Thom Andersen’s The Thoughts That Once We Had opens with a series of epigraphs. One refers to the film as “a personal history of the cinema,” while another makes us radically rethink our assumptions about Anderson’s cinema: “The affection-image [. . .] is the face.” The moving image has of course been his cherished subject since 1975’s Eadweard Muybridge, Zoopraxographer, but the cinema’s favorite subject—the human visage—has, by and large, felt curiously absent from his work (and even emphatically so in Get Out of the Car). Even the most consistent human presence in his films, a narrator, seems slightly disembodied, insofar as we never hear the author’s own voice read his commentaries (Dean Stockwell narrated Eadweard Muybridge, and Encke King lent his voice to Los Angeles Plays Itself). Here, Andersen forgoes a narrator altogether; the fact that his own written comments are buttressed by nothing but clips from his personal, ecumenical film canon and quotations from Gilles Deleuze’s two-volume theory of cinema, Cinema 1: The movement-image (1983) and Cinema 2: The time-image (1985), gives the documentary an unexpected directness and intimacy.
Throughout the film, Andersen’s consistently incisive intertitles oscillate between the scathing and the playful. In the former camp fall censures related to American history: for instance, a sequence of newsreel footage depicting the U.S. decimation of North Korea during the civil war there (“Probably two million civilians perished,” the reporter opines dubiously) precedes a pair of cards reading “No repentance” and “Not even an acknowledgment.” In the latter camp we have text that subverts iconic film scenes, like the opening of Resnais’s Hiroshima Mon Amour: Andersen lets Emmanuelle Riva spout many of her troublingly wistful lines, but spits the most famous one right back at her: “You saw nothing at Hiroshima. Nothing.”
Such canonical movie moments littering The Thoughts That Once We Had make the film’s numerous deeper archival revelations all the more powerful. We see Norman Mailer in a TV interview, describing the Twin Towers before they were built as “fangs [. . .] killing the mood of the skyline [. . . and] working for the devil,” and the staging of a lesbian orgy in a Los Angeles architectural landmark. These two moments specifically elevate the film beyond a high-minded clip show, and reiterate the key argument in Los Angeles Plays Itself: that architecture has played a decisive role in shaping the contours of 20th-century visual culture.
Nevertheless, the film, deriving from a course Andersen taught at CalArts, necessarily assumes the structure of a sort of illustrated college lecture. The trouble with this is that full sentences from Deleuze tend to flash by just once, only to reappear fragmentarily in between clips. One develops some frustration as these ideas—presumably essential to us viewers in making meaning from the clip montages—so quickly flee from the grip of our mind’s eye and become thoughts that we once had. The challenge of “reading” the film is compounded by the fact that many of the clips, from the silent era, have intertitles of their own. If the clips-as-illustration model often feels stilted, and if the writing in between clips turns, at a certain point, flat or inscrutable, then what captures our attention from start to finish is the way in which Andersen manages to write his own essay with the carefully selected clips alone. Forgoing propositional statements is a feat rarely pulled off by filmmakers, especially those of the essayistic variety.
As in Godard’s Histoire(s) du Cinéma, the strength of the filmmaker’s instinct for montage governs the film’s selection and juxtaposition of film clips but renders many of Andersen’s textual interventions (whether lifted from classic texts or composed just to go between these images) superfluous. Indeed, like Godard, Andersen offers us not just an alternate history of cinema, nor a historiography (as in Los Angeles Plays Itself), but at his best a philosophy of film history. “The cinema must film not the world, but belief in this world,” Andersen quotes at one point from Deleuze’s Cinema: The Time-Image. A cinema about the cinema, it should follow, ought to do the same sort of thing with its subject. It would be easy to mistake this video essay for a mere re-presentation of moving images. Even when it lays bare some of cinema’s more vulgar tendencies, it exhibits a stirring faith in the medium and its ability to inspire new thought-images.