Thom Andersen lives in Los Angeles. For over fifty years, his films, including Red Hollywood (1995) and Los Angeles Plays Itself (2003), have critically engaged the documentary form. A retrospective of his work will run at Anthology Film Archives from June 3 through June 12, 2016. The screening series will also feature his latest full-length film, The Thoughts That Once We Had, plus the New York premiere of two new shorts.
MY WORK ISN’T EXPERIMENTAL, IS IT? People call Los Angeles Plays Itself an essay film; personally, I prefer to call it a documentary. I think that when you go see a documentary film, you should learn something, and I don’t think that’s such a radical idea, actually. Of course we learn from a good fiction film as well, although maybe it’s a different type of truth. I think all films should aspire toward truth, but people misunderstand the idea when it comes to movies. They think of truth as being accuracy, and that is unobtainable by the nature of film, which is selection by framing and editing. Truth is simply an aspiration, like any other classic virtue—charity, for example. Sometimes you may give money to a beggar, but other times you keep walking.
There’s definitely an argument made in Red Hollywood, and maybe more successfully in Los Angeles Plays Itself. They’re about an ethics of filmmaking. For my newest full-length film, The Thoughts That Once We Had, Deleuze’s books Cinema 1: The Movement Image and Cinema 2: The Time Image were a main source of inspiration—and the other main source was when Turner Classic Movies had a marathon of MGM’s musical compilation That’s Entertainment! in 2013 to 2014, which, strange as it seems, was how I discovered Hollywood musicals, because I had never really liked them before. Deleuze makes a separation between what he calls realism and what he calls naturalism. And the three directors who he considers as naturalists were all blacklisted in one way or another. Erich von Stroheim was personally blacklisted, because he was too profligate in his methods of filmmaking. Luis Buñuel and Joseph Losey were both victims of the anticommunist blacklist. The naturalists are like the physicians of society, making a fundamental critique of the way things are. The real world is a derived milieu that has its roots, its origins, in something deeper—that can also be a characterization of Marxism, which is concerned with looking below the surface of social relations to get to its origins. But realists are concerned with the surface itself.
Get Out of the Car began as a little study of distressed billboards, which was an intentionally dumb idea. But from there it made sense to go to other kinds of signage, murals, some rundown buildings. Almost all the music in the film is either Latino or black in origin. The music of Los Tigres del Norte, for example, expresses the feelings of indocumentados. That also says something about the history of Los Angeles and where it is now. It ended up being a movie about immigration as well as black culture in the city.
Most of the things that we filmed in Get Out of the Car are gone now. The murals are pretty much all destroyed. There’s nostalgia there, but it’s not something I’m going to apologize for. I’m not one of those who’s contemptuous of young people; I think that I’m just the opposite. In the Hollywood Reporter, Todd McCarthy accused The Thoughts That Once We Had of a “leftism so tiresomely doctrinaire that it’s quaint.” Red Hollywood got the same treatment when it first came out, but maybe its time has finally come. When it played at Lincoln Center in 2014, the audience was very young. That was encouraging, because I don’t think of leftist politics as some vague, exhausted dispute. What happened in the past, the way in which the Taft-Hartley Act of 1947 turned labor unions against one another for instance, and the suppression of the left in the United States, that’s a history that is still with us.