Turn me out and I’ll wander, baby
Stumbling in the neon groves.
The Doors, “Soul Kitchen”, 1966
It’s normally a sign of laziness and/or sloppiness if a film festival schedules the same movie two years in a row, but the fact that Thom Andersen’s Los Angeles Plays Itself (2004) was shown in Vienna during consecutive Viennales was surely a cause for celebration rather than criticism. Technically speaking, of course, neither screening was part of the Viennale per se: whereas the Viennale “proper” (under the leadership of Hans Hurch) occupies 13 days towards the end of each October, the Austrian Filmmuseum (head honcho: Alex Horwath) always stages a month-long “joint retrospective” providing a separate, equal and parallel program which invariably proves catnip for Viennale-attending public and professionals alike.
In 2007, Jean-Pierre Gorin curated “The Way of the Termite”, a Manny Farber-inspired selection of essayistic cinema whose highlights included his own, inexplicably under-appreciated masterpiece Routine Pleasures (1986), Patrick Keiller’s peerless Robinson In Space (1996) and Los Angeles Plays Itself. The latter, one of the most remarkable pictures of the present decade, is a 169-minute portrait of Los Angeles told through clips from the films shot there over the last century: from Chinatown and Point Blank to The Exiles and Bush Mama to A Passion To Kill and Dead Homiez.
It was therefore an inspired — and entirely logical — step for Andersen then to assemble a selection of these works for this year’s parallel-programme at the Filmmuseum: as the Viennale’s official website puts it: “With the Retrospective, Andersen expands on his film’s approach: due to his detailed knowledge of the city, its history and its film cultures, he creates a fascinating portrait of the real Los Angeles, oscillating between film noir and the avant-garde, Academy-Award winning classics and the gay underground, critical film essays and roaring genre flicks, slapstick comedies and rock music.”
Watching Andersen’s programmes (as my jury duties allowed) was an unusual cinematic experience, as it involved seeing each film on two separate levels: watching the work for its own intrinsic merits (the most satisfying of the features I caught: H B Halicki’s sui generis 1974 rock-the-house smash-em-up Gone In 60 Seconds), and also for the glimpses afforded of actual Los Angeles locations over the years. Thus even a film as objectively “deficient” as B L Norton’s Cisco Pike — a somewhat blatant attempt to cash in, Easy Rider style, on the youth drug culture of its era, featuring a meanderingly paceless plot and a charisma-bypass lead performance from a very young Kris Kristofferson — becomes a fascinating opportunity to glimpse certain key Los Angeles locales as they looked around 1971/2.
Chief among these is the legendary Santa Monica diner Olivia’s Place, where Kristofferson’s drug-pushing, folk-strumming protagonist meets a pimp-tastic Antonio Fargas (a performer who, like pretty much everyone else in the picture, effortlessly acts the hapless lead off the screen). Indeed, one rather longs for the option to erase Kristofferson from the screen altogether — like the birds in video-artist Martijn Hendricks’ Give Us This Day Our Daily Terror (Hitchcock’s The Birds sans feathered friends) so as better to savour the Angeleno street-scenes, architecture, store-fronts and general atmosphere.
In a rather neat coup of programming, Andersen preceded Cisco Pike with his own short Olivia’s Place, a rather wonderful six-minute short from 1966 in which footage shot at the diner (“On Sunday, January 16, 1966, we shot 200 feet of 16mm Kodak Ektachrome MS film, type 7256, at Olivia’s Place, 2618 Main Street, Santa Monica, California” — opening title-card) is accompanied, jukebox-style, by the full recording of Big Jay McNeely’s “There Is Something On Your Mind”.
As Morgan Fisher put it, in a quotation that to some degree also applies to the Filmmuseum (Alex’s Place) and the Viennale (Hans’s Place), “Olivia’s Place was an expression of one woman’s sensibility. Olivia knew what she liked, she knew what suited her and what suited her customers, and her customers reciprocated by being loyal customers. When things are the way you want them, there is no need to change.”
Olivia’s Place was demolished in 1973.