The Practice of Description: Films and Videos by Thom Andersen


In anticipation of the screening of Thom Andersen’s Eadweard Muybridge, Zoopraxographer (1975) and Red Hollywood (co-directed by Noël Burch, 1996) at Lincoln Center’s “Art of the Real” series this weekend, we present this essay by Colin Beckett, originally commissioned by David Dinnell for the 2014 Ann Arbor Film Festival.


When a film is called “didactic,” it is most often intended either as an insult or as a way of bolstering a work’s particular theoretical ambitions. Thom Andersen’s resolutely nonfictional films are didactic in a richer, more specific sense. In the eight films and videos he has made since 1965, he has worked cinema to its limits, not in the service of formal exercise or psychological realism, but in order to uncover precisely what kind of reality film is capable of disclosing of its subjects, and in doing so, has crafted new, particularly cinematic methods of practical, political, and, ultimately, moral instruction.

Highlighting the instructive qualities of Andersen’s films perhaps buries the idiosyncrasy and sense of humor that characterizes them. His four feature-length works have most frequently been designated as essay films for their discursive style of argumentation, the deep and somewhat eccentric learning that underlies it, and the sharp prose in which they are narrated. While the vivid sense of history and deep political commitment that Andersen brings to his subjects creates an undeniable sense of authority, it is leavened by the playfulness and the self-conscious subjectivity of the essay form.

Eadweard Muybridge, Zoopraxographer (1975)

Nevertheless, Andersen considers teaching his primary vocation. While his writing and filmmaking have come in intermittent bursts over the last four decades, he has taught university film courses more or less consistently since the mid-1970s.

Born in Chicago in 1943, Andersen moved to Los Angeles, the city with which his work has become inextricably associated, when he was four years old. In the early 1960s, he became active in the Los Angeles underground film scene, making a handful of short films, attending quite a few more, and forming a lasting friendship with Morgan Fisher, whose own films are revealing of some of Andersen’s own preoccupations. He attended film school, first at U.S.C., and then U.C.L.A., where he completed Eadweard Muybridge, Zoopraxographer as his master’s thesis.

In 1976, he joined the faculty of the University of Buffalo’s legendary Center for Media Studies, brought in by documentarian James Blue, with whom Andersen had studied at U.C.L.A. In 1978,he took a position in Ohio State’s department of photography and cinema, where he joined fellow Southern California radical Allan Sekula. In 1984, Andersen and Sekula became early victims of the culture war: purged from the faculty, along with photographer James Friedman, in the administration’s effort to rid the department of Jews and leftistsironically enough, while Andersen was already deep into the research on the Hollywood blacklist that would form the basis for Red Hollywood.

Since 1987, Andersen has taught at CalArts, whose School of Film and Video has since graduated many of the most interesting experimental film- and videomakers working today, some of whom have collaborated with Andersen on his more recent projects.

Andersen made his earliest films during the avant-garde cinema’s extended high modernist phase, when the formalist charge of “minimalist” or, later, “structural” film predominated. His first film, Melting (1965), appears today almost like something of a parody of the concerns that animated that moment, but there is more at stake than the issue of film form. In a single, head-on shot, it pictures nothing but the dissolution of an ice cream sundae. The gerund form of its title “suggests,” as Andersen would later note of the titles Eadweard Muybridge gave to his photographs, “a motion uniform and timeless.” As timeless as time itself, anyway: the film makes a material record of entropy, that is, of time’s passing.

In --- ------ (1967), made with Malcolm Brodwick, Andersen addressed his investigation of cinematic time to the question of montage. Applying a predetermined structure to small-gauge footage of Los Angeles’s rock-and-roll industry and to recordings of its music on its soundtrack, the film stages a series of arbitrary sound-image relations, demonstrating the cinema’s ceaseless production of meaning.

Insofar as they picture actual events, and as they enact certain principles of cinema, these films can be considered documentaries, but with Olivia’s Place, shot in 1966 and completed in 1974, Andersen’s filmmaking takes a decisive turn toward the descriptive. In just a few long, static takes, the film records the dying days of a working class Santa Monica coffee shop as the forlorn sounds of Big Jay McNeely’s “There is Something on Your Mind” play from the jukebox.

In 2010’s Get Out of the Car, Andersen would once again render his city in fragmentary 16mm glances brought together by the pulse of local music. Andersen calls Los Angeles Plays Itself  (2003) “a city symphony in reverse,” but it still pictures the city as something of a self-sufficient system from a God-like vantage. Get Out of the Car is instead a city symphony from below, showing the city as it is seen crossed on foot by its poorest residents.

Between it and the early shorts, Andersen made the three essayistic features on cinematic subjects that have attracted the most attention in his body of work. Eadweard Muybridge, Zoopraxographer examines the philosophical force of Muybridge’s proto-cinematic innovations and precisely locates the social and technological underpinnings that distinguish his zoopraxography from the cinema proper. Red Hollywood, made with Noël Burch, looks at the neglected works of blacklisted Hollywood leftists and insists we take seriously the sociopolitical content of their work.

Both films are interventions in film historiography that are remarkably articulate in form and argument, but it is with Los Angeles Plays Itself  that Andersen synthesized a style fully adequate to his ambitions. His wide-ranging investigation into cinema’s uses of the city unfolds in a seamless montage and makes its claims in an unabashedly personal, somewhat unreliable register without diminishing their urgency. Andersen turns our attention to the people and events that the best-known visions of the city have overlooked, and to the overlooked visions that have captured such people’s lives.

Red Hollywood (1996)

Reconversão (2012) picks up the architectural preoccupations of Los Angeles Plays itself and matches them to the questions about the nature of stillness and motion at the center of Eadweard Muybridge, Zoopraxographer, finding them newly relevant to the digital era. Depicting the buildings of Portuguese architect Eduardo Souto de Moura through a set of animated DSLR stills, Andersen affirms that architecture, no less than cinema, is a time-based art that gives shape to its era’s social relations.

In his observations on other filmmakers and their work, Andersen frequently emphasizes qualities that illuminate his own approach. In Muybridge’s Animal Locomotion, Andersen discovers a “dialectic of subject and method.”

At the conclusion of Los Angeles Plays Itself, he draws a modified, Deleuzian conception of neorealism from in the 1970s work of black, working-class filmmakers like Haile Gerima, Charles Burnett, and Billy Woodberry: a neorealism that “describes another reality and creates a new kind of protagonist … a seer, not an actor,” and that “posits a new kind of time. A spatialized, non-chronological time of meditation, and of memory [in which] everything is filtered through [the protagonist’s] consciousness, and the film follows it, as it slides freely from perception to memory.”

In conversation with William E. Jones, Andersen elaborates a “theory of description” from Krzysztof Kieślowski’s remarks on his own early documentaries: “Only when you describe something can you start thinking about it. Only then can you deal with it. Only then can you try to change it.”

The echoes of Marx are no accident. At the root of all of Andersen’s allegories of his own practice is an unwavering commitment to two kinds of materialism: a historical materialism that interprets culture as an expression of a society’s social and economic arrangements, and a filmic materialism that interprets cinematic meaning through its technological underpinnings. The history of avant-garde cinema is riddled with efforts to collapse these distinct materialisms. Only in Andersen’s work do we find a fully formed version of each kind in a mutual interdependence. His films demand that we pay attention to better things and that we pay it better.


Contributor

Colin Beckett

COLIN BECKETT has contributed film reviews to the Brooklyn Rail since 2011. He lives in Los Angeles.

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