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Review: The Thoughts That Once We Had

Thom Andersen attempts to establish unity by bridging vast swaths of film history into one cohesive body of work.

The Thoughts That Once We Had
Photo: Thom Andersen

Gilles Deleuze’s Cinema 1: The Movement-Image opens with a series of short theses—intended to paraphrase and build on ideas adapted from Henri Bergson—that function as a modern take on the problems posed by Zeno’s paradoxes. The first of Deleuze’s concepts posits that, while the physical space spanned by movement is a divisible entity, capable of being isolated and measured, the elusive fact of movement itself remains an irreducible quality. This means that the depiction of objects in transit, while central to the act of cinematic representation, will always be subject to miniscule but significant bits of approximate simplification, resulting in a form as definable by the blank spaces that separate its frames as the images themselves.

These barren divisional gaps seem tantalizing to Thom Andersen, one of a small number of film essayists whose work straddles a distinct line between academic lecture and pop-culture survey. He sets up Deleuze’s text as the foundation for The Thoughts That Once We Had, a bursting collection of cinematic moments that attempts to tease out implicit connections between a wide variety of different works, mapping out the sort of associations which bridge these gulfs. These ideas inevitably hearken back to the issues explored in his 1975 debut, Eadweard Muybridge, Zoopraxographer, which, by contrast, concerned just one story, that of the titular pioneering photographer, whose career was derailed by the invention of the movie camera he’d helped to inspire. Linear and methodical, that film focused on chronological timeline details and technical specs, eventually settling in on the empty bits of space that emerged as Muybridge reconfigured the photograph from a discrete unit of portraiture to a single component in a long string of paired images, synthesizing still photos into primitive moving pictures, intended to expose and study the mysteries of human anatomy and locomotion.

In The Thoughts That Once We Had, a focus on such motion remains paramount, and by compiling vivid instances of such from all over 20th-century cinema, Andersen indirectly traces its history, as the early days of analytical documentary cinema bloom into an expansive network of interlinked sub-forms, all governed by the same general rules of expression. Picking up where Muybridge left off, Andersen’s latest starts amid the early silents, tracing the construction of film grammar as a means of capturing and recreating physical movement, the form’s horizons gradually expanding as innovations allow for a greater fluidity of action. By its conclusion, the film has touched on topics as diverse as silent-film comedy, wartime documentary, and the French and Japanese New Waves, attaining an impressively broad range of collected footage, if not exactly a coherent thesis.

This occurs because, despite its sheen of seriousness, lack of narration, and persistent quotations from Deleuze’s book, The Thoughts That Once We Had is hardly the rigorous study it initially appears to be, spiraling off into a series of whimsical tangents that often only loosely adhere to the high-toned tenor of the text. Flitting from one clip to another, Andersen adopts a parabolic structure that yo-yos from the past to the present and back, attempting to establish unity by effectively bridging vast swaths of film history into one cohesive body of work, ever in conversation with itself.

A more meticulously minded inquiry might delve into the issue of digital cinema, and how the gradual obsolescence of celluloid has transformed the idea of motion as radically as any technical revolution before it. Yet Andersen seems primarily interested in utilizing a scholarly scaffolding as an excuse to revel in his own movie-going memories, and generally settles for a shallow skimming of aesthetic matters, teasing out small connections between diverse members of an ever-expanding family tree. The film makes entreaties toward forming a comprehensive historical image of how all these different threads connect, but is generally fixated on how an art form initially invented to convey the basic realities of movement bloomed into the glamorous dream factory it soon became, the uniting principle of chronicling life as it was lived giving way to portrayals of the world as it could be most gloriously imagined.

This is a sturdy enough structure, especially considering Andersen’s facility with images, particularly his skill in compiling them into a series of inter-connected moments that feel eminently watchable but never banal. But while it’s a treat to see figures as varied as Harry Langdon, Debra Paget, and Pedro Costa grouped together within one approachable academic framework, the concept of The Thoughts That Once We Had as an intellectual exercise collapses as it progresses, easing into an elegant, intermittently edifying amusement park ride. One of Andersen’s recent works, 2010’s Get Out of the Car, managed to subtextually express the marvels of interconnection across great distance, tracing out the broad span of the American highway system through a collection of roadside billboards, a huge topic conveyed with utmost simplicity. Here, a similar idea is approached in grand, explicit form, and while the result is too diffuse to really say anything about its complex subject, it remains captivating merely by virtue of its virtuoso composition.

Director: Thom Andersen Running Time: 104 min Rating: NR Year: 2016

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