Monday, June 8, 2015

In the Evening of the Day: Thom Andersen's The Thoughts That Once We Had (2015)


“Yet if you should forget me for a while
And afterwards remember, do not grieve
For if the darkness and corruption leave
A vestige of the thoughts that once we had
Better by far you should forget and smile
Than that you should remember and be sad.”

—Christina Rossetti, Remember (1862)

An opening title card from director Thom Andesen’s new feature film, The Thoughts That Once We Had, directly identifies the cinematic writings of philosopher Gilles Deleuze as the project's primary subject and inspiration. Deleuze’s two volumes on film, Cinema 1: The Movement-Image (1983) and Cinema 2: The Time-Image (1985), are today synonymous with a certain modernist school of thought that, while integrated in academia to such a degree as to be all but understood, remains quite radical. Unquestionably dense and provocatively pedantic, the French empiricist’s filmic texts integrate an array of theories and conceptualizations into a fairly delineated taxonomy, and are therefore fairly conducive to Andersen’s established approach to essay filmmaking—and particularly to the director's latest, which finds him deliberating on Deleuzian dogma while charting an alternate, personal path through film history.

A complimentary yet autonomous pair, Deleuze’s studies are divided as roughly equal chronologies of the classic and modern eras of cinema; separated by World War II, these periods are, in the author’s estimation, further representative of contrasting approaches to and considerations of the moving image. Thus, the “sensory-motor schema” of the classical cinema and the movement-image (“automatic and pre-established”), and the “purely optical and sound situations” of post-war neo-realism and the time-image (“invested by the senses”). It’s within these coordinates which Deleuze works to expound upon variants of each imperative while proposing a system for viewing defined as much by the material and temporal properties of what’s on screen as it is the metaphysical implications of the image and its sensorial affects.

It’s no great feat of critical insight to note that many of these same ideas have over the years revealed and reiterated themselves in Andersen’s work. After all, as a long-time professor of film and video at CalArts, Andersen has spent many years investigating and reflecting upon Deleuze’s work. But if The Thoughts That Once We Had is his first film to explicitly acknowledge the influence of Deleuze, it does so with the wry awareness of its own academic impulse—indeed, it seemed inevitable that Andersen would one day make a film expressly inspired by the late philosopher. Made a decade prior to the publication of Cinema 1, Andersen’s first full-length film, Eadweard Muybridge, Zoopraxographer (1975), proposed (and proceeded to quite literally animate) many of the nascent concepts—namely that of cinema not as a succession of still photographs but as codependent movement-images of a lineage traceable to that of Muybridge’s 19th century motion study experiments—which Deleuze would later elaborate on. Subsequent films by Anderson, such as Red Hollywood (1995), Los Angeles Plays Itself (2003), Get Out of the Car (2010), and Reconversão (2012), each in their own way dealt with Deleuzian derivations of time, space, history, the cinematic representation of those principles, and the filmed image itself. In fact, it’s not difficult to imagine Andersen, in another setting, applying variations of Deleuze’s concepts to the many artists featured across these works, whether American directors Cy Endfield and Nicholas Ray, or Portuguese architect Eduardo Souto Moura. In contrast to the historical and curatorial sweep of those works, however, The Thoughts That Once We Had, in accordance with its analytical subject matter, is less a work of criticism than of classification and philosophical contemplation.

Appropriately, the film begins—just as Deleuze and just as the narrative cinema itself did—with D.W. Griffith. The first images we see are from Griffith’s The Musketeers of Pig Alley (1912), and from there the faces of the director’s collaborators Mary Pickford and Lillian Gish in a variety of roles, as onscreen text sourced from Deleuze presents contextual definitions for the pictorial movements and motifs exemplified by the visuals. This technique differs significantly from Andersen’s typical use of voiceover, which lent both Red Hollywood and Los Angeles Plays Itself, his previous two film essays, their uniquely first-person perspectives even as they were in fact narrated by individuals other than Andersen. While a majority of the new film’s text and quotations originate from Deleuze, this isn’t simply a case of Andersen illustrating given concepts with footage from vintage films. While structured around a handful of Delueze’s central conceits—the action-image, the affection-image, the mental image, etc.—the film makes a number of digressions into matters of personal and political significance pertaining to these ideas and their greater utility as historical intermediaries. As such, Andersen seems less interested with this film in substantiating a claim (as in Los Angeles Plays Itself) or reconditioning an artistic injustice (as in Red Hollywood) than he is in personally reflecting on the instances and images which have shaped his cinematic and intellectual worldview (like his last film, the 2014 short The Tony Longo Trilogy, this new work features no original footage). How these moments, represented by unidentified film extracts, correlate and correspond with Deleuzian theory—and how they, in turn, relate to the viewer—is necessarily limited by Andersen’s self-imposed, referential (yet far from comprehensive) narrative discourse, but are no less powerful as articulated through his rich, cleverly constructed montage.

An early example of Andersen’s incisive approach comes in a sequence in which he chronicles a series of mid-century wartime atrocities and their respective filmic records. Leningrad, 1942; Hiroshima, 1945; North Korea, circa 1950; Vietnam, 1968: Each era granted a brief interlude before widening into a deeper consideration of World War II. Here, Andersen’s primary source emerges as Alain Resnais’ Hiroshima, mon amour (1959), which is excerpted and studied at length. Largely structured around a series of voiceover conversations between a French actress (Emmanuelle Riva) and a Japanese architect (Eiji Okada) in the wake of the atomic bombings, Resnais’ film, while not a documentary, oftentimes reflects such characteristics in its intimate tone and neo-realist intimations. Emphasizing and intensifying the film’s nonfiction traits, Andersen reframes dialogue from the film’s conversations as individuated monologues, with Riva’s voice left intact on the soundtrack while Okada’s responses are translated and printed as intertitles, the disjunction between their deliveries generating a dissonance as it suggests a cultural incompatibility reflective of the wartime diaspora. For Deleuze, Resnais, as with Michelangelo Antonioni, Roberto Rossellini, and Luchino Visconti, was instrumental in the transition between the movement-image and the time-image, and Andersen, who largely concentrates his film on visual rather than narrative information, appears acutely aware of both Hiroshima the film and Hiroshima the tragedy’s importance in the ongoing evaluation of cinema and its evolution.

Not everything is nearly as heavy as this episode of Andersen’s film essay might imply. The director describes The Thoughts That Once We Had as a “musical film,” and there is indeed a sequence dedicated to the movie musical, as well as interludes devoted to the allure of Maria Montez and Debra Paget, the differing though equally magnetic intrigue of Timothy Carey and Marlon Brando, and the use of blues music in American film—there’s even an extra-cinematic consideration of Hank Ballard and Chubby Checker’s nearly identical versions of their signature hit “The Twist.” As in his prior films, there’s a joy to be had in simply watching the clips unfold and comment on each other in alternately humorous and shrewd fashion, and Andersen seems particularly inspired here when diagramming the symmetry between images of a certain spiritual accord, even as they date from diverging periods. Many of the images and scenes Andersen utilizes carry with them an inherent beauty, but there’s a narcotic rhythm to the editing and to the subtle aberrations in the soundtrack which induce a tonal uniformity, an effect usually left to be generated by the tenor of Andersen’s various voiceover performers but which is here tied up wholly in his aesthetic presentation, granting the proceedings a meditative aura worthy of the film’s title (itself lifted from the Christina Rossetti poem recited by Cloris Leachman in Robert Aldrich’s Kiss Me Deadly [1955]).

Andersen’s knowledge of the American cinema remains enviably expansive, and there are, predictably, plenty of Hollywood classics cited here. But a particularly fascinating, if peripheral, aspect of The Thoughts That Once We Had is watching as Andersen brings that same omnivorous passion and insight to a wide variety of international films, of both classic and contemporary provenance. Work from such disparate and far-flung filmmakers as Alexander Dovzhenko, Robert Bresson, Jean-Luc Godard, Masahiro Shinoda, Hou Hsiao-hsien, Aki Kaurismäki, Pedro Costa, Jia Zhangke, and Sergei Loznitsa are featured and marked for their Deleuzian attributes. Godard is an especially regular subject throughout, as Andersen culls from films ranging from Breathless (1960) to Film Socialisme (2010), and there’s a sagacious yet contemplative air to this film reminiscent of some of Godard’s more personal late-period works such as JLG/JLG – autoportrait de décembre (1995). Like Resnais, Godard’s early output sits at the nexus of our understating of the movement-image and the time-image, equally enamored of Howard Hawks as it is Rossellini, and The Thoughts That Once We Had concludes with a clip from the curiously melancholic “As Tears Go By Scene” scene from Godard’s most overt Hawks homage, Made in U.S.A. (1966). It’s an enigmatic enough ending to suggest that, like Deleuze’s theoretical diptych, Andersen’s latest may just be his initial assessment of these matters. [MUBI Notebook]

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