Home to Hollywood, sprawling metropolis Los Angeles is the most photographed city in the world. Thom Andersen’s equally sprawling, ambitious documentary uses this little factoid as a jumping off point to explore not only how filmmakers have portrayed the city over the decades (and their varying attitudes towards it), but also its distinct topography and societal and cultural climates.

Made up almost entirely of film clips and an incessant, dry voice-over narration (by Encke King, who sounds like a cross between Ross McElwee and Ben Stein), Anderson’s exceptionally personal labor of love covers a lot of ground. Like a spiderweb, the film densely strings together eras, genres and pieces of iconicity. It illustrates how architectural landmarks have reappeared in various guises, points out spatial distortions, and reveals places you won’t find anywhere else, like a stand-alone MacDonald’s used exclusively as a set, never open to the public (it looks normal enough, except for that ominous looking chain link fence surrounding it).

At nearly three hours, the film requires patience on the viewer’s part, and some passages are more enlightening than others. For instance, the film almost drags a little when it devotes excessive time to such well-known commodities as CHINATOWN and L.A. CONFIDENTIAL. But a chapter about the city’s minority-helmed neorealism movement is fascinating like a geological excavation: the section where Andersen delves into the lost neighborhood of Bunker Hill and the little-seen 1961 film THE EXILES makes for a striking contrast to the other views we’ve seen of Los Angeles up to that point.

Straightforward on the surface, LOS ANGELES PLAYS ITSELF ends up as complex as any large city’s infrastructure, smartly revealing layer after layer regarding what we choose to see and show in a film. I felt the weight of its length, but I could’ve easily watched it for another hour.