Supercut: Thom Andersen’s The Thoughts That Once We Had

thoughts that once we had-timothy carey

The Thoughts That Once We Had
Directed by Thom Andersen
June 3-12 at Anthology Film Archives

Though he shares with the so-called movie brats—his fellow baby-boomers and film-school grads—an appreciation of cinema history, Thom Andersen’s own project is lonelier and less familiar: cinema as history. Thus when an opening title card announces his latest feature as “a personal history of cinema,” it means, in addition to the obvious sense, personal history rendered from cinema.

Taking much the same form as Andersen’s best-known works, Red Hollywood (1996) and Los Angeles Plays Itself (2003), The Thoughts That Once We Had assembles and annotates clips from dozens of source films. While those predecessors were more centrally organized around a time (the Red Scare) or place (Los Angeles), Thoughts is more expansive, riffing on a series of concepts from French thinker Gilles Deleuze.

Its raw materials include the work of sainted auteurs (from Chaplin and Griffith to Hou and Jia) and Hollywood workhorses, with diversions into porn and propaganda, Patty Hearst and Cheech & Chong. In passing Andersen manages to squeeze in comments on longstanding preoccupations, including (but not limited to) modernist architecture, rock ‘n’ roll, and historical whitewashing. In this context the phrase “Marxist analysis” refers to Groucho no less than to Karl.

In contrast to the more didactic approach to critical theory found, for example, in Sophie Fiennes’s Pervert’s Guide films, Andersen’s end here is not to rehearse an argument but to submerge self-revelation into juxtaposition and association. He contemplates the mugs of Marlon Brando and supreme character actor Timothy Carey, names Debra Paget his favorite movie star, and he pleads the case of Hank Ballard, unheralded creator of the twist (offering a reproach, whether intentional or not, to Whit Stillman’s veneration of Chubby Checker in Damsels in Distress).

For years it seemed that Andersen’s earlier compilation features were condemned by rights issues to a kind of permanent marginality. Not only did both films receive a proper DVD release in 2014, but thanks to YouTube, their once-rarefied form has become commonplace. Andersen, who’s produced about as much work in the past ten years as he did in the preceding twenty, seems just to be picking up speed.

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