Hollywood, Read: Slow Writing: Thom Andersen on Cinema

By Sean Rogers

“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,” Thom Andersen writes of the method he employed for his film Juke: Passages from the Films of Spencer Williams (2015). Again and again, Andersen’s movies about movies—Red Hollywood (co-directed with Noël Burch, 1996), Los Angeles Plays Itself (2003), The Thoughts That Once We Had (2015)—repeat this action, like racking focus: suddenly drawing attention to something we had always seen onscreen but hadn’t paid attention to, excavating histories, geographies, and ideas we didn’t know we’d missed. Unsurprisingly, Slow Writing, the new collection of Andersen’s writings on cinema, is like his films: measured, political, a little bit ornery, striving to bring forward similarly obscured meanings (historical, formal, ideological, personal) from a likewise diverse body of sources.

Compiling Andersen’s trickle of program notes and unpublished essays from 1966 to 1994, as well as the comparative deluge of post-Los Angeles Plays Itself work from 2005 on (much of it published in this magazine, whose editor also blurbs the book), Slow Writing evinces a remarkably consistent set of concerns across the 50 years of its author’s thinking about cinema. As in Andersen’s films, his subject matter is eclectic and catholic, ranging from sexploitation flicks to Ozu Yasujiro, with stops at Andy Warhol, the blacklist, and Phil Spector along the way. When his topic is narrative films, Andersen describes in detail what they’re about; when it’s avant-garde films, he explains precisely what they do. He manages to be evocative and exacting, as alert to a film’s social implications as he is to its form.

Andersen explains in his introduction that, because he wrote too slowly to make a living at writing (I feel him), he became a teacher rather than a critic, and there’s certainly a sense in which this work is pedagogical. In the spirit of what he calls “conviviality,” in his writings Andersen is enthusiastic about sharing his insights, proceeding from film to film with the patience and studiousness of an instructor and plucking out pet themes for further elaboration. Politics is a current that runs throughout, an attention to the ways in which the working poor, immigrants, people of colour, and leftists have been scapegoated and ground underfoot, both onscreen and off; Andersen reserves special emphasis for truthful or ennobling perspectives on this struggle, from They Live by Night (1948) and The Exiles (1961) to Le silence de Lorna (2008) and In Vanda’s Room (2000).

Politics, of course, is inseparable from history, which Andersen confesses can bleed into nostalgia in his work—though he prefers to think of it as a militant nostalgia. “Change the past,” he insists, “it needs it.” He’s writing there of Los Angeles’ past, and Andersen’s native city reappears throughout the book, in forms beyond the Hollywood version that plays itself. There’s the musical Los Angeles of Spector, but also of norteño pioneers Los Tigres del Norte and local DJs and impresarios Johnny Otis and Art Laboe. There’s the Los Angeles that spawned Ronald Reagan and spurned Richard Nixon, and then there’s the Los Angeles in which Andersen has been a moviegoer his entire life, the author reeling off the details of screenings (which cinema, when, how many people, how they reacted) in a manner that turns the book into a virtual primary document of a vanished screen culture.

This kind of record-keeping showcases the author’s materialist bent, his grounding in particulars both personal and economic—the latter on a micro scale as much as a macro. Surely, Andersen’s avowed slowness as a writer was an issue not only of process but of the fact that he couldn’t make a living at it, and his book is refreshingly attentive to such matters throughout: we learn what Andersen paid for rent in Westwood in the ’60s, how much he took in as a cab driver in the ’70s, how long it took to pen a review of The Crying Game (1992) in the ’90s (more than 40 hours; it’s an admirable hatchet job, if inevitably dated). We know how much a producer could expect to recoup from a nudie film in the ’50s exploitation racket, and just how deep in the red LACMA’s cinema was in 2009. Addresses are important—we learn that the plaque that indicates where Buster Keaton’s studio stood is off by a block, and that “a Pioneer Chicken stand on Western, near Sunset” has been demolished since its appearance in Jarmusch’s Night on Earth (1991)—and dates as well: Los Angeles’ South Central Farm was destroyed on July 5, 2006, Andy Warhol’s Sleep (1963) played for one night only in June 1964, and so did Christian Marclay’s The Clock (at least initially), from July 28 to 29, 2011. (Warhol’s endurance test played at a movie theatre, Marclay’s at a museum; people walked out of both films.)

The voice that tabulates these minutiae is familiar from Andersen’s films: dry, wry, and resonant, speaking in the first person with both bracing directness and a certain self-consciousness, as if it were second-guessing itself—if only to make sure that it’s being thorough enough, and avoiding mistakes. If the writing has been slow for Andersen, it may only be because the voice he cultivates is so deliberate, straightforward, and lucid. “I tried to demystify the films,” he says of a program note about a clutch of American experimental titles, “to explain the intentions of their makers and the effects of their films in simple words.” He excels at this task: rarely has Warhol’s project been easier to parse, for example, or the films of Morgan Fisher more clearly elucidated, or, more esoterically, the fascist implications of The Prowler (1951) laid more bare. Andersen gets his points across in punchy, declarative sentences. Of Straub-Huillet’s From the Clouds to the Resistance (1979): “Pavese’s words plus the squeaking of an oxcart equals cinema.” After describing the escalating destruction of Tex Avery’s King-Size Canary (1947): “This is the one movie I’d recommend to Ronald Reagan.” Typically, though, he uses his concision to make neat distinctions. Of pre-Code films: “Never were Hollywood movies closer to the reality of American life, and never were they more distant from the values of their middle-class audience.” Of Christian Marclay’s understanding of editing: “the image divides, sound unites.”

While Andersen is always attentive to what divides the films he discusses, he’s more interested in sussing out what unites them. I suppose you could call the method dialectical: reflecting on his essay from Cinema Scope 44 on The Agony and the Ecstasy of Phil Spector (2009) and It Felt Like a Kiss (2009), Andersen writes, “It begins with ‘Da Doo Ron Ron,’ and it ends with history and dialectics. They are connected by the principle of hope.” Such connections are what Andersen looks out for, in his writing as in his films. And aside from providing often startling insights, they are what make his view of cinema so utopian: no two strains of filmmaking are ever so distant that they can’t be reconciled, or else recontextualized as part of a larger struggle. In the opening movements of his writing career, he discerns a kinship between nudie films and silent comedies (“vulgar innocence” untroubled “by seriousness or rigid production methods”), as well as between sexploitation and Warhol (crude, simplistic), and then between Warhol’s long takes and Muybridge’s own brand of nudes (“voided of content” and completely objective). By the time he yokes Warhol to Pedro Costa—the films of both are “reinventing classic Hollywood cinema by other means,” Warhol with his star system, and Costa with his homages to Sergeant Rutledge (1960) or I Walked with a Zombie (1943)—you know he’s onto something: an understanding of film history that sees opposing currents colliding, and from that collision producing new and exciting forms.

A similar dialectic is implicit in many of the films and filmmakers Andersen chooses to discuss, many of which have a clear relationship to Andersen’s own filmmaking—which makes Slow Writing a book of poetics as much as it is a book of criticism. Fellow found-footage and documentary filmmakers such as Marclay and Adam Curtis, or even Michael Moore, are unsurprising subjects for Andersen’s attention: Curtis’ pop-friendly approach to resituating historical truths we’ve forgotten or neglected rhymes with Andersen’s own practice, much as Marclay’s extractions from cinema history mirror his methods or Moore’s snarky agitprop catches some of his politicized tone. And while the films of Andersen heroes such as Warhol, Costa, or Straub-Huillet are hardly so akin to Andersen’s own, he extricates meanings from their work that signify differently and unexpectedly in his hands. Over the course of Slow Writing, Straub-Huillet’s literal adaptations of texts and materialist emphasis on the history inscribed in their shooting locations begin to look like Andersen’s lengthy excerpts from other people’s films, or his insistence on haunting vanished Los Angeles landmarks (“We’re just trying to document what’s left,” as he says in Get Out of the Car [2010]). There’s a similarity, too, between Andersen’s recollection and preservation of a vanished Los Angeles and Costa’s documentation of the last days of Fontainhas in Ossos (1997), In Vanda’s Room, and Colossal Youth (2006), as well as the beauty that Costa insists on unearthing therein. (Rebutting the “aestheticizing of poverty” charge that is everyone’s favourite bugaboo about Costa, Andersen declares that “The world is beautiful[:] a useful image of the world must register this beauty.”)

Most significantly, Warhol’s movies about sleeping, eating, and hanging out become models for Andersen’s own method of emphasizing disregarded, quotidian detail—the background settings of Hollywood features, the roadside buildings and murals that crumble and fade. Just as Andersen’s films work to direct our gaze away from what we’re accustomed to paying attention to, Warhol was “turning the mundane into the representable,” racking focus onto “something so obvious no one had noticed it, something that therefore demanded acknowledgement.” What demands acknowledgment in Andersen’s cinema—the commitment of blacklisted filmmakers to representing realities of American life, the implications of Hollywood’s depiction of Los Angeles, the ubiquity of sites and sounds that people neglect—thus becomes part of a conversation he’s having with Warhol.

That said, Andersen never feels the need to make his comments about someone else’s movies stand in as explanations of his own. While there is only one essay in Slow Writing that serves as an actual artist’s statement—“Get Out of the Car: A Commentary,” which Andersen wrote to help explain the film’s intentions and identify its wide-ranging sources, musical, architectural, and otherwise—each of Andersen’s films gets touched on here in some respect. (Nevertheless, it’s unfortunate that Andersen’s original “Red Hollywood” essay is absent here, even if it’s in print elsewhere; also, apart from some asides about neorealism and “the affective image,” there is nothing substantive on Deleuze or The Thoughts That Once We Had, though hopefully something is forthcoming.) Preliminary thoughts on Eadweard Muybridge, Zoopraxographer (1975) appear in an early article on Muybridge, while “Los Angeles: A City on Film” and “The Time of the Toad” expand upon ideas expressed in Los Angeles Plays Itself and Red Hollywood. Andersen’s revelatory insights about Los Angeles as background, character, and subject play out on the page with the same arresting originality as they do in LAPI, just as his efforts to establish a corpus of film gris—a materialist and social realist counterpart to film noir—showcase blacklisted filmmakers as laudable artists, rather than merely victims or martyrs.

While I think that Andersen’s most original thinking takes place in his montage first, up on screen and in real time, the pronouncements he makes in his prose about what cinema should aspire to are still bracing and inspiring—he even ends his introduction to Slow Writing with an impromptu manifesto that sets out what we should demand of the movies. “We need work that is useful and work that is modest,” he writes. “We need to eliminate work that does not honor our intelligence.” It’s funny, though, these matters of modesty and intelligence, as I think that one of the most “useful” concepts that Andersen introduces in this book—and one that doesn’t appear in his films—is the idea of being dumb, a concept that Andersen imbues with a certain crude nobility. “No one could afford to be as humble or as just plain dumb as Warhol,” he writes admiringly; later, “The Clock is certainly dumb,” while “Get Out of the Car began as a little study of distressed billboards, which was an intentionally dumb idea.” Most tellingly, there’s Phil Spector, playing back “Da Doo Ron Ron” and asking, “Is it dumb enough?”—“In other words,” Andersen elaborates, “is the record something you can understand in a flash but listen to forever? Is it both art and kitsch?”

Dumb, in the Andersenian reading of it, has nothing to do with smarts, but maybe it has something to do with being slow. Though you can grasp a dumb idea right away, you can worry it over forever; dumb is both the easy crudity that makes something clearly intelligible, and the hard-won simplicity that makes it art. Dumb is not what most movies have been lately—that would be “stupid”—but it’s certainly what they can aspire to be: useful and modest, clear and true. Like Andersen’s films, and this slow writing—as dumb and catchy as Spector’s pop, as humble and profound as Warhol’s Pop. Or, you know, vice versa.