Thom Andersen (b. 1943) is an American filmmaker celebrated for his erudite, penetrating and refreshingly offbeat essay films. A patient historian and fervent cinephile, Andersen mined an unpredictable termite path deep into film history with two impressively researched and revelatory documentaries, Red Hollywood (co-directed with Noël Burch) and Los Angeles Plays Itself, which together embody the resolute yet subtle mode of politically engaged cinema that he has defined across his larger oeuvre. Both Red Hollywood and Los Angeles Plays Itself are compilation films, dense mosaics of scenes and shots culled from Hollywood films and transformed by voiceover narratives, written but not spoken by Andersen, detailing the suppressed histories of the American cinema decipherable within the moving images. The two films make clear Andersen’s profound understanding of popular cinema as both a dangerously amnesic form of cultural memory—an ideological filter that willfully distorts the world it purports to represent—and a uniquely insightful lens through which to critically engage written, and unwritten, history.
The politics of architecture and urban space is a major concern underlying Los Angeles Plays Itself, which explores the cinema as a potent archaeological and navigational tool uniquely able to map those hybrid streets and spaces—partially true, partially invented—chartered by the cinematic and popular imagination. Like Henri Lefebvre, the French theorist of the everyday, Andersen’s keen understanding of the actual and imaginary city was partially honed by a brief but indelible stint as a taxi driver that granted an in-the-streets perspective that informs both his ardent critique of Hollywood’s deliberately partial representation of urban space and a larger project across key films to trace the evolving image of those minorities and working classes systemically underrepresented in American cinema. Related here is Andersen’s latest work, an insightful study of still little-known African American filmmaker Spencer Williams, commissioned by the Museum of Modern Art. Andersen’s deep knowledge of modern and contemporary architecture, meanwhile, gave way to the recent Reconversão, a formally rigorous study of Portuguese architect Eduardo Souto de Moura.
An important complement to Andersen’s work as a filmmaker is his long career as a writer, occasional critic and curator and, above all, an instructor at CalArts, where he has been an anchor of the legendary film school for almost thirty years. Indeed, the subjects and pedagogical thrust of both Los Angeles Plays Itself and Andersen’s most recent feature, The Thoughts That Once We Had, were partially inspired by lectures given in his CalArts seminars. A reflection on the influential ideas about cinema of French philosopher Gilles Deleuze, The Thoughts That Once We Had offers Andersen’s most personal film, a lyrical and purely cinematic work that, despite its lack of spoken narrative, fully embodies the nuanced tones of his inimitable voice: at turns wry, impassioned, mournful and fiercely critical.
The Harvard Film Archive is proud to welcome Thom Andersen for a career retrospective that looks back from his most recent works to his early structuralist-inspired films, newly restored by the Academy Film Archive and the UCLA Film and Television Archive. Also featured are the new versions of Los Angeles Plays Itself and Red Hollywood, each remastered and slightly re-edited by Andersen himself. – Haden Guest