- The Washington Times - Friday, March 19, 2004

For movie devotees, the most intriguing title of the 12th annual Environmental Film Festival may be “Los Angeles Plays Itself,” an eccentrically argumentative documentary feature scheduled for today at 3 p.m. in the auditorium of the East Building of the National Gallery of Art.

This lavishly illustrated and idiosyncratic epic was compiled as a thesis project by Thom Anderson under the auspices of the California Institute for the Arts. A survey of Los Angeles as a location, a subject, a fixation and a myth, “Itself” incorporates images from so many pictures, both famous and obscure, from the silent period to the present, that it would take months to do justice to the inventory.

Mr. Anderson’s clips commence on the seamy side, with a burlesque house that attracted the late Samuel Fuller in “The Crimson Kimono.” Parents should be advised that the movie probably would merit an R rating if it entered commercial distribution. Mr. Anderson doesn’t neglect some porn byways of the last generation or so. Indeed, there’s a startling juncture in which he alludes to a “gay porn masterpiece” with the nearly identical title “L.A. Plays Itself,” circa 1972.

The organizing methods are sometimes chronological, sometimes impressionistic, sometimes topical. it could be argued that the movie suffers from recurrent spasms of thematic portentousness. Watching it in about three installments might be more prudent than a sustained sitting. Nevertheless, “Itself” proves so informative, provocative and downright obsessive that anyone with an abiding attachment to the subject would be somewhat diminished by overlooking Mr. Anderson’s scholarship and crankiness.

I was grateful for several reminders of forgotten movies. For example, the filmmaker’s admiration for an acclaimed semidocumentary feature of the late 1950s, Kent McKenzie’s “The Exiles,” which deals with an American Indian enclave in downtown Los Angeles, jogged dormant memories of its highbrow vogue at one time. The reputation wasn’t unjustified, and Mr. McKenzie’s early death was an imponderable loss to advocates of naturalism.

Mr. Anderson memorializes “The Exiles” as a last glimpse of a downtown neighborhood, Bunker Hill with its Angels’ Flight railway cars, also prominent in such Hollywood thrillers as Robert Siodmak’s “Criss Cross” and Robert Aldrich’s “Kiss Me Deadly.”

Given the sweep and inclusiveness of “Itself,” I was rather surprised by some omissions. It seems odd, for example, that a segment harping on public transportation fails to mention “Speed.” In an abiding and fitfully Marxist gripe about Hollywood’s failure to recognize the city’s non-glamorous and working populations, surely “Devil in a Blue Dress,” a conspicuous exception of recent years, merited a mention. A fascinating segment illustrating how easily Los Angeles can double for other locations might have been enhanced by citing “Seven” or “Ghost World,” which never identified their principal settings but appeared to evoke New York City and Northern California, respectively.

On the other hand, the titles, landmarks and themes that do agitate Mr. Anderson get a useful and diverting scrutiny. While dealing with such famous architectural sites as the Bradbury Building, the Ennis House and Union Station, he adroitly reminds us that all three were used by Ridley Scott in “Blade Runner.” As a kicker, he points out that the Bradbury is now the office of Internal Affairs, although it might be wittier to mention this during a sequence devoted to the depiction of the Los Angeles Police Department through the decades.

The movie also incorporates critical essays on a number of films: “Double Indemnity,” “Rebel Without a Cause,” “Chinatown,” “L.A. Confidential,” “Who Framed Roger Rabbit” and “Blade Runner.” There are amusing digs at such major names as Woody Allen and Robert Altman, plus some minor ones, such as film critic and historian David Thomson and the spoiled brat of independents, Henry Jaglom, deplored as the smug Los Angeles variation on Mr. Allen’s mocker from Manhattan.

To call “Los Angeles Plays Itself” a treasure trove for film nuts would be an understatement.

Among the festival selections to which I also have been alerted I can recommend “Monumental,” a biographical documentary about the late conservationist David Brower; “A Constructive Madness,” a flowery but revealing account of architect Frank Gehry during the decade that culminated in his Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao, Spain; and “Seas of Grass,” an episode for the PBS series “Journey to Planet Earth,” shot by the estimable Washington team of Marilyn and Hal Weiner. The latter impeccably links five far-flung locations in a scenic essay about the importance of preserving and restoring grasslands.

The Brower film incorporates a good deal of nature and wildlife footage exposed by the subject himself, in 8mm or 16mm Kodachrome, evidently when he was a youthful mountaineer and then later as the chief lobbyist of the Sierra Club, circa 1952-69. In addition to its unique documentary resources, the movie should be an invaluable historical primer for anyone who aspires to influence government policy, not to mention the government officials obliged to evaluate that influence.

EVENT: Environmental Film Festival

WHEN: Today through March 28

WHERE: Scores of participating museums, embassies, schools and other institutions

CONTENT: Approximately 100 documentary, fictional, animated and children’s films about environmental and cultural topics

ADMISSION: Most programs are free.

PHONE: 202/342-2564

WEB SITE: www.dcenvironmentalfilmfest.org

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