Thursday, November 13, 2008

Los Angeles Plays Itself and Urban Growth (Decay)

As I alluded in an earlier post, a fellow blogger had read my Produced and Abandoned post and took pity on my lack of seeing Thom Anderson's "Los Angeles Plays Itself". A week later, I devoured the three hour documentary and confidently scratched it off my list. Now, 11 more to go. But not before I say a few words about this film. Was it worth the wait? Absolutely. Not only is "Los Angeles Plays Itself" a cinematic treasure that demands to see larger audiences, but any film that can surface a rarity like Kent Mackenzie's 1961 independent film "The Exiles" and help bolster it into an actual 2008 release deserves utter reverence.

Still, as a visual representation of one city's transformation from dust bowl to the excess capital that it's become today, "Los Angeles Plays Itself" has no peers. A few have tried, but Anderson's dry commentary and affinity for the city as it was and used to be is downright infectious. I've only been to Los Angeles once (I'll now always say Los Angeles since the film makes a damning indictment of reducing the sprawling place to initials as cheap as L.A.), but after watching this film, I too wished that the section known as Bunker Hill still existed. And I took a small victory away. After peppering his documentary with dozens of film clips that expose the architecture, history and recognizable facade of Los Angeles, I'd seen all but a handful.

The most resounding effect of "Los Angeles Plays Itself", though, lies in the way it caused me to assess the urban growth- and eventual decay- of my own city. Founded in the 1840's, Dallas hit its economic boom around the turn of the century with the formation of the "5 cities" (now East Dallas, Dallas, Oak Cliff, West Dallas aka the slums and Uptown). Today, Dallas is regarded as the most plastic city in Texas. Like Los Angeles, Dallas seems to hold onto very little of its history. Even legendary parts of the city such as Deep Ellum, where legendary bluesman Robert Johnson played his earth-shattering original sound, is in deep commercial/artistic/population meltdown. The very building he recorded some of his songs in isn't even granted a historical marker, instead giving shelter to rats and the homeless. In fact, pretty much all of the city's history- whether its architecture or not- serves as little more than a bargaining chip for real estate brokers to buy cheaply and tear down so they can make way for the new W Hotel or that new billion dollar convention center. The only real difference between Los Angeles and Dallas is that we don't have the celluloid proof to remind us of what used to be there.

I've recently finished reading Warren Leslie's excellent book, entitled "Dallas Public and Private". Leslie, a journalist from New York, documented the comings-and-goings in and around Dallas as a reporter for the Dallas Morning News. His outsider POV, plus the book's untimely release after the darkest day in my city's history (think November 22, 1963) reveal a bustling, energetic and ultimately self-conscious province of land that seemed to take itself seriously. Somewhere along the way, Dallas has lost that sense of time and place and cashed those beliefs in for the latest and greatest concrete marvels. If nothing else, "Dallas Public and Private" is a great time capsule read that makes one wonder "gee, that would be great if it still existed". One of my daily reads, the invaluable "Dallas Observer" blog Unfair Park, certainly realizes this as they routinely update readers of the latest city hall corruption scandal, long-time favorite eateries closing their doors, or city council meetings designated to 'discuss' decrepit sections of the city and its future. I know Robert Wilonsky and crew don't mean it to sound this way, but one could cite "Unfair Park" as a moratorium of the city. I suppose recognizing that one's history is slipping away is yet another way to fight it?

So, not the happiest of posts here, but it's pretty rare that a film stirs up the civil clarity of the mind. If anything, "Los Angeles Plays Itself" is a microcosm for -insert your own city name here-. If only we all had documentaries like this to shed light on the destructive pretenses of growth and renewal.

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