Art (both good and bad) often catches (intentionally or incidentally)—and so helps document (to varying degrees of accuracy)—details of the place and the time in which it is made.
This is as true of cinema as of the other arts: Movies, both good and bad, are always at least a little bit “about” the times and places in which they are written, designed, and edited. When the camera leaves the studio set and goes on location, movies are especially – if sometimes inadvertently – about when and where they are shot.
Cinema came into its own, as an art form and an industry, in the early 20th century—and during its first hundred years, its home was Los Angeles. As Evelyn Waugh wrote in 1947, after his brief Hollywood sojourn,
It is [the film technicians’] fault that the studios are […] 3,000 miles from the world’s theatrical centre in New York, 6,000 miles from the intellectual centres of London and Paris. They came here because in the early days they needed the sun. Now almost all photography is done by artificial light. The sun serves only to enervate and stultify. But by now the thing has become too heavy to move.
Binx Bolling, the moviegoer of Walker Percy’s The Moviegoer, describes “a phenomenon of moviegoing” that he calls “certification”:
Nowadays when a person lives somewhere, in a neighborhood, the place is not certified for him. More than likely he will live there sadly and the emptiness which is inside him will expand until it evacuates the entire neighborhood. But if he sees a movie which shows his very neighborhood, it becomes possible for him to live, for a time at least, as a person who is Somewhere and not Anywhere.
Binx, a 1950s New Orleanian, detects the excitement of a fellow New Orleanian as they watch a movie shot on location in New Orleans. 2010s Los Angeles, unlike 1950s New Orleans, has featured in movies for a century now–sometimes as an unnamed Anywhere; sometimes standing in for some other Somewhere; and, with increasing frequency from the 1940s onward, as its own kind of Somewhere, a sometimes haphazard, sometimes deliberate mix of representation and misrepresentation.
Recently, Meredith McCann wrote in this space about the changing rural landscape of Northern California. Movies, as an inadvertent consequence of the film industry’s concentration in Los Angeles, have ended up documenting the changing urban landscape of Southern California.
This insight—that watching movies carefully can reveal information about Los Angeles—forms the basis of Thom Andersen’s video essay Los Angeles Plays Itself, due for release on DVD and “all digital platforms” between September 30 and October 14. (I had the good fortune to catch a screening earlier this week.) “Documentary” is not quite the word for it, since it contains very little original footage: Most of its 170 minutes consist of selections from movies (old and new, good and bad) spliced to accompany narration written by CalArts instructor Andersen and delivered deadpan by fellow filmmaker Encke King. The effect is something like watching a highbrow, casually Leftist Mystery Science Theater 3000 marathon with extra-dry jokes. If that sounds good to you; if you think you can handle some fleeting violence, nudity, foul language, and movie-plot spoilers; if you enjoy this fairly representative clip (which does contain some movie spoilers); and if you have 170 minutes to spare (not necessarily all in one sitting), you might want to seek it out. It’s a very personal vision–not objective, not exhaustive, not magisterial, not always persuasive, but thoroughly researched and thoroughly interesting. (Also thorough is Sound on Sight‘s essay on Andersen’s video essay, available here for those who want to read more.)
Cities that have featured in literature for hundreds of years–Paris, London, New York–already have their own written analogues to the situation of Los Angeles on film. (And indeed, there are already plenty of literary Los Angeleses to read about.) Perhaps, in the future, as the amount of capital required to make a movie diminishes, and the industry disperses from its historic center in Los Angeles, other cities and regions will grow their own abundant crops of cinematic self-depictions. If so, consider Los Angeles Plays Itself a preview of coming attractions.
 Evelyn Waugh, “Why Hollywood is a Term of Disparagement,” in A Little Order, ed. Donat Gallagher (Boston: Little, Brown and Company, 1977), 36.
 Walker Percy, The Moviegoer (New York: Alfred Knopf, 1967), 63.