Thom Andersen presented his latest work The Thoughts That Once We Had at Courtisane to a packed auditorium where people were sitting down on the stairs. There have been many rumors leading up to the screening: that it was still unfinished, that he was originally going to show it at Cannes, that with it, he has surpassed his masterpiece Los Angeles Plays Itself (2003), and so on. Whispers occupied the air as the filmmaker himself seemed relaxed in his demeanour. He was seen hanging out at the bar at Sphinx cinema with his good friends Pedro Costa, Billy Woodberry and Barbara McCullough.
His introduction to the film was simple: it’s a film that had its birth in the class he teaches at CalArts. It was originally titled Great Moments in Cinema and that he had been inspired by the French philosopher Gilles Deleuze’s writings on cinema, specifically the ‘action-image’ and the ‘time-image’. Most of the audience had spent the previous two days watching his previous work, including his first noted work, Eadweard Muybridge: Zoopraxographer (1974). But no one had seen Los Angeles Plays Itself yet. It was to be screened the following day.
The film itself eschews Andersen’s signature use of the voice-over. Instead we are presented with a series of white-on-black inter-titles set in sharp sans-serif typefaces. It begins with a note, “All quotes are taken from the writings of Gilles Deleuze, unless otherwise stated” – this is followed by a series of film clips inter-cut with quotes from Deleuze and Andersen himself. One can sense his voice emerging right away – we had heard him speak before the film in his gentle, reluctant tone and that is what one can hear in the inter-titles. Andersen is our teacher here.
Filmmaker Magazine described the film at its Los Angeles premiere as nothing more than a YouTube supercut. Maybe, but why not? Andersen was making film essays much before YouTube was even born and when a filmmaker of his caliber works in this form; it is a piece of art. It is with astounding dexterity that Andersen juxtaposes and inter-cuts between moments in cinema history and draws connections where very few had soon any before. In the course of events we reach Deleuze’s theory of firstness, secondness and thirdness of image; Andersen demonstrates this by the use of extended comedic sequences of Harry Langdon, Laurel and Hardy and The Marx Brothers. The film slows down unnaturally, the insertion of these three sections seems out of place…or so one thinks until Andersen pulls the rug out from under our feet. Andersen throws us into an intense murder sequence from Masahiro Shinoda’s Pale Flower (1964). He proceeds to conclude that it is a moment in which all three states exist as one.
Another segment from the film which catches the audience off-guard is when Andersen starts indulging in his personal memories of cinema. He temporarily abandons Deleuze and we are treated to a seductive snake-charming dance by Debra Paget from Fritz Lang’s two-part Indian epic The Indian Tomb (1959). This is followed by a shock of porno-footage of naked women engaging with one another on a couch. At this point, one can feel Andersen trailing off the path he promised to walk us on. The film breaks free from the structure of a Deleuze class to a more free-form meandering through history. This segment in particular was divisive for audiences in the theatre. For me personally, it was a pleasure to let loose and follow Andersen through the images he presents.
I didn’t stay for the Q&A after the film. There are some things about the film that are not clear and that is how I’d like to keep them. I heard that Andersen was reluctant during the Q&A and even hinted to the mediator to call it a day. Outside, I overhead a woman bring up Debra Paget’s snake dance and call into question the film’s anti-feminist stance and even accused Andersen of it. No one seems to be able to fully like it or fully hate it for that matter. I can safely state that in either case, it is a film that one cannot be indifferent towards.
Coming Up: Excerpts from interviews with Basma Alsharif and Pedro Costa.