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Why Criticism: Thom Andersen and the Critic as a Worker

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Since presenting his graduation film, Eadweard Muybridge, Zoopraxographer in 1975, Thom Andersen has threatened to be both a filmmaker and critic. Using footage from other films, as well as his own interviews and images, he constructs films that work as both criticism and cinema. The line between author and critic only became further obscured in his most recent film, The Thoughts That Once We Had, where his favorite images from cinema are tangentially connected only by way of quotes and observations presented on title cards. How can the viewer or critic ascertain patterns or image distinct to a filmmaker who lives off the images and sounds others?

Is each parasite unique? Criticism has long been likened as an intrinsically parasitic lifeform. Criticism lives off its host, and whether or not this has become a mutually beneficial relationship stands for debate. Are tapeworms fundamentally different from lice because they live in rather than on a host? Does a parasite that originates in water differ fundamentally from one spread by a mosquito? Are all critics (with their influences, personal obsessions and experiences) fundamentally the same? Can we all be lumped together as a collective parasitic organism?

Andersen, more than most any film essayist, challenges that idea by embodying artist and critic simultaneously. Unlike Chris Marker or Jean-Luc Godard, the substance of his work is drawn from the images of others, making it more difficult to pin down his vision. Organized to suit his needs and bolstered by his unique insights, Andersen’s appropriation of other images challenges the supremacy of the filmmaker itself. He makes a case for the editor, who constructs meaning through cutting and organization, as the all-powerful visionary behind film meaning.

In Andersen’s best film, Los Angeles Plays Itself, his strength as a filmmaker and a curator presents itself through the exploration of urban environments. In his work, the city becomes the landscape where personal and political meet. In his opus depicting Los Angeles as the most photographed city in the world that still fails to translate its totality, Andersen comments on cinema as a representation of space. Other than just a portrayal of city streets, architectural landmarks or even important historical moments, his filmmaking emphasizes the body within the city. In one chapter of Los Angeles Plays Itself, he explores the notion of transportation and the false stereotype of L.A. as a city of cars. Exposing issues of class related to the city’s image, he paints a rare portrait of the Los Angeles transit system and the people who rely on it. 

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Another chapter mixing personal and political unveils Los Angeles as seen by outsiders. In this section, the French New Wave filmmakers, who were temporarily transported to the city, portray neighborhoods rarely seen in American films. Who does a city belong to? Who has the rights to its image? These questions float around this section, as Andersen emphasizes the power of the outsider as an arbitrator of truth. Writing for The Guardian, Sukhdev Sandhu beautifully summarizes Andersen’s romanticism in this regard:

“The heart of Los Angeles Plays Itself, as in later films such as Get Out Of the Car (2010), lies less in its theoretical concerns than in its wistful evocation of localism. Mom’n’pop grocery stores, old petrol stations, minor-league baseball games, community murals: far from the billboards and bling of TMZ Hollywood, it’s this intimate, quotidian realm, full of yearnings and struggles.”

This passion for urban environments also figures in Thom Andersen’s 1996 film, Red Hollywood, about the blacklisted writers who were demonized by McCarthyism. Throughout his investigation, Andersen reveals the radicalism of their ideas but also presents them as fundamentally American in their idealism.

The urban corners of cities where crime proliferates lies at the heart of a section on the lost art of crime films in Red Hollywood. The cyclical nature of crime tied to capitalism unveil a doomed society and a vicious perpetuation of the status quo. This does not exist in an abstract vacuum of combating political ideologies but is mapped onto cities and neighborhoods. Just as Andersen showcases the transit systems of L.A. as revealing of class and social status, the undercurrent of ghettoization lies at the heart of his investigation of 1940s and 50s era crime films. Trapped in neighborhoods with crime and fewer opportunities, the systematic force of inequality ruins generations, with space, mobility and infrastructure contributing to the economic and mental health of residents.

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Andersen’s impact on the use of cinema as a commentary on itself has proliferated as increasingly accessible technology has made it easier for critics and filmmakers to collect, edit and produce video essays. Beyond that, however, he has helped establish a language and frame of reference that has helped direct filmmakers to explore space and identity within their own environments, such as video essayist Tony Zhou’s Vancouver Never Plays Itself on Canada’s west coast film capital and its lack of identity on the screen. This short video essay works in discourse with Los Angeles as the most photographed city in the world and reflects new economic realities that push the industry north. In this new reality, Vancouver steps in to play Los Angeles more than it ever plays itself. Andersen’s influence makes a case for the necessity for parasites in the ecosystem of art, inspiring the medium to explores new dimensions and challenge the preceonceived limits of criticism. 

Justine Smith (@redroomrantings) lives and writes in Montreal, Quebec. She has a bachelor’s degree in Film Studies and a passionate hunger for all kinds of cinema. Along with writing for Vague Visages, she has written for Vice Canada, Cleo: A Feminist Journal and Little White Lies Magazine.

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