I recently watched two excellent documentaries, FREE TO PLAY and LOS ANGELES PLAYS ITSELF. Both are unapologetically subjective, designed to serve specific agendas, yet they also deal with universal issues. Both have unusual production histories: FREE TO PLAY is the first film by Valve, the legendary video game studio, and is available free on YouTube and Steam; LOS ANGELES PLAYS ITSELF was put together by film teacher Thom Andersen as an extension of his lectures, and has never been widely distributed.
FREE TO PLAY is a film about an esports game called DOTA 2. It follows three competitors in the 2011 DOTA 2 tournament which was, at that point, the largest and most lucrative esports tournament ever hold. The game just so happens to be made by Valve, who also sponsored the tournament, who also made this documentary. Ostensibly born out of Valve’s postmodern, laissez-faire, make-your-own-project workplace policy, it’s pretty clear this film has an agenda: bring validation to esports in general and DOTA 2 in particular, thereby enlarging the profile and player base of Valve’s multi-million dollar baby.
Agenda or not, it’s a great film. The editing is breathless, airtight, playing the audience’s emotions like a harp. It brings up every objection a non-gaming civilian might make to esports (it’s for nerds, it’s not a real sport, why don’t you get a real job, you’re missing out on life), quite deliberately, and throws them in the faces of its three characters, forcing them to confront their true fears and desires. It goes deep into the backstory of its characters, imbuing each match with emotional significance.
There are so many ways this could have gone wrong. It could have been a slick, cynical advertisement (okay, it’s still a slick advertisement, but it’s not cynical). It could have been a dryly objective recap of every game and bracket, alienating those not in the know about DOTA 2. It could have focused on the members of a single five-person team and their relationship to each other, which would have been fine but lacking the emotional depth of the three-protagonist approach.
The interesting thing is, for all we know Valve may have tried these other approaches. This film grew out of the same rigorous, highly structured testing environment that also produces Valve’s video games. Valve famously subjects its games to years of outsourced testing, in which civilians with different levels of gaming experience are closely monitored while playing the games; their emotional reaction to every joke or set-piece is recorded and examined for the programmers’ benefit. Ever wonder why the learning curve of Portal 2 was so perfectly smooth — why it always took you the same amount of time to discern the answer to each room’s puzzle? Focus testing, that’s why.
We don’t know exactly how Valve tested FREE TO PLAY, but remember that the tournament it depicts took place in 2011. This film has gone through three years of (presumably expensive) post-production. Does it manage its audience’s expectations so well because Valve used a battery of beta testers to triangulate the perfect pace of every sequence, the optimal length of every shot? If so, does that make it a new kind of film, one which we should probably be paying more attention to?
Film teacher and documentarian Thom Andersen’s masterpiece, LOS ANGELES PLAYS ITSELF is the story of the city of Los Angeles on film, as told through hundreds of clips from Hollywood movies stretching all the way back to the 1920s. At nearly three hours long, it’s a monumental, almost overwhelming study of cinematic history, but I guarantee you won’t be bored at any point during those three hours. I want to tell every person making a film in Los Angeles to watch this. Hell, everyone thinking of moving to Los Angeles should watch this.
LOS ANGELES PLAYS ITSELF has an axe to grind. Early in the film, Andersen (or his narrative voiceover, at least) deliberately places himself outside the Hollywood filmmaking apparatus. Only one in forty people in Los Angeles, he tells us, are involved in the movie industry; “the rest of us” are just trying to get by. By identifying himself as a citizen of Los Angeles rather than a filmmaker, Andersen adopts a kind of antagonistic stance towards movies and the warped realities they portray.
It’s a genius move. By freeing himself of the burden of having to celebrate the importance of every “landmark” or “classic”, Andersen is free to take aim at the hypocrisy he sees in the movies. CHINATOWN is hauled over the coals for its dishonest portrayal of history and its propagation of urban legends about Los Angeles’ water system. L.A. CONFIDENTIAL is bashed for its cynicism, and also for downplaying the level of police corruption in the 1950s! Andersen even sees the nickname “L.A.” as a kind of derogatory term popularized by Hollywood; “only a town with an inferiority complex” would call itself by such a name.
The film saves its greatest anger for “condescension”. Andersen refers to foreign directors (those not born in Los Angeles) as “tourists”, and identifies the condescension (whether through laziness, symbolism or geographical looseness) in their work. Hilariously, Joel Silver is decried as an architecture snob. Andersen has particular distaste for Hollywood’s habit of identifying beautiful modernist houses as dens of decadence, corruption and violence.
There’s a deep streak of social justice running through the narration. It brutalizes certain rich, white myths about Los Angeles, for example that “Downtown is deserted”, and “nobody takes the bus or walks”, then backs up its anger with an examination of street-level indie films by black filmmakers. In a fascinating digression, Andersen tells us why he hates the Hollywood Walk of Fame: because none of the victims of HUAC are on there, but the stars of their accusers are. Cut to a shot of Elia Kazan’s star.
You will learn so, so much from this film. Sure, you probably already know about the production history of famous landmarks like the Bradbury Building and the Ennis House. But I bet you didn’t know about the slow, systematic destruction of the vertical neighborhood of Bunker Hill, or its depiction in Charlton Heston’s THE OMEGA MAN. I bet you weren’t aware that the car chases in the original 1974 GONE IN 60 SECONDS are one hundred percent geographically accurate. And you’ll be surprised that a documentary with so much rancor for Hollywood can remind you just how beautiful and socially important films can be.
FREE TO PLAY is available to watch now on YouTube. LOS ANGELES PLAYS ITSELF is also available on the internet, if you know where to look.