The Thoughts That Once We Had

One of the most respected film essayists in America, Thom Andersen is best known for his cult classic Los Angeles Plays Itself (2003), an epic meditation on the town he calls home and its deep connection to the history of the movies. For nearly three hours, Andersen combs through the city in search of locations that appeared in famous (and not so famous) films, juxtaposing his own footage with archival clips to show how real places became part of our collective imagination. The movie’s informed, deeply skeptical first-person narration—written by Andersen but read in voice-over by an actor—comments on the dreamworld of the movies as well as the city planning that shaped LA, and the sometimes rapacious politics behind it. Like a movie, a big city is a shared experience, and Andersen, incorporating clips from such proletarian classics as The Exiles (1961) and Killer of Sheep (1977), challenges us to do a better job of sharing it equally.

Andersen’s latest feature, The Thoughts That Once We Had, is less an essay than a scrapbook, and as such it can be both bewildering and fascinating: you can feel the force of the owner’s obsession even if you can’t see the owner. This time Andersen supplies no narration, only a series of quotations from the French film theorist Gilles Deleuze, whose ideas he illustrates with an international assortment of clips. The documentary opens with D.W. Griffith’s pioneering gangster movie The Musketeers of Pig Alley (1912), and its gritty back-alley location promises another contemplation of places and their communal meaning. Yet Andersen is more interested in the human face—in Deleuze’s parlance, the “affection-image”—whose individuality gives the cinema its extraordinary power.

The Thoughts That Once We Had takes that sense of individuality to its logical conclusion, presenting a highly personal, willfully eccentric history of the movies. Deleuze’s ideas are just one ball of string Andersen happens to have in his pockets; elsewhere the filmmaker finds time to dilate on the human suffering of the Leningrad siege, surveillance footage of Patty Hearst sticking up a bank with the Symbionese Liberation Army, the creative genesis of Chubby Checker’s dance-craze hit “The Twist,” and the onscreen rantings of the demented character actor Timothy Carey. By the time Andersen offers up his favorite movie star, Debra Paget, in a jaw-dropping, seminude snake dance from The Tomb of Love (1959), The Thoughts That Once We Had has become the near opposite of its predecessor, an acknowledgment that the movie experience can be more personal than communal, and that images are more often hoarded than shared.  v