentary on a chameleon celluloid city. Yet, if you transcribe Andersen’s words from screen to print, they retain their verve and energy — demonstrated by King’s opening recital:

King: “This is the city: Los Angeles, California. They make movies here. I live here. Sometimes I think that gives me the right to criticize the way movies depict my city. I know it’s not easy. The city’s big. The image is small. Movies are vertical – at least, when they’re projected on a screen. The city is horizontal, except for what we call downtown. Maybe that’s why the movies love downtown more than we do. If it isn’t the site of the action, they try to stick its high-rise towers in the back of the shot. But movies have some advantages over us. They can fly through the air. We must travel by land. They exist in space. We live and die in time. So why should I be generous? Of course I know movies aren’t about places. They’re about stories. If we notice the location, we are not really watching the movie. It’s what’s up front that counts. Movies bury their traces, choosing for us what to watch, then moving on to something else. They do the work of our voluntary attention, and so we must suppress that faculty as we watch. Our involuntary attention must come to the fore. But what if we watch with our voluntary attention, instead of letting the movies direct us? If we can appreciate documentaries for their dramatic qualities, perhaps we can appreciate fiction films for their documentary revelations. And what if suspense is just another alienation effect? Isn’t that what Hitchcock taught? For him, suspense was a means of enlivening his touristy travelogues. Then, maybe I can find another way to animate this city symphony in reverse. Maybe this effort to see how movies depict Los Angeles may seem more than wrongheaded or mean-spirited.”

When I interviewed Andersen for Camera In The Sun in 2013, he had been teaching film composition at the California Institute of the Arts since 1987. In ‘13, a remastered edition of LAPI (done by Adam R. Levine and Peter Bo Rappmund) was released — and I spoke with Andersen by phone in advance of the American Cinematheque screening of that new edition at the Egyptian Theatre in Los Angeles to mark the film’s 10th anniversary. By then, LAPI had become a critically-popular work, highlighted by its winning the National Film Board of Canada Award for Best Documentary Feature at the 2003 Vancouver International Film Festival, and being voted one of the 50 Best Documentaries of All Time in a Sight & Sound critics’ poll. It had become a definitive analysis of the role that feature films play in shaping our perceptions of the places and cultures we see up on screen — inspiring Camera In The Sun, and its tagline “locations under the lens.” Among the topics I covered with Andersen was the changing way that Los Angeles had been depicted in films during the ten years since LAPI’s release:

Andersen: “One major change has simply been that there have been fewer films shot and set in Los Angeles as a result of other states luring away film productions through tax credits — particularly southern states like Louisiana and North Carolina. So films with a medium budget, and maybe modest aspirations, like The Replacement Killers in the ’90s or Cobra in the ’80s, probably wouldn’t be shot or set here anymore. These are films that use Los Angeles as a background, really.”

“One result has been that Los Angeles’ films are, for the most part, low budget or lower-budget independent films. For example, the films have moved to the east of Los Angeles in their locales, because the filmmakers have moved to the east. They’re not as rich as Hollywood directors. So, instead of living in Malibu or Beverly Hills or Bel Air, they live in Silver Lake or Echo Park or Highland Park. And so, their films are set there. The Kids Are All Right, for example, or Beginners, or many others. And oftentimes, that means that the characters are younger, because the filmmakers are younger, so they’re facing different kinds of problems. But still, personally, I find the kinds of problems they’re facing boring, and I find the characters boring. And in almost all of the films, they don’t bear any resemblance to the people I know. They’re very caught up in themselves, and they don’t talk about anything, except their personal relationships. I hope people do talk about other things — politics, arts, literature. That’s been my own experience of life.“

It should be noted that those self-absorbed indie filmmakers Andersen alludes to live in L.A. neighborhoods that still exist. A resonant theme of LAPI is its look back at the vanished parts of the city — most notably, the overhauled neighborhood of Bunker Hill:

King: “The movies loved Bunker Hill. The lords of the city hated it. Rents were low, so it put the wrong kind of people too close to downtown. Bunker Hill became a target for slum clearance, or ‘urban renewal.’ They had to destroy it in order to save it – and destroy it they did, although it took more than ten years. Bunker Hill was the most-photographed district in Los Angeles. So the movies unwittingly documented its destruction and depopulation. In the late-’40s, it could represent a solid working class neighborhood — a place where a guy could take his girl home to meet his mother. It was film noir territory, but it was a refuge from the meaner streets of the city. By the mid-‘50s, it had become a neighborhood of rooming houses, where a man who knows too much might hole up or hide out. Hollywood had come to accept Raymond Chandler’s vision of Bunker Hill as Old Town, WOP Town, Crook Town, Arty Town, where you could find anything from crooks on the lam, to ladies of anybody’s evening, to county relief clients brawling with haggard landladies in grand old houses with scrolled porches. The best Bunker Hill movie is The Exiles, an independent low-budget film by Kent Mackenzie, about Indians from Arizona exiled in Los Angeles. Shot in 1958, completed in 1961, it reveals the city as a place where reality is opaque, where different social orders co-exist in the same space without touching each other. Better than any other movie, it proves that there once was a city here, before they tore it down and built a simulacrum. The end of Bunker Hill is visible in The Omega Man. By 1971, it made a good location for a post-apocalyptic fantasy. Charlton Heston plays an urban survivalist in a cityscape depopulated by biological warfare. He has learned to become totally self-reliant. If he wants to see a movie, he has to project it himself. All his movie shows are matinees, because at night he must fight off a gang of luddite hippie vampires – his only companions in the city. Thirteen years later, the same plot and the same location reappear in Night of The Comet. In the wake of a disaster, apparently brought on by comet dust, a small band of human survivors again battle zombie-like mutants. But the center of the action, Bunker Hill, has been totally transformed. The new Bunker Hill looks like a simulated city, and it played one in Virtuosity.”

While coordinating a Camera In The Sun interview with Blade Runner films screenwriter Hampton Fancher in 2011, I mentioned how LAPI includes an anecdote about Fancher and Ridley Scott. Fancher hadn’t seen the film, so I sent him a link to it. When we next spoke, Fancher said he was blown away by Andersen’s analysis of the city that Blade Runner helped portray in a memorably futuristic fashion, and how he was fascinated by King’s singular delivery of Andersen’s words. That includes his take on portrayals of iconic L.A. architecture, like the Bradbury Building:

King: “The Bradbury Building at 3rd and Broadway, dating from 1893. It was discovered by architectural historian Esther McCoy in 1953. She claimed architect George Herbert Wyman had been inspired by Edward Bellamy’s utopian vision of a socialist architecture in the year 2000. A vast hall full of light, received not all alone from the windows on all sides, but from the dome. But the movies discovered the Bradbury Building before the architectural historians did. The earliest appearance I know came in 1943. In China Girl, it played the Hotel Royale in Mandalay, Burma. The following year, in The White Cliffs of Dover, it played a London military hospital overflowing with wounded soldiers. Its first indelible role was in DOA. Fatally poisoned by a luminous toxin slipped into his drink at a jazz club, Frank Bigelow has one day before dying to track down his killer – and he finds him at the Phillips Import-Export Company, room 427. The Bradbury Building was again the site of a bizarre revenge killing in Indestructible Man. This time, an executed convict brought back to life and given superhuman strength by a scientific experiment gone awry hunts the three sleazy hoodlums who set him up to take the fall. In Marlowe, the mayhem was less lethal. Here, the Bradbury Building houses Philip Marlowe’s office, which Raymond Chandler had located in a shabby building on Hollywood Boulevard. The Bradbury Building had become just another cliché in a film of clichés. The most misanthropic of all the Marlowe movies. Screenwriter Hampton Fancher and director Ridley Scott disagreed about employing the Bradbury Building as a location for Blade Runner. Fancher argued it was too familiar, overdone. Scott responded, ‘Not the way I’ll do it.’ He gave the building a new more-elaborate facade through matte work, and he turned the interior atrium into a picturesque ruin. After a long-overdue restoration in the early ’90s, it went upscale. In Murder in the First, a period movie set in 1941, it housed the offices of a prosperous San Francisco lawyer, and in Wolf, the office of a prominent New York publishing firm. Now it has found a use that seems consonant with its career in the movies.”

Another chronicler of cinematic L.A. architecture is Vintage Los Angeles founder Alison Martino, whom I interviewed in 2013, and asked for her take on LAPI:

Martino: “I worship that movie. I love locations. I love that movie, because it shows where everything was filmed. I try to keep VLA very fresh. I try not to post the obvious posts, the obvious music, the obvious buildings. I try to think outside the box a little bit. Of course, I get amazing submissions from people. Some of those photos have never been published, or seen before. I get most excited about that. Los Angeles Plays Itself, I love the movies [Thom Andersen] chose to put in there. Some of them were obscure. And as film buffs, we dig that stuff. Yeah, we know where L.A. Confidential was shot. But I like some of the more obscure films

Ironically, it was L.A. Confidential’s treatment of Richard Neutra’s Lovell House (“the first great manifestation of the ‘international style’ in southern California”) that helped motivate Andersen to make LAPI in the first place — declaring its “playing the home of Pierce Patchett: pornographer, pimp, prince of the shadow city, where whatever you desire is for sale” as “the most celebrated episode in Hollywood’s war against modern architecture.” As part of her May 2015 article for Los Angeles Magazine about “the most famous mid-century modern home in the world,” Martino was photographed sitting in the Stahl House, the electric-lit cityscape of the Sunset Strip stretching out below her. This film location and its architect also gets an Andersen mention:

King: “There is one modernist architect Hollywood lets off lightly. Pierre Koenig. Perhaps it’s because he had a knack for turning steel and glass cubes into Hollywood Regency-style mini-mansions. His Stahl House is an icon of modern architecture, and lately a movie star. In The Marrying Man, it plays the Hollywood pied-a-terre of a multi-millionaire playboy – although, the film is set 12 years before it was built. In The First Power, it plays the home of a police psychic; and in Why Do Fools Fall in Love, it is the West Coast base of Zola Taylor, the female vocalist in The Platters. We feel bad when Frankie Lymon trashes it.”

Yet, LAPI delves deeper than the surfaces of the city’s architecture. King highlights the plight of the often-unseen poorly-portrayed people who dwell in places like South Central – and he closes LAPI with a look at one of the great films about that neighborhood and its residents:

King: “Charles Burnett’s Killer of Sheep seems suspended outside of time. Burnett blended together the decades of his childhood, his youth, and his adulthood, and added an idiosyncratic panorama of classic black music, from Paul Robeson to Lowell Fulson. So a portrait of one family and its neighborhood became an epic of black endurance and heroism. The police are absent in Killer of Sheep, and everyone has a car or a truck, although they’re often more trouble than they’re worth. The protagonist has a job. He is the killer of sheep. But a job can break your heart, too. White America had declared a crisis of the black family as a cover for its campaign of incremental genocide against its expendable ex-slave population rendered superfluous by immigrant labor power. So black filmmakers responded by emphasizing families and children. Although Hollywood would lend credence to the assault by imagining South Central as a dystopian theme park of crack whores and drive-by shootings, independent black filmmakers showed that the real crisis of the black family is simply the crisis of the working class family, white or black, where family values are always at risk because the threat of unemployment is always present. So many men unneeded, unwanted, in a world where there is so much to be done. Billy Woodberry’s Bless Their Little Hearts takes a drive by a reverse landmark: one of the closed industrial plants that had once provided jobs for the black working class of Los Angeles. Built in 1919, and closed in 1980, the Goodyear factory on South Central Avenue was the first and largest of the four major tire manufacturing plants once located in the Los Angeles area. Once upon a time, visitors could take a guided tour and see how tires were made – just as today, they can take a studio tour and see how movies are made…”

Author’s Note (Update): In September of 2017, Andersen released his first collection of essays, Slow Writing, with publisher The Visible Press providing this synopsis of the 304-page book:

“Slow Writing is a collection of articles by Thom Andersen that reflect on the avant-garde, Hollywood feature films, and contemporary cinema. His critiques of artists and filmmakers as diverse as Yasujirō Ozu, Nicholas Ray, Andy Warhol, and Christian Marclay locate their work within the broader spheres of popular culture, politics, history, architecture, and the urban landscape. The city of Los Angeles and its relationship to film is a recurrent theme. These writings, which span a period of five decades, demonstrate Andersen’s social consciousness, humour and his genuine appreciation of cinema in its many forms. Thom Andersen’s films include the celebrated documentary essays Eadweard Muybridge, Zoopraxographer (1975), Red Hollywood (1996), Los Angeles Plays Itself (2003), and The Thoughts That Once We Had (2015).”

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