Whatever You Do, Don't Call It 'L.A.': "Los Angeles Plays Itself" Arrives at Last

Thom Andersen really doesn’t like it when you call Los Angeles, “L.A.” For him, the abbreviation represents everything he hates about how the movie industry gets his hometown wrong. This pet peeve serves as the jumping off point for his seminal 2003 documentary [Los Angeles Plays Itself](, in which he explores how the city of Los Angeles has been represented (and misrepresented) in movies throughout film’s history.

Though the documentary is widely celebrated for its amusing, deadpan monologue and its unusual structure, Los Angeles Plays Itself is only now seeing its commercial release, due to copyright issues with the footage that have finally been resolved. Standard Culture caught up with Andersen by phone in Los Angeles to discuss movies, his history in Los Angeles, and his reaction to seeing the film released after all these years.

STANDARD CULTURE: At what stage in the making of Los Angeles Plays Itself did you arrive at the title? THOM ANDERSEN: Early. It comes from the Fred Halsted film from 1972, LA Plays Itself. It’s one of the classics of gay pornography from the early era when the movies were made on 16mm. Since I was critical of the abbreviation, I wanted to play on the title of Halsted’s movie and it was a way of stressing Los Angeles. It fits the movie I made.

How does it feel to have the film being released after all these years?
I’m relieved and pleased. It’s great. I’m thrilled. I still believe that the best way to watch it is in a theater. Like any movie. Not all [movies]. Most maybe. But if I have to rely on that, many people would never get to see it. This is the next best thing.

Los Angeles Plays Itself (trailer) from Cinefamily on Vimeo.

How are New York and Los Angeles represented differently in movies? It’s a big question. When sound came in [to film], there was an influx of New York writers to Los Angeles, so there were many, many films set in the NY, although they were filmed in Los Angeles, mostly on stages. They created this picture of New York as this magical city. And that kind of romanticizing of a city never happened with Los Angeles except in some movies made by directors who came from other places for whom Los Angeles was a magical city. For local filmmakers, Los Angeles had a more mixed feeling — something that seems to continue to the present day. There’s something about New York that lends itself to representation on film. It may be simply the fact, as Rem Koolhaas said: it’s a city based on a culture of congestion. Whereas LA is a culture of dispersion, which make it harder to represent on film.

Do you prefer New York or Los Angeles?
Los Angeles is an easier place to get things done, but to me, New York is still the center of the world. People look better there. They’re smarter. The sunshine here has fried peoples' brains.

What are some good and/or important Sunset Strip movies?
The Trip (1967), Dir. Ryan Corman
The Outside Man (1972), Dir. Jaques Deray
aka The Rock and Roll Movie (1967), Dirs. Thom Andersen, Malcolm Brodwick
[The Decline of Western Civilization]( (1981), Penelope Speeris
The Doors (1991), Dir. Oliver Stone - should have been a good sunset strip movie, but it wasn’t.

And Downtown Los Angeles movies?
Zabriskie Point (1970), Dir. Antonio Antonioni
Heat (1995), Dir. Michael Mann
Skyscraper (1996), Dir. Raymond Martino – This is an amazing movie with Anna Nicole-Smith that was all filmed in a tall glass building east of Bonaventure. It’s a remake of Die Hard with Anna Nicole-Smith as a helicopter pilot. Can’t say it’s one of my favorites, but you get to see her hanging over the library.
They Live (1988), Dir. John Carpenter
[Mulholland Drive]( (2001), Dir. David Lynch – Whenever Lynch films downtown it’s always quite nice.
The 13th Floor (1999), Dir. Josef Rusnak

Photos by Suzanne Marie Mejean

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