There once lived a theorist by the name Theodor Adorno. Adorno got his Ph.D. in bitching, and so he bitched and bitched about Hollywood and jazz and the entire culture industry. (If he'd been born 70 years later, he'd host a popular blog.) Adorno, you see, thought mass culture was a tool of late capitalism to distract the proletariat from the true social conditions. But what can an intellectual do about the inexorable machinations of capitalism except bitch?
I kept hearing Adorno's hectoring voice as I watched Thom Anderson's bitchfest Los Angeles Plays Itself (B). Unlike Adorno, Anderson's tone is drily ironic; but like the great German thinker, he views movies through the lens of the neo-Marxism of the Frankfurt School. For folks like Adorno and Anderson, the idea of a "dream factory" is precisely what's wrong with Hollywood, which tries to replace the underlying social reality with the comforts of myth and fantasy.
I must first admit that I have only limited sympathy for this perspective, the idea that pop art must reflect, capture, or reveal underlying material conditions. (For a more sympatico take, go here.) Anderson's perspective diametrically opposes my own art for art's sake inclinations, which is perhaps personalized by quotes from Anderson bête noire David Thomson in this movie, and I tend to yawn at applied theory (once you're familiar with the theory and the subject, the argument writes itself). My deep disagreement with this perspective perhaps handicapped my enjoyment of Anderson's film. But even on its own terms, the film too often wanders astray. A flabby middle section, which included a lengthy and pointless digression of how one can observe the physical changes in gas stations and supermarkets through the background of pop ephemera, could have easily been trimmed by thirty minutes. (Attempts at free-flowing Chris Marker-like musings don't really jibe with the argumentative structure.) Anderson's archaeology unearths the real Los Angeles existing on the margins of forgettable features; but he needed to throw in random bits of nostalgia for good measure. I'd also be happy with about 70% less of the free-range critical-theory-by-the-numbers ranting Anderson serves up. The meat of the film -- a deconstruction of LA myths as perpetuated by certain canoncal films -- gives food for thought, but it's bizarre that Anderson expresses so much dismay with the "cynicism" of Chinatown and L.A. Confidential. Anderson views these films as origin myths that ultimately show the futility of action to defeat power. But if anything, doesn't his own film traffic in cynicism, in the hopelessness of film as an artform that can capture truth? Anderson's solution is to end his film on an optimistic note, with a few choice clips from independent African-American features from the 70s, including Charles Burnett's astounding Killer of Sheep (a new blow-up print of which I saw last week). This is supposed to suggest that true art can emerge from this cesspool, but the scarcity of these clips -- and the obscurity of Anderson-approved movies like The Exiles -- leave the fledgling artist little hope to ever make a mark. "Forget it, Charles, it's Hollywood", you want to tell the idealistic filmmaker after seeing Anderson's whiny tract.
But like Anderson, I'll end this on an positive note. Not having read any city histories of my hometown, I was gratified to have learned so much -- about how they really got water over here, about the history of Bunker Hill, about the LAPD, etc. Anderson's ideas about the depiction of public transit and modern architecture in movies were thoughtful and highly developed. In the end, I don't expect to see another documentary/essay-film this year as thought-provoking as this one, and for that I'm grateful.