Remaining Gaps: Thom Andersen Discusses The Thoughts That Once We Had
The Thoughts That Once We Had (2015) takes the form of a conversation. The most recent feature by American filmmaker Thom Andersen unfolds as a running dialogue between him and the late French philosopher Gilles Deleuze, who wrote extensively about cinema. Throughout this new film, clips from older films are interwoven with lines of text that appear onscreen — some of which are direct quotations from Deleuze, and some of which are personal ruminations, responses, and elaborations from Andersen, who taught his two volumes on cinema for a quarter-century at the California Institute of the Arts (CalArts).
A few of Deleuze’s concepts are illustrated directly through images in Thoughts, which will receive its U.S. theatrical premiere run at Anthology Film Archives between June 3rd and June 12th. “The affection-image” (Deleuze’s characterization for views of the human face as it stands outside a film’s action to provide an emotional response) comes initially through D.W. Griffith and his actresses Lillian Gish and Mary Pickford — either one of who, suggests Andersen, might have been its pioneering performer. The affection-image is then rediscovered in Andersen’s film by Jean-Luc Godard, nearly fifty years later, first with Jean Seberg in Breathless (1959) and then over subsequent films with Anna Karina, Marina Vlady, Woody Allen, Molly Ringwald, and even himself. The illustration of the affection-image eventually extends outwards to encompass John Cassavetes’s work with Gena Rowlands and Pedro Costa’s with Vanda Duarte, in keeping with Deleuze’s spirit.
In his books The Movement-Image (1983) and The Time-Image (1985), Deleuze posits the cinema as a mechanism for conveying human thought. The thoughts that it contains and conveys (per the author) essentially existed in the form of direct forward motion prior to World War II and in increasingly fragmented form afterwards, as the medium self-consciously took up the functions both of representing and of preserving human memory. Film history, as a result, became a dialogue between spirits communicating across different eras.
The myriad films that Deleuze gives as examples of his arguments come primarily from the silent-era, classical, and modernist narrative cinemas of the United States and Western Europe. Andersen additionally includes clips in Thoughts from many documentary films, emphasizing Deleuze’s discussion of cinema’s ability to resurrect the past and figures that might otherwise be lost to history. For instance, an extended excerpt from Ron Mann’s documentary Twist (1992) presents an interview with singer-songwriter Hank Ballard, author of “The Twist,” who recalls with ironic cheer how his song became an all-time hit after it was stolen by American Bandstand host Dick Clark and cloned into a cover sung by Chubby Checker, a fellow black artist who was deemed to be more acceptable for white audiences. It is followed a few segments afterwards by a condensed recounting of Errol Morris’s The Thin Blue Line (1988), in which several scenes unfold to show how a Texas man confined to Death Row had been, in all likelihood, wrongly convicted of murder and deserving of having freedom returned to him — a restoration that Morris’s film eventually helped grant.
Thom Andersen’s films, on display in an extensive retrospective at Anthology accompanying Thoughts’s release, work to restore the past. They do so by actualizing and defending the work of groundbreaking artists and their subjects who were unjustly discarded by the political and economic systems within which they lived, and therefore unjustly forgotten or misremembered. Eadweard Muybridge, Zoopraxographer (1975), for instance, inventively animates still plates in sequential fashion to show how the photographer of its title challenged Victorian social mores while laying the ground for the modern cinema. Red Hollywood (1996, co-directed with Noël Burch) offers scenes from films involving blacklisted Hollywood artists to show how their much-derided aesthetics of social consciousness can offer still-relevant lessons about the need to recognize a common humanity. Juke – Passages from the Films of Spencer Williams (2015) argues for the merit of the six remaining films directed by a pioneering independent filmmaker of the 1940s through a poetically ordered sequence of clips that document the domestic lives and routines of Southern black American communities.
Los Angeles Plays Itself (2003) discusses the distortions in Hollywood’s perception of Los Angeles as a land of gentrification and gang violence before showing its impoverished communities within the context of a short-lived wave of American neorealist films made by directors that sought to show the run-down parts of the city whose residents’ daily struggles were ignored by the industry. A continuing awareness of ruins informs Reconversão (2012), a study of structures built by Portuguese architect Eduardo Souto de Moura, whose methods of transforming sites by building around remnants of preexisting structures mirrors Andersen’s approach to filmmaking. The torn-up billboards and memorial plaques marking torn-down cultural sites throughout Los Angeles that appear in Andersen’s self-proclaimed city symphony, Get Out of the Car (2010), show a place in transformation. They memorialize the past, and raise questions about the future.
With The Thoughts That Once We Had, Andersen gives a personal rendering of recent human history by gathering a community of voices onscreen – his own and Deleuze’s, alongside those of film characters, actors, filmmakers, theorists, singers and songwriters, writers, and poets, among others. A clip towards film’s end, from Jem Cohen’s Vienna-shot performance record Evening’s Civil Twilight in Empires of Tin (2008), shows the actor Bobby Sommer reading a portion of Joseph Roth’s novel The Radetzky March (1932), which relates an Austro-Hungarian family’s decline following the First World War:
Back then, before the Great War, it was not yet a matter of indifference whether a person lived or died. If a life was snuffed out from the host of the living, another life did not instantly replace it and make people forget the deceased. Instead, a gap remained where he had been, and both the near and distant witnesses of his demise fell silent whenever they saw this gap. If a fire devoured a house in a row of houses in a street, the charred site remained empty for a long time. For the bricklayers worked slowly and leisurely, and when the closest neighbors as well as casual passersby looked at the empty lot, they remembered the shape and walls of the vanished house. That was how things were back then. Anything that grew took its time growing, and anything that perished took a long time to be forgotten. But everything that had once existed left its traces, and people lived on memories just as they now live on the ability to forget quickly and emphatically.
Filmmaker: What’s your history with Deleuze?
Thom Andersen: I was working on a book of film theory when the first volume of his two books on cinema came out. There was a point of similarity between us with our mutual interest in Henri Bergson, a philosopher who’s important to discussions of cinema, and who offers a notion for a certain kind of illusion he called “the cinematographic mechanism of thought.” My treatment of this notion was fairly orthodox, while Deleuze’s was more paradoxical. For Deleuze, Bergson’s view is that the world is cinema, with nothing but images traveling through space over time. These images occasionally run into “centers of indetermination,” or beings with consciousness, at which point they change in nature.
I was initially hostile to Deleuze’s work, but of course I felt I had to read it. I ultimately thought that he had some quite interesting ideas, and I appreciated the generosity that he showed towards earlier film writers. He never had a quarrel with anyone writing before him — there was always something he found that was valid and that contributed to his own work (unlike here in the U.S., where David Bordwell can write an entire book refuting Noël Burch’s ideas despite his own ideas coming from Noël’s). I also appreciated Deleuze’s account of neorealism, which I used in discussing American independent films at the end of Los Angeles Plays Itself. Even with Red Hollywood, Deleuze helped give me the idea that there might have been a difference between the films of Hollywood Communists and Hollywood liberals, which was precisely the difference between what he deemed to be “naturalism” and “realism.”
People have noticed that The Thoughts That Once We Had deals relatively little with Deleuze’s second volume on cinema, The Time-Image. The passages in Thoughts discussing his idea of “movement of world,” with tracking shots from Bay of Angels (1963), Elevator to the Gallows (1958), and Millennium Mambo (2001), come from it, as does the last part of the film, beginning with the discussion of how “the craziness of conversation became the essence of American comedy,” exemplified by Rain or Shine (1930) and Ruggles of Red Gap (1935). But I always liked Deleuze’s first volume, The Movement-Image, more. It’s simpler reading, and I ultimately don’t agree with his assertion that the fundamental difference between the classic and the modern cinema is the replacement of the movement-image by the time-image. There is a certain truth to the claim, but I think that there were also more fundamental things happening.
Filmmaker: How did The Thoughts That Once We Had come to be?
Andersen: It is related to a class that I taught every two years or so at CalArts called “Deleuze and Cinema.” The class involved reading Gilles Deleuze’s books about cinema and looking at scenes from movies he wrote about, as well as scenes from some other movies that illustrate his ideas. The class was a filmmaking class about creating sounds and images, and a lot of what we discussed had to do with the systems of classification that Deleuze created, as well as with the history that’s in the books. A goal of mine was to suggest to students which parts of that history might be meaningful for them.
In 2013, Sonja Bertucci and Andrew Kim [two former CalArts students, the second of whom eventually edited Thoughts] recorded the class with the idea of preserving it, since I wasn’t intending to teach it anymore and thought that it could be made into an online course. CalArts eventually made clear its position that there wouldn’t be any money to reconstruct the whole class in audiovisual form, which meant that there was a record remaining, but no possibilities to put it into a form that would be useful to someone coming from outside the material.
I never thought of Thoughts as replacing that record, but I’m sure that the record was one of the inspirations for the film. Another came New Year’s Eve, 2013-2014, when Turner Classic Movies ran a marathon of the three films in the That’s Entertainment! series, along with That’s Dancing! (1985) and a few other films expressing similar ideas. These films proved to be something of a revelation to me. I never really knew the classical MGM musicals that well. Two numbers, involving Carmen Miranda in Nancy Goes to Rio (1950) and Fred Astaire in Yolanda and the Thief (1945), eventually ended up appearing in Thoughts.
So these are some reasons, but still, I don’t think that they’re sufficient. I think that I had the idea of putting together something that could be called Great Moments in the History of Cinema, and I worked on it until there eventually came a point where I thought, “Maybe this is a movie.” Initially it was going to be a fifteen-minute piece, but it kept growing until I also came to say, “Maybe this is a feature-length movie.” The structure became looser and less determined than the structures of many of my other movies. I sought to have kind of an open film, where people could make and see meanings in lots of different ways without my foreclosing those possibilities through interpretation.
I first showed The Thoughts That Once We Had publicly in early 2015 at CalArts and then revised it a lot before screening it again. Something like the first twenty screenings of the film were of preview versions that I changed afterwards. I finally decided that the film was done, although I realized that there were a couple of things I could change to improve it. Not things that are wrong with the film — just things that could make it better. I can forego those changes, though. It’s better just to think of the work as finished.
Filmmaker: How did you select the title The Thoughts That Once We Had?
Andersen: It’s poetic, which is good for titles, I think. I came to have the idea that it would be good to end the film with shots of people reading aloud, which arrive first by way of Bobby Sommer reading from Joseph Roth’s The Radetzky March in Evening’s Civil Twilight in Empires of Tin and the character of Lily Carver (played by Gaby Rodgers) in Kiss Me Deadly (1955) reading from a sonnet by Christina Rossetti that includes the title of my movie. I put these scenes in as a way of saying that reading is one of the most cinematic things you can present — this is maybe not exactly in Deleuze, but I think that it’s close to some of the things he writes.
These scenes seem to fall particularly close to expressing Deleuze’s claim that images are thoughts. There’s always a first time when we watch a movie, and when we watch it, thoughts are always awakened. To me, that’s kind of a one-time experience. The “we,” in this case, makes up everyone who’s gone to see a movie. You can say that the whole movie that I’ve made is a series of thoughts that begin in the past, that we’ve experienced before. So it is a matter of presenting the thoughts that once we had.
Filmmaker: Do you consider the film to be autobiographical?
Andersen: Only in the sense that it’s composed primarily of moments from other films that I remembered. There aren’t any images in Thoughts that I don’t cherish. I really did try to put together moments that were important to me — they’re all scenes that I continued to remember after I first saw them.
You could say that the film goes back to my origins as a film viewer, and also as a filmmaker. It is largely an intuitive work, such that for a while I didn’t really understand it as a movie. (I’m not sure that I do now, but at least I know more.) There is something in it of references to other movies that I’ve made. The lesbian scene at the Sheats Goldstein Residence from Unleashed (1996) was something that I felt was left over from Los Angeles Plays Itself, for example. That’s one of the modernist houses that appears in Los Angeles Plays Itself – it’s the house owned by Jackie Treehorn (played by Ben Gazzara) in The Big Lebowski (1998) as well as a location for a number of other Hollywood films – and I only read after Los Angeles Plays Itself was finished that it had also appeared in this kind of porn film.
There are other examples. The Rolling Stones concert footage from Charlie is My Darling (1966), which appears in Thoughts right after Unleashed does, could have appeared in my early short film — ——- (aka The Rock ‘n’ Roll Movie) (1967). There’s overlap with Red Hollywood through Deleuze’s notion of “the final agony of the action image,” even though I don’t include his examples in my presentation of it. The materialist-historical dimension of Thoughts has to do with Red Hollywood as well, particularly a long sequence beginning with the siege of Leningrad (taken from Sergei Loznitsa’s Blockade ) that goes up through footage of Maurice Chevalier and the liberation of Paris (from The Sorrow and the Pity ). There are similarities in the discussions of politics and recent history that take place in both films.
Filmmaker: How do the politics in Thoughts differ from Deleuze’s politics?
Andersen: Throughout the film, there are images that go beyond Deleuze. Some sections of Thoughts could only have existed because of him, like the section discussing comedy through the different examples of Harry Langdon, Laurel and Hardy, and the Marx Brothers. There were other scenes in which I generated the images first and then figured out to which parts of Deleuze’s work they corresponded, if they did at all.
The film’s ending is partly Deleuze and partly me — I intervene with my own ideas. The early sequences from documentary films dealing with the tragedies of Stalingrad, Leningrad, Hiroshima, Vietnam, and North Korea represent something else altogether. I know that I wanted to put in the bombing of North Korea because I felt that it was something that most people don’t know about. Those images are the lowest-quality registers in my movie — Korea: The Unknown War (1988) was a movie that was shown once on PBS and that hasn’t made another appearance since then. It’s not on DVD, so I borrowed the same images from a North Korean film about the war that I found on a degraded VHS tape.
I came to feel at a certain point in making Thoughts that it was a response not only to Deleuze, but also to Godard’s Histoire(s) du Cinéma (1998). I love Godard’s movie (some parts more than others), but there’s a certain provincialism in his history. It’s very Eurocentric. I live in a city located on the Pacific Rim of the United States, where the so-called West is east and the so-called East is west. For a long time there have been a lot of Japanese, Korean, and Filipino people living here. The recent historical calamities in East and Southeast Asia hold more meaning to us than to Godard, whose references are to the European War and to the Holocaust.
Another difference between my movie and Godard’s is that while Godard’s work is kind of melancholy, mine is optimistic. My title isn’t a reference to the end of cinema, even if it can be interpreted that way. The notion of cinema failing or ending or being in need of resurrection seems to me to be a false idea.
In terms of similarities, I can say that both of our movies are closer to being poetry than to being prose, which isn’t true for most of my movies. Los Angeles Plays Itself is a prose work, for example. The exceptions would be my early short films and maybe Juke – Passages from the Films of Spencer Williams. There’s a certain political program to Get Out of the Car, but that film is primarily made up of shots that I included because I liked what they were showing, except of course for the signs announcing torn-down landmarks and closed-down gardens.
Filmmaker: Your films, including both Get Out of the Car and The Thoughts That Once We Had, express a strong attraction to pop music. Why?
Andersen: Quite a few of us are affected by pop music. You can see this in the importance that the newspapers gave the deaths of Prince and David Bowie. It’s part of a common culture, in many different ways. I see the Rolling Stones footage in Thoughts as being an extension of 1940s musical comedy. The story of the relatively obscure and forgotten musician Hank Ballard and the far more popular star Chubby Checker both performing “The Twist” to different receptions doesn’t only illustrate Deleuze’s idea of “a very slight difference in the action leading to a very great difference between two situations.” It’s also an important and emblematic example of the ways in which black culture gets stolen and watered down in the United States.
The two movies in Thoughts that contain scenes of someone listening to a blues record – Ghost World (2001) and Le Havre (2011) – are two of the most utopian movies of recent years. The thought of listening to old Delta Blues as a way of entering utopia was something that I found inspiring.
Filmmaker: How would you characterize the recent directions that your films have taken?
Andersen: It’s funny. This last bunch of movies, beginning with Los Angeles Plays Itself, came into existence because they were the only kinds of movies that I could afford to make. They weren’t the movies that I wanted to make. I’ve had lots of ideas that involve crew members, time spent shooting on location, and other more expensive components than the ones involved in how I’ve largely been working. So it is ultimately kind of an economic accident that these movies based on film clips exist as they do.
The short The Tony Longo Trilogy (2014) first entered my mind while I was remastering Los Angeles Plays Itself, when I noticed a subplot involving a supporting character in the movie The Takeover (1995) that was more interesting than the main plot. I became curious about the late actor Tony Longo, who was appealing and vulnerable even as a hit man in Hollywood action movies, and I ended up making a trilogy about him involving three of his film roles.
Juke – Passages from the Films of Spencer Williams was a film that I had had in mind for a long time. One day I happened to be talking with the Museum of Modern Art film curator Josh Siegel, who mentioned that MoMA was doing a program of black independent films to accompany an exhibition of Great Migration paintings by Jacob Lawrence. He asked if I had any ideas for films to show, and I didn’t, but I had my idea for a film about the works of the director Spencer Williams, who documented black middle-class life in central Texas in the 1940s. Josh was able to commission Juke for the series, and I think that I was able to make Thoughts with this money as well.
I had said that I was never going to make another film from film clips, but you should never say never. I wasn’t anticipating either of my recent shorts, California Sun (2015) or A Train Arrives at the Station (2016). The first began with the band Farmingdale Sound Machine’s cover of the Rivieras’ song “California Sun.” The band had made a music video for it using clips from Los Angeles Plays Itself. So why couldn’t I propose a video with clips from other films? I thought that it would be interesting to use clips from California movies – not all Los Angeles movies, but also some set in San Francisco – and to make something in which the relationships between images and sounds would be evident, with a little oddity arising here and there. I like it. My little movie gives the lie to the legend that Annette Funicello never bared her navel in those beach party movies of the late 1950s and early 1960s.
I’ve written a statement for screenings of A Train Arrives at the Station, which reads: “This film was a gift to me. I make no claims for it, nor do I offer any apologies. It comes from work on The Thoughts That Once We Had. There was one shot we had to cut whose loss I particularly regretted. It was a shot of a train pulling into Tokyo Station from Ozu’s The Only Son (1936). So I decided to make a film around this shot, an anthology of train arrivals. It comprises 26 scenes or shots from movies, 1904-2015. It has a simple serial structure: each black & white sequence in the first half rhymes with a color sequence in the second half. Thus the first shot and the final shot show trains arriving at stations in Japan from a low camera height. In the first shot (The Only Son), the train moves toward the right; in the last shot, it moves toward the left. A bullet train has replaced a steam locomotive. So after all these years, I’ve made another structural film, although that was not my original intention.”
Filmmaker: Where are you now in your work?
Andersen: I do think right now that I’m done with this stuff. I have two books to do, so I don’t have to think about films for a while. Then I’ll try to make some of the other films that have been in my thoughts for the past fifteen years.
More information about the film The Thoughts That Once We Had can be found through the website of the distributor Grasshopper Film (http://grasshopperfilm.com/film/thoughts/). More information about the Anthology Film Archives series “The Films of Thom Andersen,” running June 3rd-June 12th, can be found at http://anthologyfilmarchives.org/film_screenings/series/45881.
Aaron Cutler and Mariana Shellard are São Paulo-based film programmers who have curated a series of films directed by Thom Andersen and some of his collaborators that will take place at the Centro Cultural São Paulo July 8th-17th.