Los Angeles has been the subject of such derisive indictments – ”The Day of the Locust,” the bubble-brain-mecca satire of ”Annie Hall” – that you can accept, and even enjoy, the prickly defensive spirit that Thom Andersen summons in his fascinating and exhaustive movie-love documentary Los Angeles Plays Itself. This 2-hour-and-49-minute meditation on the ways that L.A. has been captured, distorted, and dressed up as a location by its most famous district, Hollywood, is a feast for film buffs, yet it’s staunchly idiosyncratic: It at once celebrates and protests the very act of turning the boulevards and stucco homes, the rococo landmarks and smoggy hills of Los Angeles into the stuff of fiction and even legend. Andersen worships his city so much that he yearns to see it represented – but never misrepresented. I think his attitude is prudish, even a bit loopy, yet maybe it took a cracked Los Angeles fetishist to make a chronicle of pop geography as obsessively entertaining as this one.
Andersen intercuts clips from sci-fi schlock and ’40s noir, ”Repo Man” and ”Rebel Without a Cause,” gay porn and ”Die Hard.” He then shows you the locations as they now appear, turning the entire palm-tree-and-concrete grid into a vérité Universal Studios tour. He captures how the flukiest modes of landscape, architecture, and design – the baroque tiers of the Bradbury Building, used for their decorous claustrophobia in films from the 1950 ”D.O.A.” to ”Blade Runner”; the chilly angular interiors of the city’s modernist homes, inevitably used as villains’ lairs – became iconic almost by accident. Gliding from the physical to the metaphysical, Andersen reveals how films like ”Chinatown” effectively remade the reality of Los Angeles, replacing history with myth in a way that now anchors the city more than that history itself does.