DECEMBER 1, 2017
FOR A FILMMAKER whose most celebrated works (Eadweard Muybridge, Zoopraxographer, Red Hollywood, and Los Angeles Plays Itself, among them) engage cinematic history in their form and content, it’s little surprise that Thom Andersen has authored a sizable amount of film criticism in tandem with his career as a director. In fact, Andersen’s writings on cinema stretch nearly as far back as his filmography, though many of his early articles have languished in obscurity for much of the past half-century. Slow Writing: Thom Andersen on Cinema, a new collection from The Visible Press, looks to remedy this problem. Comprised of pieces written for such outlets as Artforum, Film Comment, Cinema Scope, and the Criterion Collection, the volume also includes a number of articles appearing in print for the first time. The pieces range from journalistic reports on the nudie cuties of 1960s, to material examinations of the films of Andy Warhol and Morgan Fisher, to polemics concerning the lack of institutional support for cinema in Los Angeles, the city he calls home. Never the most prolific filmmaker, Andersen’s methodical process is self-consciously slow. Unhurried by nature, he’s parlayed his “curse” into a model of considered creativity. Reflecting Andersen’s at once keen and cantankerous personality, Slow Writing illuminates the virtues of its many subjects, as well as the singular sensibility of its author, whose cinematic practice has only reinforced his critical voice.
JORDAN CRONK: As a slow writer myself I must say I sympathize greatly with your plight. But I couldn’t help but think while reading that what we could really use is more slow writers.
THOM ANDERSEN: It seems like nowadays it’s either too fast or too slow, whether it’s daily or weekly papers — even quarterly publications. Cinema Scope is okay.
At least quarterly publications like Cinema Scope ostensibly encourage slow writing.
I suspect it actually doesn’t happen with some people, though. Quite often it probably gets put together at the last minute, like a film festival, with everyone hurrying. That wasn’t my experience with the magazine, but I had a way of immunizing myself against it. I think it was only when I already had something half written in my head that I would propose it. That’s what I did with [Christian Marclay’s] The Clock and, what else …
Right, Wang Bing. That probably took a week, so maybe it was a little rushed. [Laughs.] But for that film [Three Sisters] I was able to look at it multiple times while writing, which is one advantage critics today have. If you look at the past it’s really kind of remarkable how often critics got things right — small details.
Though you only briefly pursued writing as a vocation, you were offered some pretty enticing opportunities early on at both The New York Times and Artforum. How much, if any, encouragement did those opportunities add to your desire to write faster, so to speak?
That’s interesting. I don’t really know. Artforum wasn’t such a big deal then — or it was and it wasn’t. In some ways I think it probably had a better reputation at that time than it does now, in terms of the quality of the writing and in terms of … it had a position then, which I don’t think it does now. It certainly wasn’t the commercial juggernaut it is now. It was struggling then. That’s when it was still based in Los Angeles, which they came to feel was a liability a few years later. And commercially that may have been true, but as far as staking out a position it might have been an advantage to be removed from the New York art scene.
With The New York Times, I don’t know what I was thinking. But again, it was quite different then. In those days it was a more serious paper. It didn’t treat movies and popular culture with the same devotion that it does today — it kind of looked down on them. I’m not even sure if a movie critic was a full-time job. In most cases you’d be a stringer. I guess what it came down to is that I wasn’t interested in what they wanted to have me write, which were these publicity pieces that they still have today and which are still generally annoying to read.
But it was never a serious consideration in your mind to become an actual, working film critic?
No, not really. It was all kind of an accident. I guess I had some aptitude, or at least more than the average film student. But I don’t think the position of a film critic really existed then.
It barely exists now!
Right. It’s been a kind of cycle. There were a few newspapers who employed a film critic — or maybe quite a few. But what people wrote at medium-sized newspapers wasn’t known outside of the cities where it was published. There were just a few national platforms: the New Republic, The Nation, the Village Voice, and The New York Times. And I guess maybe the Los Angeles Times. You know, Pauline Kael had been writing about film for a long time before she was able to become a film critic. Who’d she write for first? A women’s magazine, right? [McCall’s] Which didn’t work out. And then she just kind of lucked into a part-time position at The New Yorker, which I guess paid her bills, enough so she was able to move to New York. I assume something similar happened with Andrew Sarris, who also kind of lucked into a position at the Village Voice because there were all these movies Jonas Mekas didn’t want to write about. He needed someone to write about them and he probably didn’t care who it was. And for Jonathan Rosenbaum, in order to write about film, he had to move to England and write for the BFI paper. I don’t think he really established himself as an American film critic until he started at the Chicago Reader. I guess he had a position, when I first met him, at, what was it, The Soho News? One of those Voice alternatives that vanished. Before that it seem like most people backed their way into film writing. James Agee didn’t have credentials. In a way, the only one who did was Pauline Kael because she had written these film capsules for years before becoming a paid film critic.
You describe the first article in the book, “Sex in Limbo,” as the only piece of journalism you’ve written. You also say you weren’t a very good researcher at the time, but in some sense that work must have anticipated the research process of much of your film work. Do recall the amount of time you put into that piece, and how it evolved from a research assignment for Playboy to its own standalone piece?
It did of course involve seeing all the films I could that belonged to those sex genres. I saw pretty much anything that happened to be playing in Los Angeles. There weren’t any museums I could go to to look at films — it was just what was playing in theaters. And then I interviewed people. But I was limited to people who were producing films in Los Angeles, and there really weren’t that many of them. But like I mention I tended to just believe whatever they said. I wouldn’t try to independently verify things, which in those days was much harder. I don’t even know how I would have. There wasn’t really any precedent for the kind of research I was doing. In fact, about 10 years later, when San Francisco’s RE/Search Publications put out their book Incredibly Strange Films, they borrowed a lot from what I did — they interviewed a lot of the same people, covered a lot of the same films.
Now, looking back, there were actually two good films that belonged to those genres. One was The Naked Venus, by Edgar Ulmer, and the other was Mondo Keyhole, by Jack Hill, though it was credited under a pseudonym. Of course I wasn’t able to see those by then — I wasn’t aware of their existence. But I don’t know if, at the time, I would have recognized their virtues. For one thing, The Naked Venus was a nudie film that had a plot of some interest. And Mondo Keyhole was the only film at the time that had a real critique of the violence in those films — ones that I now understand are called “roughies.” That term didn’t exist then.
I guess in some ways that work was a precedent for the research I did when making films. I certainly learned the value of taking notes while watching films, because I had to make reports that detailed, recorded, or described what happened in the films. It surprises me that critics don’t tend to take notes.
Yeah, most don’t.
I don’t think you can understand the structure of a film unless you take notes. By that I mean the perspective of the film — not just the camera perspective but the dramaturgical perspective. Generally you can have a rough idea, or you might think it doesn’t have a perspective, or it’s omniscient, which isn’t really possible in a time-based art since you have to regulate when the viewer learns something in relation to other things. Or you might think the film is being told from the perspective of one character without really understanding that this might be partly true, but within that there could be great deviations. But in most cases people just can’t tell you what the point of view of a film is — most aren’t equipped with the proper vocabulary.
It sounds like maybe this early research helped you develop some of these critical tools?
Yeah. Or in a way maybe the opposite, too. Watching all those films and describing them had the effect of removing value judgments from my interest as a writer, which is something I try to maintain — with some exceptions, of course. Value is what you talk about when you talk about a movie, and that’s fine when you’re with friends or someone asks you about a movie out of the blue. You’re probably not going to go into an analysis of it. And generally if you’ve just seen a movie it’s hard to analyze it, anyway. But I was also writing at a time when something called “normative criticism” was somewhat out of favor. I think that it had to do with the New Novel in France, and the work of Roland Barthes, which was never really concerned with value judgments. You know, the only value judgment is what you choose to write about. I could maybe even say that the one newspaper review I wrote, about The Crying Game, was more descriptive and analytical, rather than a value judgment — although obviously it was a deliberate polemic against a film that had received universally positive reviews in the United States. Only then did it seem like something worth doing, to write a polemic against it. I do use the word masterpiece in Los Angeles Plays Itself, in relation to two films, L.A. Plays Itself and Gone in 60 Seconds, and it’s a polemical use of the word — or ironic use, though not in the usual sense of irony.
What about the development of your writing style itself? You describe some of the early pieces as snarky — one’s an intentionally negative review of The Desert People, a film you actually admire, written under a pseudonym. Other pieces are written in a relatively straightforward fashion (“to help demystify the films”), while others still are written in a more academic or theoretical vein. Do you feel like your writing matured along the way, or became more considered? Or is it simply case by case, context by context?
I don’t think the essay on The Desert People, for example, is considered. But I also don’t think that kind of thing can be maintained for very long. I guess it depends on the occasion. There haven’t really been occasions to write like that again. Or maybe I’m just not good at it anymore. Or maybe it’s something that I can express better through filmmaking. Like in, say, The Tony Longo Trilogy (2014), which is something of a critical essay along those lines. To me it’s a film that is at the same time both funny and tragic. And I think that’s something people need to understand about that movie. Or the two music videos I made recently …
Which were made for what artist?
They were both for the band the Farmingdale Sound Machine, songs called “California Sun” and “California Here I Come.” Those are also both funny but serious, but I don’t think people grasp the seriousness of them.
You just alluded to how many of your films are themselves a form a film criticism. Do you think some of the writings, such “The Time of the Toad,” “Eadweard Muybridge,” or “Los Angeles: A City on Film,” which you actually wrote after Los Angeles Plays Itself, are either dry-runs for or re-articulations of ideas that might be better articulated on screen than through the written word, or vice versa?
I think that with all those films, Eadweard Muybridge, Red Hollywood, and Los Angeles Plays Itself, I’m happier with the movie than the writings that preceded or followed those works. And I think that’s because with film, you can establish a relationship between the commentary and the text of the film — both the soundtrack and the image track. Which is something you can’t do while writing on the page. Also, you’re relieved from the doing the boring part, which is describing what’s on the screen and what’s on the soundtrack. And what counts in Los Angeles Plays Itself and Red Hollywood is the choice of the images and their sequencing more than anything I might write about them. So it relieves me of the burden of writing, and it forces a somewhat simpler style, though in Muybridge I deliberately used a fairly complex syntax for a motion picture commentary to create a certain effect — similar to what Morgan Fisher does in Standard Gauge — which hadn’t really been done in English-language documentary films.
And Los Angeles Plays Itself, I think, is ultimately impossible to grasp. Maybe you can watch it a few times and think you grasp it, but I don’t think that’s actually the case, which might be a good or bad thing. In certain theories of art that’s supposed to be what the artwork does. Someone once said, “Create a demand the art can’t fulfill.” I don’t set out to do so, but at a certain point I find these kinds of things necessary. There are points in the films where I wish I could have slowed down and repeated things, like knock it into people’s heads. There are a lot of important ideas in Los Angeles Plays Itself that are, like, throwaways. The relation between Toby Halicki and Dziga Vertov, for example, or what I say about Chinatown: that history is always written by the victors, but in crocodile tears. Sometimes I can elucidate these ideas better in writing, while I can’t really go on about such things in a film. Then again, I can’t really explain what I mean by the phrase, “Genocidal Indian fighters of the Owens Valley.”
Let’s talk about some of the filmmakers you’ve written about. You return to Warhol often. You wrote about Camp for Artforum in 1966, and as recently as 2005 you wrote a piece called “The Sixties Without Compromise: Watching Warhol’s Films.” Can you talk a little bit about Warhol’s influence, whether as a writer, a filmmaker, or a viewer?
I’m not sure he’s really influenced me. He’s influenced Pedro Costa, who I also write about. Maybe he’s influenced films I wasn’t able to make.
I think what made Warhol attractive to me, and I’m sure to many other people, was that he was the most hated artist of the 1960s. I’m not sure if that’s really comprehensible nowadays. I said something recently, though not in print, that even though Warhol’s paintings are worth millions and his films are worth nothing, without the films the paintings would be worthless. Some of the films still have a rough edge that the paintings once had but no longer have, and in order to understand that edge you have to look at the films.
In your notes for a 1979 program at Media Study/Buffalo, “Twelve Films By Five American Filmmakers,” you mention George Eastman’s famous proclamation that he hoped to “make the camera as convenient as the pencil.” I guess you could say that day has finally arrived.
It’s more convenient than the pencil!
Exactly. Are you conflicted at all about digital’s application in either narrative cinema or the avant-garde?
I’m maybe not as committed or as militant about that idea as it appeared, even in the text on Get Out of the Car. It seems to me like maybe it doesn’t even matter anymore. I do think the way of characterizing the differences between film and digital is still an issue in writing about cinema. The proper distinction shouldn’t be between film and digital but between a chemical image and an electronic image — to me that’s the essential difference.
In general people don’t talk enough about chemistry when they talk about film. The essential discovery that made motion pictures possible didn’t have anything to do with devices for simulating motion or reproducing motion. They had to do with chemical processes, creating a flexible film base. That’s why I said Muybridge wasn’t an inventor of modern cinema. It was basically George Eastman. And it was a by-product of military development, another thing that should be emphasized more if you’re talking about the origins of film. Gun powder. Cellulose is gun powder, which is why it was so dangerous.
Two things are mentioned often in your recent writing that I find interesting. One is your interest in the critical support and subsequent abandonment of Michael Moore as a significant filmmaker, and the other is the subject of immigration as 21st-century cinema’s great theme. Perhaps this is related to broader trends in political cinema and criticism, but do you continue to find Moore’s films as important as you did even a half-decade ago, and are there recent works of political nonfiction that you find particularly useful or noteworthy?
Well, when Michael Moore made Roger & Me everyone was on his side, right? This fall from favor seemed to happen after Fahrenheit 9/11. Everyone seemed to love the film — it felt like a masterpiece.
And since it didn’t change the world critics turned on him?
It seems that way. For me, Capitalism: A Love Story is his best, because it’s more ambivalent. It doesn’t have a message like Roger Smith is bad or George Bush is bad or our health care system is bad. It’s not a political film in that sense. It’s more analytic. I think it’s important because it represents very well the contradictions of the American left, between a hyper-reformism and a hyper-radicalism, neither of which is correct. The film can’t really transcend those contradictions, but it makes those contradictions clear, as does I think his gun control film [Bowling for Columbine].
But as far as new work, I think that nonfiction films in general are more interesting than fiction films, but fiction films are more interesting politically than nonfiction films. For example, on the issue of immigration, there are many good fiction films about that subject. But I can’t really think of many good documentaries that are interested in ideas concerning immigration.
To return to the writing: What about your own inspirations? Deleuze seemed to loom large even before you made The Thoughts That Once We Had, but are there other specific touchstones, whether in criticism or elsewhere?
Some critics that inspire me, or that I admire would be Michel Butor, Roland Barthes, James Agee, and I suppose in a way Manny Farber. I only really got interested in Deleuze’s books on cinema because they seemed to be a response to stuff I had written — which of course they weren’t, because much of it hadn’t been published. But I guess we shared certain philosophical interests. Otherwise I maybe never would have bothered to read them. And even then it took a few years for me to get into them, to work through my big disagreements, which had to do with his Bergsonism — to see how he had actually used Bergson’s ideas in an interesting way.
As a critic also working in local programming I have a certain vested interest in the topic of your 2012 Film Comment piece “Barbarians at the Gate.” Your focus of that piece is on the lack of support for film from local arts institutions, particularly LACMA, but also MOCA. Now, save for their Tuesday Matinees series, LACMA’s film program is almost totally negligible, while MOCA at least has regular outside programming by Los Angeles Filmforum, among others. Cinefamily, meanwhile, has suspended operations for issues unrelated to programming. What are your thoughts on the Los Angeles arthouse and repertory scene?
What I wrote about the Museum of Contemporary Art was informed a bit by Madison Brookshire’s remarks about it, and him having an inside perspective. So it’s been nice in the years since to see him transform it — or at least to see it have something of a film program while overcoming the limitations of their theater. I think he’s put on very good shows there.
Then there’s your program [Acropolis Cinema], which I think fills an important void. It’s similar to what I was trying to do when I was programming Filmforum [in the late 1990s], but without much success. I guess I’ve done it more successfully with the Film Today program at CalArts. I think Echo Park Film Center is putting on more good shows and a greater variety of film programs. There’s definitely been a change for the better there, with Filmforum’s programs, and especially the Straub screenings. For what we used to call repertoire screenings, I like what Andy Rector’s been doing [with his Kino Slang series] at Echo Park Film Center, though it’s unfortunately been kind of buried. My wife and I were just in Paris and the restoration of Godard’s Grandeur and Decadence was having a theatrical opening, and yet Andy’s showing it here and no one cares.
In the book you put forth a provocative question regarding another institution, CalArts, when you ask if its survival matters. Does film criticism’s survival matter?
I guess I don’t really read [criticism] the way that I once did. When you’re young you want to be up on the latest things, just instinctively. But I read some people, sure. I probably shouldn’t criticize anyone. The worst I can say about most people writing about film is I don’t see the point in what they’re doing.
Jordan Cronk is a critic and programmer based in Los Angeles. He runs Acropolis Cinema, a screening series for experimental and unreleased films, and is co-director of the Locarno in Los Angeles film festival.