'The Thoughts That Once We Had': Film Review

Thom Andersen's latest finds the L.A.-based academic and filmmaker grappling with the portrayal of history in 20th-century cinema

On the basis of his wonderful 2003 (and recently restored and upgraded) documentary Los Angeles Plays Itself, about the city's role in movies, it's clear that Thom Andersen has enough to say about the cinema without dragging a French philosopher into the equation. The L.A.-based academic may have been motivated to make the poetically titled The Thoughts That Once We Had by the writings of Gilles Deleuze, but he has also let the late French theoretician muddy the waters of this simultaneously beguiling and frustrating film essay, which attempts to address the portrayal of history in the 20th century's key art form. Composed entirely of clips and shorn of any narration, the work has an insular and insiderish nature that will limit its exposure mostly to academic settings.  

Structuring the film in ways that are alternately witty and puzzling and inspired in part by Jean-Luc Godard's multi-part Histoire(s) du Cinema, Andersen, who teaches at CalArts, free associates from what seems like the totality of cinema, from Erich von Stroheim to Jack Smith, from Maria Montez to Patty Hearst, from Joris Ivens to Pedro Costa. He draws connections everywhere, in ways that are surprising and often mysterious, and he doesn't identify the clips; buffs and academics will no doubt indulge in serious one-upmanship contests by showing off how many of the often obscure excerpts they recognize.

Trivia answer number one: The film's title derives from a Christina Rossetti poem quoted in Kiss Me Deadly. Beginning with D.W. Griffith's The Musketeers of Pig Alley and ending with Marianne Faithful singing “As Tears Go By” in Godard's Made in U.S.A., Andersen attempts to impose some sort of order on his intellectual meanderings by including chapter headings, or at least frames of reference, drawn from Deleuze, such as “The Movement Image,” “The Time Image,” “Aggression Motion” and so on. But after briefly celebrating the gorgeous image-making of the silent era and such early stars as Lillian Gish, Mary Pickford and Marlene Dietrich (the latter introduced pretentiously with the title “Dietrich and Lyrical Abstraction”), the film veers abruptly into documentary footage devoted to the proletariat, capitalists, communists, Leningrad, Hiroshima, North Korea, Vietnam, then back to WWII footage of Hitler touring Paris and de Gaulle entering the city a few years later. 

In a stylistic and romantic riposte to these uniformed titans, Andersen can't resist tacking on a wonderful sequence of Jeanne Moreau wandering moodily through Paris streets at night, and while this juxtaposition is poetically inspired, the succession of topics raised over the course of the prior few minutes is intellectually and creatively bewildering. It also drenched in a heavy late-'60s-style, European-flavored leftism so tiresomely doctrinaire that it's quaint.  

The magic of the film lies in its odd, sometimes inspired juxtapositions, its unusual excerpts, its resourcefulness and startling choices. After favoring quick looks at many dozens of titles—so many films, so little time would seem to be a major Andersen affliction—he suddenly slows things way down with very long comic excerpts featuring Harry Langdon, Laurel and Hardy, then the Marx Brothers, all topped by the startling murder climax from Shinoda's Pale Flower. None of this is objectionable from an entertainment or film appreciation point of view, but the point Andersen is trying to make about one of Deleuze's big postulations remains obscure and, by consequence, irrelevant. 

The Japanese gangster drama does, however, connect plausibly with Dr. Mabuse's “empire of crime,” which, in turn, links with the Nazis, who themselves are coupled, less logically, with a montage of Timothy Carey clips, which merge, via One-Eyed Jacks, into an appreciation of Marlon Brando, whom Andersen's curiously suggests is “underrated.”

Serious cinephiles will then have to grapple with Andersen's obsession with two major exponents of kitsch, Maria Montez and Debra Paget, both shown to represent The Musical. Really? It's true that Andersen casts the net very wide when it comes to his clips, and Paget's revealing snake dance in Fritz Lang's The Indian Tomb will be an eye-opener to the multitudes who have never seen it. But to advance this and this alone to carry the banner for the musical cinema seems a leap too far. 

Perhaps it's in his Deleuze-inspired attempt to attach labels, create categories and establish specific terrain for his selections that Andersen went off course. The project's original title was Great Moments from the Cinema, and the connections among many of the clips here are variously so intriguing, intuitive and elusive that the film might have succeeded far more had it gone further and more purely into the realm of stream of consciousness as (personal) history. At its heart, this is a consummately individualistic document defined by a thousand tastes and as many enthusiasms but compromised by its creator's unfortunate decision to allow his own cinephiliac testament to be distorted and partly subsumed by someone else's remote, less approachable theories.

Director: Thom Andersen
Editors: Christine Chang, Thom Andersen


Running time: 108 minutes
 

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