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Intoxicating documentary tells a cinematic LA story

The movie business doesn't place a high premium on scholarship, but it does have a soft spot for various kinds of pornography. In a profound and unprecedented fashion, Thom Andersen's bravura documentary ''Los Angeles Plays Itself" heroically combines the two: It's porn for cinephiles, which is to say intellectually arousing and deeply entertaining. Despite this, its profile remains woefully low and its local run brief. (It's at the Brattle Theatre today through Sunday and at the Harvard Film Archive next weekend; you should set three hours aside and go.)

Using bone-dry narration and miles of footage from dozens of movies, the film vividly documents Andersen's bewilderment at how the movie industry (mis)represents the city of Los Angeles as whatever it wants the place to be. Los Angeles has played Switzerland, China, Chicago, even Burma, but rarely, in Andersen's assertion, have the movies cared to let the city be itself.

He deconstructs the movies that have treated the city like an extra in its own story, using cinema to explain the town's history through its architecture, modes of transport, class structures, and racial strata -- and the average movie's savage disdain for them all. Thus the city's soul and psychology are revealed, in much the same way that the writer Mike Davis showed them in ''Ecology of Fear," his interpretive history of Los Angeles as a nexus of doom.

''Los Angeles Plays Itself" is a completely intoxicating essay and a mind-blowing feat of film criticism, much more accessible than Jean Luc-Godard's equally impassioned ''Histoire(s) du cinema" series in the late '90s. Andersen's great filmmaking achievement is that his archival-academic epic is more deeply entertaining than most of what Hollywood releases in a year.

Andersen, who teaches film at the California Institute of the Arts, has appropriated titles as diverse as ''Lethal Weapon 4," ''Marlowe," ''Xanadu," ''Kalifornia," ''Annie Hall," ''The Outside Man," ''Killer of Sheep" -- or, put concisely, movies from ''Atomic City" to ''Zabriske Point." His intent is not to gather a bunch of dazzling clips, although that's a terrific consequence of this project. What he does through polemics and montage is make completely different works out of the films. Robert Altman's ''Short Cuts" is no longer a searing tapestry of fractured people and their cosmically overlapped lives but an incompetent and condescending confusion of neighborhoods.

Historically, the movies' Los Angeles is a land of phony addresses, nonexistent ''555" telephone numbers, geographical continuity errors, disappeared ethnic minorities, obscured poor people, and more. In all, Andersen, taking a cue from thinkers such as Andre Bazin and Gilles Deleuze, is worried that the movies have cheapened the reality of Los Angeles through endless rounds of fantasy.

Andersen argues that that fakery isn't always a bad thing. He prizes the verisimilitude in ''L.A. Confidential" because it gets at a greater reality about the city, saying the film's brilliance resides in its acknowledgment of the ''pastness of its present." There are equally astute readings of ''Kiss Me Deadly," ''Rebel Without a Cause," ''Blade Runner," ''Chinatown," and -- in the section devoted to the movies' obsession with the Los Angeles Police Department -- TV's ''Dragnet," which Andersen has included because, in his estimation, its star and director, Jack Webb, was as rigorous a formalist as Bresson and Ozu. He's not kidding.

This is not to say that Andersen is without a sense of humor. The director, alas, does not play himself. The voice reading his essay isn't Andersen's but that of Encke King, a fellow filmmaker, whose droll deadpanning manages to evoke the irony, self-enchantment, and dismay similar to the Cain and Chandler noirs the movie discusses.

At 169 minutes, ''Los Angeles Plays Itself" could have been longer. I would like to have seen more on Andersen's theory of ''high-tourist" and ''low-tourist" directorial approaches to filming the city. And there's surprisingly little about movies about movies and nothing at all about the films of David Lynch.

But Andersen's meticulousness can be surreal (as in a montage documenting the evolution of the filling station) and poignant (a passage devoted to the Los Angeles films of unheralded black directors). Far from self-evident, Andersen's truths about the movies' bastardization of Los Angeles are personal and idiosyncratic. But the unspooling of his argument is transformative. The film creates a revolutionary lens through which the movies' relationship to Los Angeles will never look the same. Fantasies, he says, have a responsibility to reality if they appropriate the properties of something real.

In his perturbed idealism, Andersen seems to be inviting criticism: Sir, these are movies; their business is the contortion of reality. But Andersen doesn't have the inclination to play the game of ''it's only a movie," not when the movies keep trashing his city.

Wesley Morris can be reached at

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