Though ostensibly a documentary, it is disingenuous to cast director Thom Andersen’s The Thoughts That Once We Had as anything but a spruced-up video essay. It is a YouTube video stretched to nearly two hours, with a more-practiced hand at the helm. Andersen is unabashed about his love of cinema, and clearly states that this is his own personal walk through the ages of cinema. That might be the problem.
Andersen crafts the film from scenes of other movies, organized by various concepts from a film studies course. He then adds heavily-politicized interpretations to the proceedings, interspersing the classic movie scenes with real-life footage from various wars at certain times. Andersen wishes to portray the power of cinema to convey truth; in my opinion he only reveals his own philosophical preferences and political biases. There is so much time spent injecting communism, socialism, capitalism, and other “-isms” into movie scenes where it may or may not be there that it becomes tiring.
The Thoughts That Once We Had feels like a lecture; for those heavily invested in the world of professional film critique, this film will feel like a treasure trove of opinions and technique, so long as they’re willing to wade through the weeds of Andersen’s own style choices. For everyone else, it will feel like a nonsense homework assignment.