Vancouver plays itself

One of the most intriguing films I have seen in recent years is Los Angeles Plays Itself, Thom Anderson’s nearly three-hour exploration of how films have inadvertently documented the evolution of that city over the past century, and how films have distorted the true history and geography of the city through carelessness, indifference or a yen for conspiracy theories.

In anticipation of the film’s return to the Pacific Cinematheque next week, here is the blurb I wrote when I saw it at the local film festival in September 2003:

Then came Los Angeles Plays Itself (USA, 169 min.), an essay on how Hollywood has portrayed the city that it sort-of calls home. I’m a big sucker for any film that consists almost entirely of clips from other movies, and it was fascinating to see the same architecture used over and over again across the decades (the interior of one large and spacious building has appeared in the 1950s B-movie classic D.O.A., Blade Runner, the 1990s Jack Nicholson film Wolf, and several others). I also appreciated the deeper social, historical and philosophical elements that director Thom Anderson explored, and [narrator Encke King's] sardonic delivery certainly keeps things entertaining. But I find some of his theories rather dubious. Does anyone really believe that Los Angeles has an “inferiority complex” about itself just because the people who live there refer to it as “L.A.” and not “Los Angeles”? (The film’s very title, in fact, is a variation on the gay porn film L.A. Plays Itself.) Nearly everyone I know calls my home province “B.C.” and not “British Columbia”, and we’re quite proud of the place. His occasional use of phrases like “incremental genocide” also sounds too politically charged to me, too. And I don’t think Los Angeles itself is being particularly slighted when filmmakers get creative with the city’s geography during car chases and the like — the same could be said of just about any city that has appeared in a film. (I remember a friend of mine in New York saying how much fun it was to watch Darren Aronofsky’s Pi and see how a chase that began in one train station continued in another, etc.) But I greatly value the way Anderson shows how films like Chinatown, Who Framed Roger Rabbit? and L.A. Confidential have fed a cynical, complacent mentality by portraying the history of Los Angeles as a history of conspiracies, when in fact many of the historical incidents depicted or alluded to in these films — the building of dams and freeways, etc. — were all done in the open, often as the result of a public vote after politicians had begun smearing each other in order to tip popular sentiment one way or the other. Some of Anderson’s arguments regarding modernist architecture, and the way these buildings were designed with utopian ideals in mind but are frequently depicted as dens of evil, are also intriguing, even if I don’t share his modernism.

I mention this here partly because I just came home from catching another program at the ‘theque, namely the Terminal City Film Festival, named after a local underground newspaper and one of this city’s nicknames. (Vancouver was created in the 1880s partly as a western terminus for the Canadian Pacific Railway.)

And the major attractions at this festival, for me at least, were a couple of films made here in the early ’80s that indirectly capture what this city was like before Expo 86 put this town on the international map, and before The X-Files and numerous other productions turned this town into “Hollywood North”.

Out of the Blue (1980) was the third movie directed by Dennis Hopper, who co-stars as a deadbeat dad who has spent the past several years in prison for driving his truck through a schoolbus filled with kids. But the real star of the show is Linda Manz as Hopper’s daughter Cebe, who worships punk music, thinks disco sucks, resents her drug-addicted mother’s boyfriends, acts rather rebelliously, and ultimately takes very drastic action when her father is released from prison and things at home don’t turn out quite as positively as she would have liked. Local boy Raymond Burr also has a small role as a counselor who isn’t sure what to do about Cebe.

While I can’t recall where the film is set, exactly, there are some stunning images of Vancouver as it once was, and in some ways still is. Cebe hangs out for a while in the Downtown Eastside, which now has a reputation for being one of the poorest neighbourhoods in all of Canada — were things much different a quarter-century ago, I wonder? — and Hopper actually allows one would-be sidewalk Elvis impersonator to walk right up to the camera and look into it once he has finished his spiel; moments like this make the film feel more like a documentary than a fictional movie.

There is another scene of Cebe and her friends walking past hookers and brawling toughs, in front of the all-glass Bank of Montreal building on Burrard Street, and I wished the scene had not been shot at night, so that we could have had a better look at what that neighbourhood looked like before the Burrard SkyTrain Station was built there. (I suspect the hookers were actors or at least not indigenous to that neighbourhood, since when I was a wee lad, I can remember hearing about prostitution problems on Davie Street, which is down at the other end of Burrard.)

Even better, there is a scene of Cebe and her friends watching a movie from the balcony of the Ridge Theatre — and when they go to leave the theatre, Cebe slides down the bannister, and the camera points down the staircase and we can see the back of the box office, the glass doors, and the mirrors on the wall, all of which look pretty much like they do today. Fascinating.

Then, tonight, Ladies and Gentlemen, the Fabulous Stains (1981), which is in some ways a clichéd story about a girls’ punk band that rebels against the system, becomes popular, is exploited by crafty adults, and then collapses under the weight of its own sell-out. However, I am not all that familiar with the rock-band genre, and I wonder if this narrative arc was as common then as it has become since.

At any rate, possibly because the story is about an American tour, there aren’t all that many recognizable glimpses of Vancouver in this one — just a mood that feels right for that era and area. But the audience did get a big kick out of seeing that one of the first venues the Stains play happens to be the Penthouse, now (and perhaps then?) a strip club downtown, and a significant part of the story was filmed in and around the Coquitlam Centre shopping mall, which is represented here mostly by its empty parking lot.

The thing that really catches your eye in this film is the abundance of young actors who have since become more famous for their more mature roles. Two of the Stains are played by Diane Lane (The Perfect Storm, Unfaithful) and Laura Dern (Jurassic Park, We Don’t Live Here Anymore), both of whom were just teens at the time; and Lane’s love interest is played by Ray Winstone, who has worked consistently since then in his native Britain but didn’t really wend his way back into North American theatres until he played an abusive husband and an incestuous father in Nil by Mouth and The War Zone, respectively, in the late ’90s; since then, he may be best known for Sexy Beast (my review) and King Arthur, and he is also providing the voice of Mr Beaver in the upcoming Narnia movie. (FWIW, his character sings in a band that includes musicians played by former Sex Pistols Paul Cook and Steve Jones.) Oh, and Star Trek: The Next Generation‘s Brent Spiner appears briefly as a guy firing Lane from her job!

Anyway, it’s an interesting film, with some amusing satire and a couple of really cool songs. And one can only hope it will be released on video some day. (Has it ever ever been available?)

About Peter T. Chattaway

Peter T. Chattaway was the regular film critic for BC Christian News from 1992 to 2011. In addition to his film column, which won multiple awards from the Evangelical Press Association, the Canadian Church Press and the Fellowship of Christian Newspapers, his news and opinion pieces have appeared in such publications as Books & Culture, Christianity Today, Bible Review and the Vancouver Sun. He also contributed essays to the books Re-Viewing The Passion: Mel Gibson’s Film and Its Critics (Palgrave Macmillan, 2004) and Scandalizing Jesus?: Kazantzakis’s The Last Temptation of Christ Fifty Years on (Continuum, 2005).


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