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October 11 - November 8, 2015

Thom Andersen, Film Essayist

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

This program, a co-presentation with Harvard's Film Study Center, is supported by the Provostial Fund Committee for the Arts and Humanities, Harvard University.

Special thanks: Sam Ratcliffe—Hamon Arts Library, Southern Methodist University

Sunday October 11 at 7pm

Los Angeles Plays Itself

Directed by Thom Andersen
US 2003, DCP, color, 169 min

A touchstone of early 21st century cinema, Andersen's magnum opus Los Angeles Plays Itself is an epic and purposefully meandering essay film that distills a bracingly polemic film history from its expansive critical survey of uses and abuses of the City of Angels by an impressively wide range of films—Hollywood blockbusters, low-budget genre pictures, independent, experimental and even pornographic films. Andersen's rigorous mapping of scene after scene onto the actual and imaginary Los Angeles is aided by frequent returns to the "scenes of the crime" of former film locations, via contemporary footage shot by Deborah Stratman. The film's arresting rhythm comes from Andersen's deft and mordant commentary (spoken by filmmaker Encke King), which remains almost conversational yet always imperious in its careful unveiling of those larger historical, cultural and ideological forces that render the cinematic city such a vivid palimpsest for ever-changing ideas of narrative and community. More than a corrective of cinema's faulty sense of place and history, however, Los Angeles Plays Itself powerfully uses rare counterexamples—such as Kent MacKenzie's The Exiles (1961) and Billy Woodbury's Bless Their Little Hearts (1984)—to argue that the indignities and false myths so frequently imposed upon Los Angeles by the cinema are direct expressions of actual injustice suffered by so many of its displaced, disenfranchised and, on the silver screen, silent inhabitants. With Los Angeles Plays Itself, Andersen defined a distinct conception of film analysis: both a guerrilla repurposing of Hollywood films and a personally invested, politically charged yet equanimous mode of close reading that is able to decode an unruly multitude of major and minor films. The enduring cult status of Los Angeles Plays Itself was confirmed by the great excitement and acclaim that greeted its first official release in 2014, more than ten years after its Toronto premiere. DCP courtesy of Cinema Guild.

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Friday October 23 at 7pm

Juke: Passages from the Films of Spencer Williams

Directed by Thom Andersen
US 2015, DCP, b/w, 30 min

Commissioned by the Museum of Modern Art to make a work about pioneering African-American director, producer and occasional actor Spencer Williams (1893-1963), Andersen turned to Williams' films as director, assembling major and minor moments into a portrait of the everyday in Black America of the 1940s.  "I am not trying to make some new meaning from these films; I am striving to bring out the meanings that are there but obscured by the plot lines: the dignity of black life and the creation of dynamic culture in the segregated society in small-town north Texas. I regard my movie as akin to Walker Evans’ photographs of sharecroppers’ home in 1930s and George Orwell’s essays on English working class interiors." DCP courtesy of the filmmaker

The Blood of Jesus

Directed by Spencer Williams. With Cathryn Caviness, Spencer Williams, Juanita Riley
US 1941, 35mm, b/w, 57 min

The directorial debut of Spencer Williams was also the major, most influential film of his entire career, The Blood of Jesus. A Biblical fantasy about a dead woman's soul caught between Heaven and Hell, The Blood of Jesus is also a fascinating document about faith and the everyday struggles of African-Americans during the WWII era.  Despite its shoestring budget and cast of mostly nonprofessional actors, this independent production of Williams' own company Amnegro was a huge commercial success and one of the most popular race films of the period. Print courtesy of Southern Methodist University

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Saturday October 24 at 7pm

This program of short(er) films begins with two very early works from Andersen's career. Act Without Words is, indeed, Andersen's first extant work as a filmmaker, made as group project while he was a film student at the University of Southern California.  A spirited adaptation of Beckett's eponymous mimed play, efficiently compressed to the 300 foot (16mm) class requirement, Act Without Words boasts an uncredited Lester Young soundtrack that points towards Andersen's interest in American musical traditions. --- ------- is a structuralist film made in collaboration with biophysicist Malcolm Brodwick that fused a radical montage concept with a densely constructed soundtrack. Andersen wrote the following, "Vertically --- ------- is completely structured; horizontally it is completely random. A pastiche of cinematography, a parody of montage."

The two recent works are both inspired by, and in dialogue with, Los Angeles Plays Itself. Get Out of the Car is an archaeological city symphony that marries images of decaying billboards, vernacular signs and resonant historic sites across Los Angeles, "collected" by Andersen on 16mm in Walker Evans fashion, with a dynamic soundtrack of songs, sound and spoken word. With neither subtitles nor explanatory texts to "explain" its evocative sounds and images, Get Out of the Car richly conjures the kind of syncretic daydream experience of driving open-eyed, and radio tuned, through this city so overcrowded with garrulous and imaginative signage, a reverie state that the film's imperative title (taken from a song by Los Angeles legend Richard Berry) contradicts—for this film is also a work of radical history that seeks a way to evoke and describe the half-erased texture of Los Angeles' still largely unwritten local history, offering the bricolage soundtrack of local rhythm and blues and músicanorteño as legends of sorts to the micro-histories of the unmarked sites and uncanonized music forgotten and gathered associatively by Andersen.

The Tony Longo Trilogy is a deliberately minor and playful film that welds together three earlier shorts to erect a homage to the titular late character actor featured in many 90s action films, but most indelibly in David Lynch's Los Angeles masterpiece Mulholland Drive (2001).

Prints courtesy of the filmmaker, except Act Without Words from the University of South Carolina.

Act Without Words

Directed by Thom Andersen
US 1964, 16mm, b/w, 5 min

 

--- ------- (AKA The Rock ‘n’ Roll Movie)

Directed by Thom Andersen and Malcolm Brodwick
US 1967, 16mm, color, 11 min

 

Get Out of the Car

Directed by Thom Andersen
US 2010, 16mm, color, 34 min. In English and Spanish

 

The Tony Longo Trilogy

Directed by Thom Andersen
US 2014, digital vídeo, color 14 min

 

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Sunday November 1 at 7pm

Red Hollywood

Directed by Thom Andersen and Noël Burch
US 1995, digital video, color, 114 min

Andersen teamed with film theorist, experimental filmmaker and former Ohio State University colleague Noël Burch to craft a meticulously powerful revisionist history of Communist artists working in Hollywood during the height of the studio era. The video Red Hollywood was inspired by an eponymous article written by Andersen a decade earlier to challenge calcified preconceptions about those artists who were unjustly purged and blacklisted from Hollywood for their leftist sympathies, and who further suffered the general indifference of scholars and historians to their pioneering work. While featuring extensive and riveting interviews with members of the legendary Hollywood Ten, including great turns by a still-defiant Abraham Polonsky, Red Hollywood makes its sharpest points by carefully unspooling thematically organized scenes from over fifty features, with a resonant voiceover (spoken by Andersen’s CalArts colleague and fellow filmmaker Billy Woodbury) discussing and dissecting their latent and overt meanings, and making clear how these dedicated artists saw cinema as a vital tool in the ideological and actual battles raging during the years from the Great Depression through the Red Scare. The political dimensions of Hollywood moviemaking have rarely been scrutinized with such precision and passion.

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$12 Special Event Tickets
Thom Andersen in person

Friday November 6 at 7pm

Completed as thesis for his UCLA Master’s degree, Eadweard Muybridge, Zoopraxographerwas Andersen’s breakthrough feature, the first work to express his unique melding of avant-garde cinema and careful historical archaeology. As a work of historical research, Andersen’s film helped spur the rediscovery of Muybridge that was just beginning in the period, pointing new attention in particular to his then relatively unknown landscape photography. Equally striking, however, was the film’s meticulous reanimation of thousands of Muybridge images to firmly establish the photographer’s pioneering work as a taproot of the cinematic imagination. With its focus on the origins and essence of the motion picture, Eadweard Muybridge, Zoopraxographer is an important precedent to Andersen’s latest exploration of Gilles Deleuze. Crisply edited together with fellow Angelo and filmmaker Morgan Fisher, the film’s insightful narrative is spoken by actor (and occasional experimental filmmaker) Dean Stockwell.

In 1996, Jonathan Rosenbaum authoritatively praised the film, which he declared “remains one of the best works of film history ever committed to film—an admirably economical and ingenious documentary exploring the philosophical, sociological, scientific, aesthetic, optical, technical, and theoretical implications of Muybridge's motion studies without belaboring any of them.”

Also included in the program are two early short films that place Andersen clearly within the vibrant avant-garde scene flourishing in Los Angeles in the Sixties. The playfully unequivocal Melting, for example, anticipates the work of fellow Angelo and friend Morgan Fisher, while Olivia’s Place is a tender monument to a local-culture establishment, a Santa Monica café, and an expression of the interest in street vernacular embraced by such Los Angeles artists as Ed Ruscha and Judy Fiskin.

Melting

Directed by Thom Andersen
US 1965, 16mm, color, 6 min

 

Olivia’s Place

Directed by Thom Andersen
US 1966/1974, 16mm, color, 6 min

 

Eadweard Muybridge, Zoopraxographer

Directed by Thom Andersen
US 1975, 35mm, color, 59 min

All prints courtesy the filmmaker

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$12 Special Event Tickets
Thom Andersen in person

Saturday November 7 at 7pm

The Thoughts That Once We Had

Directed by Thom Andersen
US 2014, DCP, color, & b/w, 108 min

Described in an opening text as a “personal history of cinema, partially inspired by Gilles Deleuze,” The Thoughts That Once We Had is a richly digressive exploration of key concepts central to the French philosopher’s influential, two-volume historical theorization of cinema. A found-footage film composed entirely of unidentified, yet often recognizable, film clips and concise intertitles written by Andersen, The Thoughts That Once We Had leaps associatively, like Deleuze, across a vast territory spanning from Griffith to Godard, using dynamically cinematic images and sequences not to explain, but to embody Deleuzian ideas in all their rich ambiguity and nuance. Andersen strikingly avoids his now signature voiceover, instead assembling synoptic flash frames and lengthy sequences into a rhythmic and meditative experience designed to engage a thinking and emotional viewer, one not necessarily versed in Deleuzian theory. Indeed, some of the most powerful moments in The Thoughts That Once We Had are personal intertitle statements that break from clearly Deleuzian themes, most strikingly to give lasting emotional resonance to images of war and destruction, North Korea, and Hiroshima, with Andersen at one point interrogating and expanding upon Hiroshima Mon Amour. These are moments that ask the viewer to reconsider the historic tragedies of the age of cinema as “moving images” in all senses of the term. Like Deleuze, Andersen’s infectious cinephilia is a love for cinema—a life in cinema—and is grounded in an ethical and philosophical understanding of film that describes a clear trajectory across all of his major films. DCP courtesy the filmmaker

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$12 Special Event Tickets
Thom Andersen in person

Sunday November 8 at 7pm

Reconversão (Reconversion)

Directed by Thom Andersen
US 2012, digital video, color, 68 min

Commissioned by the Curtas Vila do Conde Film Festival to direct a film in Northern Portugal, Andersen turned to the work of master architect Eduardo Souto de Moura (b. 1952) whose visionary ideas about structure, ruin and landscape have earned him a renown and international following that extends far beyond the Porto area where he has realized the majority of his projects. As if in response to the frustration voiced in Los Angeles Plays Itself over the inadequate and dismissive representation of architecture in popular cinema, Andersen ambitiously sought a cinematic form able to understand the full dimensionalities of singular architectural forms. For Reconversão, Andersen turned back once more, ingeniously, to Muybridge, working with cinematographer Peter Bo Rappmund to devise a stop-motion technique for shooting Souto de Moura’s architecture at a rate of one and two images per second, reanimated to ignite a quivering pulse and quality within building and landscape alike. Poised sculpturally between still and moving image, Reconversão unfolds at a contemplative rhythm as it explores seventeen built and unbuilt works accompanied by a voiceover (once again spoken by Encke King) reading passages from the architect’s own writings and punctuated by Andersen’s careful interjections. As in the work of Heinz Emigholz, Andersen’s film reaches beyond simply an appreciative meditation on the vision of a great architect to set in a motion a nimble dialogue between cinema and architecture as arts of framing and reinterpreting the existing world. This dialogue is deepened by Souto de Moura’s abiding and avowed fascinationwiththose ruins often incorporated organically into his buildings—a process not unlike the archaeological approach to found-footage cinema embodied by Andersen’s essay films. Roughly translated as “reconversion,” the Portuguese word Reconversão implies far more: a hybrid process of conversation and transformation that speaks to the complex dynamic found within the work of both architect and filmmaker.

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