“…Yet if you should forget me for a while
And afterwards remember, do not grieve:
For if the darkness and corruption leave
A vestige of the thoughts that once I had,
Better by far you should forget and smile
Than that you should remember and be sad”
– From Remember by Christina Rossetti
“Just because you didn’t go to film school, doesn’t mean this is not pretentious bullshit.”
– My girlfriend while I was writing this review.
You will need some exposure to cinema theory and analysis to catch all the references and process all the ideas in CalArts Professor Thom Andersen’s illuminating art film documentary The Thoughts That Once We Had. The title is taken from the poem “Remember” quoted in the movie Kiss Me Deadly.
It can be a frustrating experience to stumble across entire veins of inquiry that it had never before occurred to you might exist. You may never have heard of either Philosopher Gilles Deleuze or Professor Andersen, as I had not. I’m not entirely sure I consider it pretentious bullshit, but it’s certainly at least pretentious-adjacent even though I did enjoy it. Your mileage may vary.
“Beauty, horror, fear, romance, and whimsy are all spun out in this exploration of the world of movies, or more to the point: the world as seen through movies…”
Andersen uses film here to illustrate and expand on the philosophy set forth by Deleuze in his writings. I’d hesitate to even call this a film in the usual sense, in the same way you wouldn’t regard a dictionary as you do a novel. There’s no story here, no three act arc. This is a reference documentary. Even calling it a documentary is a stretch. Perhaps better to think of it as an entertaining lecture in filmic form. It moves fluidly from one idea to the next, there’s time to ponder and make the connections.
Deleuze says of his own work: “This study is not a history of cinema. It is a taxonomy, an attempt at the classifications of images and signs.”
There are two ways you can approach material like this: academically as a student of theory or with no context like a hayseed down from the mountain for supplies who stumbles into a darkened theater to get out of the rain. In the latter case (me, by the way) one may enjoy it but a lot of subtext will be lost in translation.
That’s not to say it’s not entertaining, enlightening, and edifying: it is all of those things. While scratching your head over the deeper metaphors you can still appreciate the beauty and visceral impact of the images and ideas. Andersen has curated together here sublime moments in dramatic filmmaking as well as historical footage. Reflecting on images of silent film stars like Lillian Gish and Mary Pickford without context allows you space to reflect on how startlingly beautiful they were and how they shine even through ancient faded and scratchy sepia toned film.
“…a fascinating meditation on film and history and if you’re not careful, you just might learn somethin’.
For me to speak about the philosophical concepts therein would be an affectation: I’d only be parroting Wikipedia. I will leave it as an exercise for the reader to explore the theories and interpretations of Deleuze.
From the dripping wet credulous hayseed side of the house, I can say what Andersen showed me: moving (in both senses of the word) images and moments in film worth seeing. Ranging from Birth of a Nation through silent film, dramas, musicals, film noir, documentary, and news footage across a wide spectrum of images and sounds. (Though the original Birth of a Nation did more damage than is easily estimable. As a filmmaker D.W. Griffith was wildly successful. That thing got into the fabric of the culture and we can still smell it 100 years later. Not many directors have had that kind of impact.)
There are themes of capitalism vs socialism threaded throughout and some brutally violent and disturbing war news clips. There’s a segment on Hiroshima that is heartbreaking. A few minutes on the Siege of Leningrad is presented, swaddled bodies of the dead being pulled through frozen streets on sleds. There’s some nudity in a furtive glimpse of the sexy 60’s Hollywood party scene that you will never get to visit. Dammit. Beauty, horror, fear, romance, and whimsy are all spun out in this exploration of the world of movies, or more to the point: the world as seen through movies.
This is a fascinating meditation on film and history and if you’re not careful, you just might learn somethin’.
The Thoughts That Once We Had (2017) Directed by Thom Andersen. Written By Gilles Deleuze
7 out of 10