In Thom Andersen's documentary Los Angeles Plays Itself, the world's most photographed city does indeed play itself - and various other places, including Switzerland and China - and when it's not in front of the cameras, it's auditioning for bit parts. Every inch of Los Angeles, it seems, is perpetually plugging itself, just as wannabe actors place ads of eagerly smiling mug shots: Andersen shows us nondescript buildings, blank walls, patches of wasteland, all with notices announcing their availability for location shooting.
A sprawling compendium of the city's big-screen cameos and starring roles, Andersen's film comprises clips from nearly 200 films shot in Los Angeles, plus some contemporary footage of the real city. But in what sense is Los Angeles a real city? Is it simply a vast spread of real estate owned, actually or virtually, by Hollywood? Andersen's film is both a cinephile celebration of the city's screen career, and an attempt to reclaim his home town for the real world.
Andersen's beef is with the way that film has appropriated the city, imposing its images and industrial demands, and misleading the world that Los Angeles and Hollywood are one and the same. In fact, he points out, only one in 40 of all Los Angeles County residents works in the entertainment industry: "Most of us don't exist." He also loathes the dismissive abbreviation "LA": "Only a city with an inferiority complex would allow it." (His title amends that of a 1973 gay porn film, LA Plays Itself.)
A portrait of a true Los Angeles is still discernible in between cinema's countless alternative or fake versions, and Andersen's achievement is to restore to the city a comprehensible, coherent solidity and historical reality, as opposed to what Hollywood shows us: a shimmering, endlessly malleable simulacrum with valet parking. Far from academic, Andersen's viewpoint is magnificently cranky. His film is among other things a glorious hymn of kvetching, with some pithy attacks on his bêtes noires, notably the city's East Coast arch-enemy Woody Allen, and many snappy one-line aperçus (he describes Diane Keaton and her co-stars in 2000 comedy Hanging Up as "turning every space they occupy into a pyjama party den").
In the voice-over, recited with flawless film noir sombreness by Encke King, Andersen characterises himself, or his narrator alter ego, as someone from the city but not from cinema (he is in fact an academic as well as a film-maker). Like a psychogeographical archeologist unearthing an endlessly mysterious lost civilisation, he tracks Los Angeles through its multiple metamorphoses, guiding us round such protean architectural marvels as the cavernous Bradbury Building and the Ennis House, a neo-Mayan mausoleum by Frank Lloyd Wright, which began their careers in film noir and achieved their weird apotheoses in Blade Runner (a film that Andersen, with typical perversity, sees as depicting a utopia: "Finally, a vibrant street life."). He also shows us places that have vanished into the folds of the map: the legendary staircase - now ignominiously squeezed between two fences - up which Laurel and Hardy heaved a rebellious piano in The Music Box (1932) and an entire working-class district, the sublimely photogenic Bunker Hill, erased in an "urban renewal" exercise.
Andersen's copious montage of clips - assembled with stunning rhythmic elegance by editor Yoo Seung-Hyun - is an exercise in reading images against the grain, in gleaning documentary material from fiction.
Moments from otherwise undistinguished films, stripped out and placed in new contexts, come to reveal unsuspected beauties and resonances.
One wonderful editing rhyme matches a figure leaping out of a window in the action movie Blade - which suddenly looks like a pop-poetry gem such as the Surrealists might have treasured - to a similar image from Wim Wenders' ropey Million Dollar Hotel, which gains a new raison d'être. A forgotten 1973 horror film, Messiah of Evil, yields what may be its only moment of grace, a strange balletic chase around a supermarket, while a supermarket scene from Frank Tashlin's The Disorderly Orderly decisively proves that the French were right all along about Jerry Lewis.
Running through Andersen's film, however, is a serious argument about the political and ideological underpinning of screen myth. The movies, Andersen argues, misrepresent, distort and remodel the city for their own purposes - quite literally, in that they play fast and loose with its topography ("Silly geography makes silly movies," Andersen complains, somewhat pedantically, but proves it with a clip from Death Wish 4). His observations on architecture at first seem merely droll, then uncover darker prejudices among film-makers: why do so many movie villains live in houses that are landmarks of avant-garde modernism? When we see Mel Gibson in Lethal Weapon 2 demolishing just such a house, we realise we're witnessing a concerted programme of militant philistinism.
Most provocatively of all, Andersen heretically takes issue with that milestone of Los Angeles "secret history" cinema, Chinatown. He reads it as a cynical lesson in defeatism, which teaches that the system is stacked and that it's therefore better not to ask, not to know, not to act: "Forget it Jake, it's Chinatown." He also dismantles the myth of the freeway city celebrated by writer Joan Didion: this image, he argues is profoundly elitist, simply writing out of existence - as Hollywood effectively has - the underprivileged, the non-whites, the pedestrians and bus riders: "Who knows the city? Only those who walk." In his final chapter, Andersen brings to light this obscured other Los Angeles, its populations and its cinema, highlighting an overlooked canon of neo-realism, embodied by black film-makers such as Charles Burnett and Haile Gerima and by a long-forgotten 1961 black-and-white film called The Exiles, about Los Angeles' Mexican immigrant population and the lost Bunker Hill. The film ends on an image of a Goodyear tyre factory, now in ruins. Who knew there were ever factories in Los Angeles, other than dream factories? That's just one of the truths, Andersen argues, that Hollywood has conspired to obscure. Los Angeles Plays Itself - three hours, but you'll barely notice the length - is an eye-opener, and the year's most provocative and entertaining documentary.