Thom Andersen Interview

Thanks to Colin Beckett for preparing and editing this transcription.


UnionDocs: What makes somebody a “local” in Los Angeles? Was the film made to be viewed by Los Angeles residents?

Thom Andersen: Well, as a matter of fact the origins of the film were pretty humble. It began as an idea I had to give a talk about Los Angeles and movies, a one-off thing that would be done here in Los Angeles. I was working on it and one day I just happened to run into some people from San Francisco, Steve Anker and Kathy Geritz, who at that time are working at the San Francisco Cinematheque and the Pacific Film Archive. They were visiting here to do some work and I mentioned this was something I was working on and they said it would be interesting to present at their venues as well, which actually surprised me because I had thought this was something of purely local interest. So when the possibility of doing it more than once occurred to me, I thought instead of just preparing a lecture and going through the clips and picking out stuff, why not try and do it one time and then it would be available all the time; which meant actually making a film. But I think my ambitions for the film at the beginning we’re pretty modest—to be just an illustrated lecture—and then as I began working on the material, I kind of got more intrigued by the possibilities of editing films together, and of juxtaposing films and re-editing films. I thought this could be a real movie.

UD: (laughs)

TA: So it just kind of grew. You know, I guess it is a real movie. To me, it’s funny and it’s sad and…I guess that’s what a movie is.

UD: And there is such a progression in the movie too.The progression obviously isn’t narrative, but the idea develops and I felt differently after watching it. The question about whether it was made to be viewed by residents led me to wonder what the response is when non-residents view it.

TA: First of all, I guess it’s still the case that the screenings that have meant the most to me have been the ones in Los Angeles and the responses to the movie that have been the most interesting to me have been from people in Los Angeles. The praise that’s meant the most to me has been from Donald Waldie, or DJ Waldie, as his pen name is, who wrote the book Holy Land: A Suburban Memoir, which is about growing up in Lakewood, a suburb of Los Angeles, or just a little north east of Long Beach, who I find to be a kind of kindred spirit and I thought I’d tell you what he wrote. He said: “For what it’s worth, from the guy from the great flat, far from Hollywood and deep below downtown: your film was harrowing to watch. Courageous and dead-on right, but also heartbreaking. From a purely selfish point-of-view, I’m relieved that I’m not the only Angelino who struggles to understand the deep history of this place in the way you presented it. I write about Los Angeles, the city and the region, as a ruined paradise. Not out of regret, but out of the knowledge that in ruining it, we made Los Angeles our home and the place we most understand and love since it is our home and we are always being thwarted from that intimacy by the erasure of memory, the substitution of false memories and the subversion of hope. Thanks for making so much of that disconnection so clear.” But I also think that what he says about the movie suggests to me why it has a certain resonance for people who live other places, particularly other cities and I have to say that the reaction to the film has been strongest in the biggest and most cosmopolitan cities such as New York, Chicago, also in London and Buenos Aires and in Berlin and less so in smaller cities.

In a way, though, the theme of the movie is a way—obviously the deepest theme, you would say, particularly at the end of the movie—is the way in which movies are, at least complicit, in the erasure of memory and the subversion of hope. I think we have the right to expect of movies that they can preserve memory and promote hope. I hope that’s something that resonates with people all over. And of course anybody in a city that’s often filmed, like New York or London or Berlin or Paris, can relate to the way that movies either distort the cities or pay tribute to the cities, right?

UD: Right

TA: Order Of course the history of New York in movies is in some ways parallel to that of Los Angeles and in some ways opposite, as James Sanders pointed out in his book Celluloid Skyline. That’s a book to me, it’s kind of an analogue to what I was trying to do in Los Angeles Plays Itself. He points out that although the movie industry, as we call it, the so-called “movie industry”, became centered in Los Angeles by the 1920s, a lot of the people who were part of it were expatriates from New York and they romanticized it in the movies and then it represented an ideal of the city. An ideal to which Los Angeles could never live up. So New York was this kind of mythical city in the beginning, Los Angeles was, for these New Yorkers, a kind of joke of a city. Although oddly, Los Angeles of that time—the 1930s—that these days we look back on and regard as a real paradise and also even a kind of important cultural center, though the culture that existed in 1930s Los Angeles was underground, unacknowledged and only known to a few people, but it looms large in retrospect. Thats it’s essential critique of movies.

UD: That leads me to the question that I posed previously to this question about Los Angeles residents,which is about the lived experience of Los Angeles and the way that, as you say, in New York or Paris or London, the experience of seeing your city on the screen is a pretty widespread one, but I think it’s different, that experience, from the Los Angeles one and I wondered if you could talk a little bit about the way you think that people’s non-film lives are effected by being in the city.

TA: In a certain way people find it amusing to see their city on film. We enjoy it. It’s sometimes a game when you go to see a movie that was filmed here—spotting where a particular scene was filmed. It kind of makes a movie more enjoyable. The licenses that it takes with geography can also be a source of amusement for people. There’s also a sense of course that the movies, what you might call “the entertainment industry”, is an important local industry which is something that remains in Los Angeles after other important industries have departed; like automobile production, tire production, aereospace, which is also now being threatened and there are all these issues about what people might do to save it, how it might be saved, whether it should be saved.

There are always controversies about filming on location and the dislocation that it creates, the inconvenience. Sometimes people are annoyed by that, but then they’re being told that their sacrifice is important in preserving a significant sector of the local economy. Sometimes people benefit from it and sometimes their neighbors don’t. Like I might rent out my house to be a movie location and make some money and all the rest of the people in the neighborhood are inconvenienced and don’t have any benefit. So it can be causes of petty squabbles. Maybe something like that happens in New York to a lesser extent. I’ve always kind of resented the claims of the movie industry to be for public support, because it’s one of the least-integrated industries in Southern California. Deborah Stratman who did the location-shooting, the cinematography for the part of the movie that wasn’t composed of clips, but of just local scenes…one of the things we tried to do was shoot movie crews on location and she would always deal with the production assistants and she said about them that they all look the same, as if it was the same guy. In other words, the movie industry doesn’t employ many blacks, it doesn’t employ many latinos, it doesn’t employ many women. There doesn’t seem to be any pressure on it to change that. I kind of feel like if it’s going to make claims upon public support, if it’s going to demand public subsidies, the least that it can do is end discrimination in hiring and integrate itself, so that these economic benefits are more fairly-shared, more fairly-distributed among the people who live here. I think that’s a scandal and the people who concentrate on more parts for black actors–that’s valid in a way, but to me that’s the least significant issue because there are a lot more black actors in Hollywood movies than there are black production assistants or black camera-people or black- you can go all down the line and that’s where the larger employment opportunities exist.

Pills UD: You’re surrounded by movies all the time and for me what was particularly interesting watching your movie was the chance to think about the industry as an industry, as a thing that effects people in real ways. In your narration, you write: “If we can appreciate documentaries for their dramatic qualities, perhaps we can appreciate fiction films for their documentary revelations”. Can you further explain this idea? Where is the line between fiction and documentary? And I’m especially interested in your distinction between voluntary and involuntary attention.

TA: It’s a bit of a complicated question. That distinction comes from Hugo Munsterberg, a German psychologist who moved to the United States to teach at Harvard in the early years of the 20th century during the first world war and wrote a book about the movies. It’s the first, I suppose, really theoretical treatise of movies called The Photoplay: A Psychological Study. It’s one whose themes still resonate. Although his psychology was based on the notion of faculties, mental faculties, which seems in a certain way obsolete today, but maybe not so much so. I think what’s really changed is the vocabularly rather than the underlying conception and what his essential point about movies was that the technical means of motion pictures corresponded to the faculties of the mind. For example, the flashback or the “cutback”, as it was known in those days, corresponded to the faculty of memory.

But he was particularly concerned with the faculty of attention and he made a distinction between a faculty of involuntary attention and a faculty of voluntary attention. In our regular, everyday lives outside of the movies, we often use voluntary attention, right? We attend to things according to our desires. Which is an idea which is pretty close to the notion of intention in phenomenology, which is why I say his ideas aren’t as antique as they appear. His point about movies is that movies give us what seems to be a picture of the world, but it’s a picture of the world that has already been organized by a voluntary attention which is the work that we assign to the director. The director has organized our perceptions for us, so that as we watch a movie, we watch with our faculty of involuntary attention insofar as a movie succeeds, it’s only insofar as it fails when our voluntary attention comes to the fore. You know, the complaint of critics that “I was watching this movie and I started thinking about my laundry list”. Munsterberg’s examples are when you start paying attention to the locations rather than the story, you’ve begun to exercise your voluntary attention and the movie has failed.

So what I’m proposing is…let’s conceive of a movie in a slightly different way where…well, maybe I should back up a bit. You can turn this around and it can seem like a kind of oppressive idea of film spectatorship. And as a matter of fact a number of film theorists or film critics of a kind of theoretical bent have done precisely that, beginning with the critique of Adorno and Horkheimer in Buy Dialectic of Englightenment. but continuing in a lot of more contemporary film theory beginning with say Jean-Louis Baudry and the theorists associated with him in France in the late 60s that began to see the whole mechanism of film spectatorship as an oppressive one. What I’m proposing is there’s another possibility, a more liberating, freer way of looking at movies. In fact, people do exercise [their voluntary attention], as you realize just when you talk about movies with people. You do sometimes pay attention to the location instead of the story and it doesn’t necessarily diminish your enjoyment of the movie. You can exercise your voluntary attention and that can make the experience of watching a movie richer. So what I mean when I say if we can appreciate documentaries for their dramatic qualities, perhaps we can appreciate fiction films for their documentary revelations. That we do look at movies in this way sometimes. This can be a richer way of looking at movies and in that in fiction films there is always a documentary. Maybe the greatness of Godard, the particular greatness of Godard as a filmmaker is that he stressed this, the way in which he made his films documentaries, I mean first of all documentaries about the actors. For example you can look at a minor Godard film, maybe King Lear, and…you think wow I’ve never seen Molly Ringwald before in a movie, a different way of putting it is ‘I’ve never seen Molly Ringwald so beautiful’. Even though you don’t admire her acting so much in that film as in others, you feel like this film has created a portrait of her which doesn’t exist in any of the other films she’s appeared in. And so it is with actors, so it is with places. Okay, so there’s also–I don’t know if I’d want to say there’s really a fictional aspect to documentary, but obviously there’s a story aspect to documentary and maybe a more useful way of distinguishing, of talking about these two poles of cinema is not to talk about fiction and documentary, but to talk about story and description. The pole of story is what we associate with fiction films and the pole of description is what we associate with documentary film. But story and description exist to a greater and lesser degree in all movies, and stories and descriptions are both useful, because they are ways in which we can begin to understand the world and our experience of the world and to deepen that understanding.

So I guess in a way my movie is a way of saying, beyond the story let’s also look at the description in these films, which may be better conceived as descriptions, but they still have value as descriptions and their value as descriptions may continue to exist when the stories themselves don’t have so much value anymore. One of my colleagues at CalArts was Alexander McKendrick and he always insisted on teaching what he called dramatic narrative and rules of dramatic narrative…you know, storytelling. Which he insisted were quite strict and rigorous, but at the time he was teaching there, when he was in his 60s and 70s, he hardly ever attended dramatic films, he just watched documentaries on tv. I must say I find the same thing happening to myself. The older I get, the less interested in fiction I get and the more interested I am in documentaries. It’s true, after awhile, you know all the stories, but the world itself is always changing, so there’s always something new in documentary films. So the older we get, the more interested we are in documentary and the less in fiction and stories. Sorry, I know that was a bit theoretical.

UD: No, I think that’s great. I guess, speaking of watching documentaries, have you noticed the genre of documentary changing over the years and how would you describe that change?

TA: Well of course we all know that in the past few years, there’s been a dramatic change and documentaries have become much more viable as theatrical features. What the successful ones have in common is a strong story and people are understanding that documentary is not incompatible with story, that the distinction between documentary and story is a false distinction. Which of course should’ve been evident many years ago, because the first documentaries were also strong stories. But I think a lot of the recent popularity of documentaries—I think I suggested this in an article I wrote for Cinema-Scope about Mulhullond Drive and Collateral— online is that for the most part, American fiction films, particularly large-budget Hollywood films, have been abdicating their traditional function, which is to tell stories about real human beings that can inform us, both intellectually and, more important, emotionally about human life. Hollywood films have become, particularly the bigger budget films, have become formalist exercises. I don’t know, I guess once I was a formalist myself, so in a certain way I can appreciate that, but obviously we want more from movies than that and we want other things from movies than that. The movies that Hollywood are producing are not giving us that, so in many cases, documentary films are. So it’s only natural that people would turn more and more to documentaries. I can’t say my film is a dramatic film in that sense. I’ve never been able to do that very well, personally.

UD: There is a certain emotion that comes from the film, which brings me to another question. Which is about the relationship that develops between the narrator and the city. Because the city is kind of named as a character, which suggests that it has this personality. I did want to ask about your relationship with Los Angeles and whether you do kind of think of it as this character you have a relationship with?

TA: Well, some people have said the film is autobiographical. I don’t know if that’s true, but I accept it. Something happened in this film that didn’t happen in my earlier films, which are in some ways similar, is that I adopted a first-person narration. I tried to present the narrator as a character and as kind of a, as an idiosyncratic character, you might say a bit of a crank, which I probably am, but also a character of a certain age, with certain memories, certain ideas. Actually in making this film, I was somewhat liberated by the ideas of false documentary, so called, or the fake documentary. The idea that one could, in a documentary film, express ideas that weren’t necessarily true. And in fact an influence on the film was the voiceover in…Noe’s film? What’s it called in English? Alone Against All. You know the film?

UD: I’m sorry, what was it?

TA: Buy Gaspar Noe’s film… Seul contre tous. It’s a film where the voiceover is from the point of view of a character who is very unsympathetic, who is a kind of racist, fascist, homophobe. But yet it kind of implicates us in a way that the film never would without the voiceover. He’s also misogynistic and misanthropic, but through the voiceover we can not only understand him, but feel implicated. My film is not at all like that, and in fact, in the end, what’s said in the film…there’s nothing that I don’t actually believe. Though I’m aware of a certain, let’s say hyperbolic aspect of the things said. You know, at one point, I thought I could say things I don’t believe, so I ended up saying things I do believe but in maybe a more outrageous way than I would have if I was trying to be objective or try to say stuff that everyone would agree with. So, anyway I don’t really believe in the idea of a fake documentary. I think it’s kind of a fraud actually. A lot of films that present themselves as fake documentaries are actually fake fake documentaries. Maybe my film is one or could be taken that way. Let’s see, I’ve lost my way a little…I was saying something about the kind of compositional process of the film. What was your question?

UD: The part of the film that for me, made me feel, like you were saying that people have, or this narrator has a kind of relationship to the city of Los Angeles that is maybe analogous to the relationship a person has with a friend—you know, who bitterly disappoints him, in refusing to stand up or failing to act. Does that make sense?

TA: Yeah, that’s fair enough.I guess I found it a little odd that in Los Angeles as a result of the movie, I’ve developed a reputation as a great Los Angeles patriot. I got a certificate of recognition from the city that was presented to me by my local city councilman at one of the screenings. Because the film is at least as critical of certain institutions of the city as it is of Hollywood movies, most evidently the police department. But also in talking about democracy in Los Angeles and making the claim that the most significant choices that shaped the history of the city were actually democratic decisions rather than being the result of insider conspiracies. It does criticize the people of the city for making wrong decisions. I think that’s perfectly consistent with a belief in democracy. That if you believe in democracy, you don’t have to agree with every decision the people make and indeed that’s part of democracy. That’s defending democracy rather than criticizing it or despairing it, because things change. I think Waldie and I both see in Los Angeles the possibilities of a more generous kind of politics, a more generous kind of civic spirit. Although there are always steps forward and steps backward, we can continue to criticize the steps backward.

UD: Purchase Purchase That led to the last question I had, about whether you see you film as being a kind of viable playing field for change and also just to ask what other films do you see that give you hope for change and for those steps forward.

TA: Oddly, the older I get, the more optimistic I become about the possibilities of film, cinema, movies, whatever you want to call it, as a medium. I think for the way it brings together so many different arts, because of the fact that there is a kind of existential bond between the representation and the thing being represented, because of the way that it can take us to different places, give us an insight into lives that are very different from our own, show us things that we can never possibly see, describe an aspect of reality that hasn’t been acknowledged. That was idea of Kieslowski in his early documentaries, which have always been important to me; the idea of describing something. He was responding to a particular situation in Poland in the 1960s and 1970s, where there was this great divide between reality as it was officially acknowledged by the newspapers and the televisions and the state-controlled media and reality as it was experienced by people in their actual lives. He thought that if you could describe the actual reality, that was the necessary first step in order to change reality; that something has to be described before it can be talked about and changed; that reality has to be acknowledged before there can be a discussion about it. I think that motion pictures remains a particularly powerful medium for creating these descriptions.

On the other hand, I do find myself disappointed by what’s actually being produced and I find myself disappointed by the difficulties that films that, to me, come closer to these hopes that I have, find in being distributed, in reaching an audience that I think exists for them. And, I find myself disappointed by the discourse that surrounds movies and by the culture of movies, I guess you’d say. Which is, you know a little hard to say, because I’m well aware of the efforts of so many people to work on it and improve it and I’m appreciative that work and I think of myself as a kind of a modest worker in that sense as well as making movies. I think we need to find a way to…well, I think we need to become a little more militant about issues of cultural politics, maybe we need to be a little more militant about political issues in general. We need to be more outraged about things we’ve gotten cynical about–about things we all know but somehow, someway, some part of us accepts. Just for example, the way in which television insults and dehumanizes its’ audience is something that in some sense we’ve become so used to that we’ve lost our sense of outrage over it.

UD: I don’t want to take up your whole afternoon here, but maybe just to wrap up briefly; are you from Los Angeles?

TA: I moved here when I was three years old, so…and I’ve lived here most of the rest of my life. When I was a kid, I spent one semester in New York City, going to school there. It was an experience that I am deeply grateful for and it gave me a love of New York City, which I actually liked a lot better than Los Angeles. But as it happens, aside from that and a period of ten years, about ten years, when I moved away because of jobs, I’ve continued to live here. When I was a young person, I actually wanted to move to New York when I got out of college. For various reasons, it didn’t work out and I came back and kind of accepted it. When I did move away, that was a period from 1976-1987, I did end up deciding that I did want to move back here and I did. So I’ve lived here again for the past 20 years. So I would consider myself, I don’t know if “native” is the word, but this is definitely the place where my roots are, for better or for worse, and the place I feel at home.