Last week A. told me that we needed to watch Thom Anderson’s Los Angeles Plays Itself. She also told me a funny story, told to her by the person who recommended the movie. Because the movie stitches together clips from about fifty films shot in Los Angeles, the film could only be shown for a time if Mr. Anderson was sitting in the theater. His presence ensured that the film was being played for private reasons, and not public – profit making – ones. Since I was able to download the film from Youtube without inviting Thom Anderson over to our place to see it, presumably the fair use issues have been resolved.
That is all to the profit of the films that are sampled in the film. Anderson has an eye for a stunning sequence; especially when the sequence involves some Los Angeles site. In fact, the sequences far outweigh many of the films. I doubt that there are many fans of Messiah of Evil, a 1973 zombie film, but the sequences Anderson pulled from that film – of a gas station and a grocery store – are filled with a menace that zombies, however creative the makeup department, just can’t match. They have an astounding photogenic power.
This poses a bit of a question, especially pertinent to a medium, like film, that is a collective product: what are we watching these things for? While I could, presumably, find beautiful lines and extract them from an otherwise bad novel and read them for themselves, this goes against how we read novels (and is one of the reasons that reviewers cherrypicking good lines from novels always end up looking foolish). It is rare that the lines overshadow the novel – which is why Wilde found it so hard to write a novel. Perhaps Ronald Firbank, whose novels are full of cardboard characters and preposterous settings, is a novelist who one still reads for the lines.
Movies are different. They are immanently visual; they are immanently sampleable.
Los Angeles plays Itself pulls out of Die Hard, for instance, all you need to see of that movie – all 20 seconds of it.
This structural property has an economic correlate. A novelist rarely “spends more” on chapter one than on chapter 20. Maybe some research goes into chapter 20, but basically we are talking about time, a computer or typewriter, printing the thing out, a pen.
This isn’t true of movies. Certain sequences are expensive, and certain sequences aren’t. This has an effect: the way a blockbuster film builds to its spectacular sequences is reflected in the books kept by the accountant. Spectacle and stars’ salaries have a great, magnetic power over the film as a whole. This doesn’t mean the spectacular sequences annul the cheaper sequences, or that the sequences without the star are annulled by the star’s appearance. What it does mean is that the movie audience comes to the film to see the expensive parts. That is what they are paying for.
Of course, this principle isn’t true of every film that comes out of Hollywood or Bollywood or wherever. But what distinguishes the blockbuster is the adjustment of the cheap parts to the expensive parts.
Contrast this with a film like, say, McCabe and Mrs. Miller, to choose one off the top of my head. Altman’s famous presentation of the hesitations and overflow of everyday speech is paralleled by a pictorial care to show rain, snow, forest, candlelight, even the star’s face and figure, in reference to the whole visual library of Western art. McCabe being hunted in the snow and Brueghel’s painting of Hunters in a winter landscape exist on the same plane. It is this respect for pictorality that makes the Altman film not that much different, in spirit, from the classic westerns. Or from Jean Leterrier’s Roi San divertissement, which also made much of the snowy wilds of Giono’s story.
Myself, I am too often mislead, or rather fascinated, in movies, by the script. I was raised by network television, a medium in which the script was everything, and so loosening up and seeing a movie is an exercise for me. Los Angeles plays itself, in spite of the voiceover by the director, who has a sarcastic, stuffed up voice, loosened me up.