Interview: Thom Andersen
Among active filmmakers, Thom Andersen seems almost uniquely unconcerned with doing what’s expected of him. His greatest critical success, Los Angeles Plays Itself (03), a survey of that city’s history told through the films made about it, appeared when its author was 60. While he has continued to work since its appearance, he’s shown no desire to make more films about films until this year. Andersen’s The Thoughts That Once We Had, identified by the opening title as a “personal history of cinema, partially inspired by Gilles Deleuze, The Movement-Image and The Time-Image,” has recently played dates in the U.K. and Los Angeles, and still awaits an East Coast premiere. In the meantime, New Yorkers can see Andersen’s half-hour Juke: Passages from the Films of Spencer Williams at the Museum of Modern Art, who commissioned Andersen’s tribute to the African-American filmmaker to play as part of their program “A Road Three Hundred Years Long: Cinema and the Great Migration.”
Like many of the best Los Angelinos, Andersen was born a Midwesterner—in Chicago, to be specific—but relocated to southern California at age 3. He attended the USC film school in the Sixties, where his student films—since little-seen—included Melting (65), a portrait of a decomposing ice cream sundae shot with a 16mm Mitchell camera. He later attended grad school at UCLA, producing a thesis film that would be somewhat more in keeping with his later work: Eadweard Muybridge, Zoopraxographer (75), a biography of the Anglo-American moving images pioneer in pictures. From this point, Andersen’s time would be divided between scholarship, teaching, and (very sporadic) filmmaking. He joined the faculty of the Center for Media Studies at the University at Buffalo in 1976 at the behest of the documentarian James Blue, then headed to Ohio State University, before finally arriving at CalArts, where he remains on the faculty today.
One of Andersen’s colleagues at OSU was Noël Burch, an American expat who’d been based in Paris for much of his life, and a film historian whose practice included a sideline in experimental and documentary film (Correction, Please, 79; What Do Those Old Films Mean?, 85). Burch and Andersen were disinvited from the university during a purge of leftist faculty in the mid-Eighties, around the time that Andersen completed his groundbreaking study of the work of Communist and ex-Communist screenwriters working in the studio system, Red Hollywood, which would form the basis of a 1995 essay-film of the same name by Andersen and Burch, Andersen’s most high-profile work until the epic Los Angeles Plays Itself.
The impression of Andersen given by the narration to Los Angeles Plays Itself, is that of a cussed, ornery outsider who knows everything that there is to know, and doesn’t suffer fools lightly. The man who I met in the offices of MoMA, however, was soft-spoken, thoughtful, though nevertheless imposing, a striking figure with a splash of white hair, dressed in a sort of dun-colored duster with narrow lapels and carrying an AIA Guide to New York City under his arm.
Juke: Passages from the Films of Spencer Williams
What was the original point of interest for you with Juke?
I was interested in his films for their documentary qualities, and I had the idea that I could present that aspect of the films and it would be a significant document of black life, black middle-class life, at the time and place that these movies were made: central Texas in the 1940s. And then I was also struck by a number of musical numbers in the films that are quite strong, particularly the blues song that’s in The Blood of Jesus  called “Golden Slipper,” sung by a guy who called himself Black Ace. He was a Dallas blues singer who only recorded maybe six songs in the late Thirties, not including “Golden Slipper,” but when he was re-discovered in the 1960s, when there was an interest in finding all of the old blues singers, he did a recording of it, as well as quite a few other songs that were in his repertoire that he’d never recorded. I was really curious about him. He’s in The Blood of Jesus, actually, on the flatbed truck with the band—he’s the guitar player, playing Hawaiian-style, with the pedal steel guitar on his lap.
I thought a lot about your film Get Out of the Car (10) while watching Juke, which is very interested in seeking out the footprints of old bandstands and dance halls around greater Los Angeles. You seem to be attracted to tracing music to its geographical roots.
Yeah, I guess that’s true. When I was a young person I was strongly interested in folk music, which was during the beginning of the revival of interest in that. Joan Baez’s first record came out, and it was a kind of revelation because it was so different than, say, The Kingston Trio. And this led to an interest in old blues, particularly. At that time I was also really interested in jazz, maybe that came first. And then, you know, amplified blues and rhythm-and-blues.
This would’ve been the time when people were doing heavy legwork to rediscover, as you mentioned, the old blues singers, driving through the south and buying up 78s and so on, finding these guys in the instances when they were still active… It’s not hugely different from your practice, which seems to revolve around championing and exhuming marginalized figures, fleshing out their backstories.
I found it kind of remarkable that people like John Fahey or—a lot of people—were able to rediscover these musicians who, in some cases, hadn’t recorded for many years, and, in a number of cases, bring them new careers, probably achieving more prominence than they had when their records were originally released. That was something that impressed me, gave me a sense of… research.
Juke: Passages from the Films of Spencer Williams
What was the organizational principle for Juke?
There was the original idea, which is what you see at the beginning of the film. Then I had the idea for the ending, which is maybe the one place in the movie where I take liberties with Williams’s films. You’re seeing a number of scenes cut together from The Girl in Room 20 . I liked that because it reminded me of the theater scene in The Bridegroom, the Actress, and the Pimp . There’s this shot of the stage and in the background there are all these other people who are unrelated to the performance that’s going on, who were just sort of standing on the stage, moving around, while the star of the film is singing. So I placed that together with the soundtrack from the cemetery scene in The Blood of Jesus. I don’t know, I just liked the idea. It was controversial with my colleagues, my co-editors.
What were their compunctions?
The strangeness of it, maybe that it would be hard to understand. There was an issue as to whether we should try to make it seem like there was a sort of synch, or should it be clear that it was completely out-of-synch. In the end I think we went more the former way, and it seemed to work better. Although, on the other hand, if it were more out-of-synch, maybe what was going on would be clearer, but it would’ve made it too strange.
I had ideas for ways of putting things together. Following the beginning, there’s a series of scenes from the films in which there was very little sound or the sound was kind of strange, I found that fascinating, so I put those together. Then there’s a whole series concentrating on Spencer Williams’s performances in a bunch of films, a sequence of different fight scenes from different movies, scenes of women alone, either looking away, off, looking out the window, which I found to be quite moving. It’s basically an intuitive thing.
Did you feel a certain responsibility to this material? I remember very well in Los Angeles Plays Itself (03) there’s a bit in the narration when you state that, as an Angelino in long standing, you feel you have a right to criticize how the movies portray your city. Here, obviously, you’re approaching the world of these movies as an outsider.
I’d say the primary purpose of the film is to show people that Spencer Williams is an interesting filmmaker whose films they should watch, so in that sense there was certainly a responsibility. And I thought the best way to do that was to isolate passages from his films and try to show what’s of particular interest.
Juke: Passages from the Films of Spencer Williams
There’s a wonderful long take of woman in her bedroom in a medium long-shot which I think must belong to the last group you mentioned, a very slow, contemplative scene that plays all the way through…
It’s one of my favorite shots in his films. I think it’s one of the longest shots, in terms of runtime, in any of his movies.
It’s an instance where the poverty of means makes it, because with more time or money this might be broken up into different set ups.
Yeah, I don’t know. That’s an issue in his films, that’s why he inserts these fairly long musical numbers in the films. Aside from himself, the actors were not professionals, they were people involved in performing, sometimes acting students, discoveries from colleges around central Texas, from Dallas to San Antonio. And of course he uses scenes from other films to draw out his own “found footage,” I guess you’d call it. Regarding that particular shot, it’s from one of his last films, Dirty Gertie from Harlem U.S.A. , which seems to be one of the ones with the highest production values, although it’s not his best films. It’s not one I used so much of, just that scene and the fortune teller scene, with Williams in drag. It’s one I don’t like so much, save for little things he does here and there.
You seem to have a particular interest in people working with what they find on hand, as in the case of the subject of Reconversão (12), the Portuguese architect Eduardo Souto de Moura, who builds out from existing ruins.
Yeah. That’s true. I never made the movies that I wanted to make, I made the ones that I could. It’s certainly true of these last two. Spencer Williams is one I’d had in mind to do for a number of years, but The Thoughts That Once We Had is just something that grew out.
You’ve moved away from doing any labeling of the material that you’re using, as you did in Red Hollywood and Los Angeles Plays Itself, in The Thoughts That Once We Had and Juke.
In Red Hollywood it was important to label the film, and also the contributors, the Communists or former Communists. Those films were more specifically about the films that were being excerpted, whereas with Spencer Williams, you’re working with a corpus of six films, so I didn’t think it was necessary to identify every scene that came up. In The Thoughts That Once We Had, it’s more about passages from films than the films themselves. Maybe in that case I thought also it might be fun for people to orient themselves, to guess what film they were looking at.
I recently re-watched Los Angeles Plays Itself, a dozen years after it first played before audiences, and it occurred to me that it seems to predict an entire industry of fact-checking journalism that’s come up since, that takes movies to task for their liberty with historical license.
I’m not against that. In fact-based films, docudramas, and biopics, quite often when they take that license it makes it less interesting than the actual story. An example is Gangster Squad, about the Los Angeles police in the early 1950s with Sean Penn as Mickey Cohen. That’s an interesting case because they bought the work of a reporter who’d done a great deal of research about that gang squad, threw it away, and came up with something that was much less interesting than the real story. The crazy shoot-out with Mickey Cohen at the end was completely at odds with what happened. In the end all they did was send him to prison on a tax evasion charge, like Al Capone. Floyd Mutrux wrote the original screenplay for Mulholland Falls , and he did a lot of research about those gangster squads that was very much based on fact, and it got thrown out.
I’d gotten an impression of you, from Los Angeles Plays Itself, as being an advocate for a certain kind of Neorealism, so I was a little surprised to learn of your love of Debra Paget in The Thoughts That Once We Had.
Yeah. There’s not a lot of Neorealist work in that movie overall. I guess it The Thoughts That Once We Had is kind of the other side of things. Which maybe has to do with Deleuze, or the other side of Deleuze.
The Thoughts That Once We Had
You’ve never really done the same thing twice in your films. Red Hollywood goes against auteurist orthodoxy to single out the contribution of the screenwriter. Los Angeles Plays Itself leads the viewer’s active attention away from what the director is asking you to look at. And with The Thoughts That Once We Had, it seems you’re finally looking at mise en scène, taking it at face value.
I’ve been teaching a particular class off and on for a number of years, kind of a “Deleuze for filmmakers.” Using the text to help people generate images, generate juxtapositions among images, between images and sounds. I recorded the class in the spring of 2014, with the idea that the class itself could become a long movie. Which was kind of stupid. It could’ve been an online course, but I wanted it to be high production value, a hundred hour movie, something like that. But I didn’t really have the patience to take that on myself, so I guess this was a kind of alternative to that, something simpler. That’s kind of how it happened, starting last summer. There was also an impulse to collect great moments in the history of cinema, something really simple. I think what turned it was finding the title. Or the idea of putting in those two scenes that appear at just about the end of the movie, of people reading books. It occurred to me that there was something kind of cinematic about reading books. When I had the ending sort of figured out, that’s when it occurred to me that it might be a real movie, as opposed to a… bagatelle. Something that you might put on to amuse your friends.
There are a lot of concrete examples from films in the Deleuze text, to what degree did that guide the structure?
I had this idea of beginning with “affection-images,” although that turned out to be one of the last parts to be actually constructed, because that did require research. It wasn’t just a matter of picking out scenes from movies I’d seen in the past and loved or liked, but rather of trying to make out a history of the affection-image, and also the progress of the close-up in Griffith. When Griffith claimed that he’s invented the close-up, what he really meant was the medium shot or the medium close shot, from here [points to sternum] to here [points to just above the top of head]. That’s what in those days was meant by close-up, as opposed to what we think of today as a close-up. Close-ups in his work actually appear fairly late. The one example, from the Mary Pickford film, Friends , was one that I took from Paul Schrader’s article in Film Comment where he proposed that as the first close-up. It’s a medium shot, but it’s really an affection-image, because in that shot the background drops away, it stands out as something separate. Which happens a lot in some of Griffith’s later films. But I really think in Griffith’s work the close-up doesn’t really come into its own until Intolerance , actually.
And the first shot of the film is The Musketeers of Pig Alley (1912)…
Yeah. I think in terms of what we might call film grammar, that was Griffith’s great innovation, that he had characters… Instead of the proscenium view in early films, when characters moved into or out of the frame, it would be as if they were coming from the wings of the theater. Quite often Griffith had characters enter and exit from the front of the frame—that’s composing in depth. I think that was the greatest innovation of his Biograph films, the way people come and go in the frame.
The Thoughts That Once We Had
You said that your intention wasn’t necessarily to illustrate Deleuze’s ideas. If not to illustrate, than what is the discourse between the text and the image?
I took a few of his ideas that were of interest to me—and these weren’t necessarily his big ideas. There’s a page about Harry Langdon, Laurel and Hardy, and the Marx Brothers. It’s almost like a throw-away. When I was a young person I actually saw that Harry Langdon film at the Silent Movie Theater in Los Angeles. It’s called The Chaser , and it’s one of the films that he directed himself. It’s generally despised. When I saw it I really liked it, maybe it was just having the opportunity to see it. So that was part of my personal history of seeing films, going to that theater a lot. What was interesting about it is that the owners of the theater had their own collection of films, so they didn’t show just the classic silent films that you might’ve seen here at MoMA or at any other theater, but these out-of-the-way, weird films, like The Chaser. I found myself quite enjoying what they would play, so that made a big impression on me when I was young. The Laurel and Hardy scene I included was just something that I’d recently discovered through a friend. So I guess in that case the passages from Deleuze was a kind of pretext for presenting those scenes. The Marx Brothers were actually more difficult because there aren’t a lot of scenes in their films where the three of them are together as much as they are in the particular scene I used. So that was a nice discovery.
I was also drawn to the idea of the equivocal image, where a small difference in the image leads to two almost opposite situations. The appeal of that to me is that it was so perfectly demonstrated in the scene with the cocktail shaker from Chaplin’s The Idle Class . In that case, it’s not just a point about the movies, but it’s also something that’s quite true in life. That’s what Errol Morris’s film The Thin Blue Line , which we also use, is about, and it’s a good film because he finds a cinematic form that fits his subject. Also I’d always been fascinated by Hank Ballard, who wrote “The Twist,” so I used footage from Ron Mann’s Twist.
You mention that you weren’t necessarily attracted to Deleuze’s big ideas but instead to tossed-off material. It seems like the incipient gesture interests you more than the final product, the sketch more than the buffed and primed masterpiece.
Yeah. And, regarding Deleuze, I prefer the first book, The Movement Image, to the second book, The Time Image. I find the whole idea of The Time-Image unconvincing and not the most useful way to consider the break between modern cinema and pre-modern cinema. There are smaller ideas in the second book that I find quite attractive. For example, in Los Angles Plays Itself, I borrow his idea of Neorealism, at least part of it. And I believe that the films that I’m talking about there, the final films in the movie, are better examples of his concept of Neorealism than the films that he writes about, say Open City  or the early classics of Italian Neorealism. His definition of Neorealism doesn’t really fit those Neorealist films, and the classic scene in Umberto D.  that he proposes as an example following Bazin is actually kind of an exceptional scene, exceptional within that film and within the early Neorealist films in general. I guess Neorealism begins to fit his account of it with Germany Year Zero  and Stromboli .
Los Angeles Plays Itself
I think you use the word masterpiece twice in Los Angeles Plays Itself, in reference to the movies Gone in 60 Seconds (74) and L.A. Plays Itself (72), which are not, shall we say, part of the commonly accepted canon. It seems to me a big part of what your project is proposing an alternate canon. You’ve added Spencer Williams to that; are there any other figures who you’d like to throw the spotlight onto?
Some people accuse me of using the word masterpiece a little freely. I’m sure there are many… I like Oscar Micheaux a lot, of course. I wish I had been around when MoMA was having their program of early Japanese sound movies. I’ve always been really interested in [Heinosuke] Gosho and [Hiroshi] Shimizu. A long time ago, in Los Angeles, there was always an Ozu retrospective on when I was young, which I guess was before most people discovered Ozu. We were able to see a lot of Japanese movies that people in other places wouldn’t have been able to see, Pale Flower (64) and things like that.
It doesn’t surprise me that you’re a shomin-geki fan. They used to have a Toho theater in Los Angeles, right?
At one time I think every major Japanese studio had their own theater in Los Angeles. Toho had one, Shochiku had one, Daiei had one… there were some others as well. You could see then a bunch of films that you probably couldn’t see in other parts of the U.S. Which is odd, because now it’s the opposite, there’s no Japanese cinema at all in Los Angeles, at least in theaters. It’s like with Korean films, Thai television, where they tape them off TV and rent them out. But I don’t have any plans to make more movies composed of other movies. Well, that’s not quite true. I have one more.
You mentioned that, in making The Thoughts That Once We Had, you realized at a certain point in the editing that there was a movie there. Are you someone who fiddles with various projects at any given time?
No, it’s one thing at a time. It was the same with Get Out of the Car, which was just meant to be a dumb five-minute movie.
I see you’ve got your AIA Guide to New York City. Do you have any buildings in particular you plan to visit or revisit?
Oh, I don’t know. There’s a lot of bad recent architecture in New York. Same in Chicago, same in Los Angeles. [Points out window to 54th Street between 5th and 6th Avenues] These buildings look pretty good. I suppose the knock against modern architecture was the lack of decoration, and what compensated for that in the work of good architects was proportion and rhythm, that’s what makes Mies van der Rohe buildings great—sometimes. Then when you lose that, it just seems like a way of making buildings cheaply. A lot of so-called Postmodern buildings also lack decoration, say in the work of Robert A.M. Stern, who I’d almost say is a fraud. They’re models of buildings, they don’t work at all. Who knows, maybe in 50 years we’ll appreciate these things… or somebody will.