Thom Andersen’s ‘The Thoughts That Once We Had’ Is a Don’t-Miss-It Cine-Essay Beguilement


Had Thom Andersen, the wry master of the latter-day essay film, chosen a fawning, talking-heads-style documentary format for his ode to Gilles Deleuze — the late, relatively obscure French philosopher and movie buff — the result could have been a crushing bore. Happily, The Thoughts That Once We Had is a tonic, less a celebration of the man himself than one of the art form he so loved.

The movie is an elliptical, non-chronological, sometimes hilarious, sometimes shocking, and always puzzling montage of scenes spanning a hundred years and rarely identified by title or filmmaker, which can be off-putting. While most film aficionados will quickly recognize Jean-Luc Godard’s Breathless, precious few will remember his disastrously opaque 1987 adaptation of King Lear. Deleuze, apparently, liked it, and — on the basis of his theories cited here — seemed to judge films not for their content but on how creatively they transcended spatial limitations. He was no snob, however; he regarded a prolonged Laurel and Hardy egg fight with the same respect he held for Griffith and Godard (film clips from whom bookend Thoughts).

Andersen includes some peppy musical scenes from movies Deleuze did not live to see (Ghost World and Millennium Mambo, most notably). He doesn’t limit his coverage to feature films (there are vivid World War II–era newsreel clips, particularly one of Hitler sneering at the Eiffel Tower on his first Paris visit), nor even to film itself (there’s a delightful section on Hank Ballard’s bitter bemusement at Chubby Checker’s plundering of “The Twist”).

Andersen’s restless yet scholarly methods are contagious: He makes you want to become more well-rounded. We don’t just learn about Deleuze; we learn it is possible to love blues music, Maria Montez, Communist propaganda films, and Cheech and Chong in equal measure. Programming note: With The Thoughts That Once We Had, Anthology Archives is also hosting a welcome retrospective of earlier Andersen films, running June 3 through 12.

The Thoughts That Once We Had

Written and directed by Thom Andersen

Opens June 3, Anthology Archives