They say we are living in a time of the eternal present, that has no sense of the past and no sense of the future. There is some truth to that.” – Thom Andersen1
When driving down Dudley Street in the Melbourne suburb of Docklands, you might notice a billboard that’s been undisturbed for a quarter-century. It hangs off the side of a dull grey building, which gives the muted colours of the weatherworn advertisement an even greater chance of catching eyes. Already helping its odds, though, is the image itself – the iconic Jurassic Park logo – which, thanks to another series of needless and thoroughly bankable sequels, makes the billboard once again a functioning piece of advertising. Nostalgia is a hell of a drug.
Thom Anderson describes his short film Get Out of the Car (2010) as a work of “militant nostalgia”.2 Distinct from the “useless and reactionary feeling of nostalgia”, this contentious strain carries an imperative to critique and reclaim history, not from misinformation but collective cultural ignorance (or “amnesia,” as Andersen told fellow filmmaker William E. Jones in 2013).3 Across 30-odd minutes, Andersen shows us blank or abandoned billboards (“it’s a documentary about signs,” he says off screen), handpainted murals and some wonderfully eccentric roof sculptures, but this notion of interrogating the past is most clearly enunciated through an act that disrupts landscape-film convention. Rather than just document the environment, Andersen intervenes, holding up photos of demolished buildings against an empty blue sky and attaching four notices to a series of fences guarding the resting place of vanished cultural markers (Joni Mitchell was right: they paved paradise and put up a post-office parking lot). These signs are fiery requiems that pit social history against contemporary business (a drive-in was “DEMOLISHED WITHOUT PERMIT”), and, as becomes clear later on, their design has been modelled on advertisements for low-cost funerals hung up on adjacent chain-link fences.
These DIY plaques work in tandem with desolate shots of city streets in critiquing superficial perceptions of Los Angeles. In this vein, Get Out of the Car picks up where Andersen’s essential cine-essay Los Angeles Plays Itself (2003) left off. The earlier film reflected on the disconnect between the physical cityscape and its cinematic distortions but, here, by presenting only the real-life City of Angels in a series of tableaux – up-close and closed-off – Andersen asks us to reflect both on the simple beauties of the urban landscape and the corruption of space by capital.
The film’s abandoned roadside billboards, whether promoting Hannibal (Ridley Scott, 2001) or Jack Daniel’s, comment on the financial viability of the unseen area surrounding them (towns, streets, highways). Its murals – uniformly linked to Hispanic businesses – are different, and indicate a desire to control one’s own space. The walls of these stores, rather than being adorned with advertising, sport paintings of the Virgin Mary, or of Jesus’ crucifixion. Despite appearances, religious fervour isn’t necessarily the primary motivator for these artworks. As lettering next to one of the many Marys pleads, “Please respect.” These works, drawing on holy iconography, can be read as an expansive anti-graffiti strategy.4 One of the most memorable shots in the film shows us the top of a large white wall in the distance, with the shouting, all-caps phrase “ART PROJECT – PLEASE RESPECT” scrawled on it.
Using art – religious or otherwise – to claim control over land in the present draws attention to the inevitability of its destruction, at least in the version of Los Angeles that Get Out of the Car presents to us. The film tells disheartening stories of former hubs of art, music and culture – particularly those that were integral to the artistic expression of non-white Angelenos – that were swallowed up by other businesses and then erased from popular memory. This sense of loss and erasure is compounded by the film’s collapsing of time; much like the 16mm landscape work of Jenni Olson, Get Out of the Car comprises footage shot almost a decade apart (all of the images were shot in 2001 or 2009), but whose age is indiscernible by sight.
Midway through Get Out of the Car, when musing on the barbed wire guarding a cemetery, Andersen quotes Walter Benjamin’s Theses on the Philosophy of History: “Even the dead will not be safe.”5 Perhaps another Benjamin line from the same piece better captures Andersen’s perspective on Los Angeles infrastructure in this film: “There is no document of civilization which is not at the same time a document of barbarism.”6
Though clearly impassioned, the film is more than its politics. It is a beautifully shot landscape work – part One Way Boogie Woogie (James Benning, 1977) and part Mur Murs (Agnès Varda, 1981) – that stuns as often through cleverly cut montage (the neon signs sequence in particular) as it does through simple framing of storefronts. Lacking explanatory voice-over narration, the film is propelled by its soundtrack; it’s fitting Andersen refers to the film as “a city symphony” in its opening intertitle. The audio track switches between field recordings, tinny asides from Anderson and various passers-by, and carefully selected songs, predominantly 1950s and 1960s doo-wop and rock’n’roll. These songs relate to the history of place – there’s an oft-unspoken link between musicians we hear and buildings we see – and in turn explore the history of Los Angeles rhythm and blues (Andersen has written that his selections form a tribute to radio hosts and disc jockeys Johnny Otis, Art Laboe, and Hunter Hancock7). Perhaps because of the impassioned tributes to musicians in Andersen’s intervening signs, the use of music feels very personal, in spite of some sublime juxtapositions (for instance, Rosie and the Originals’ Spanish rendition of “Angel Baby” plays over a shot of a mural selling kitchen cabinets, with a painting of the Virgin Mary and Pope John Paul II smack bang in the middle).
Andersen finds beauty in the decaying traces of signs and buildings, in repetitive (and culturally specific) mural motifs, and in the relationship between memory and music. Moving beyond a survey of billboards and murals in Los Angeles, Get Out of the Car acts as a prompt to reconsider the cultural legacy of specific vanished places, and as a call to action to be vigilant of existing structures that could be on the verge of similar ‘redevelopment’.
Get Out of the Car (Thom Andersen, 2010 USA 34 mins)
Prod: Thom Andersen Phot: Madison Brookshire, Adam R. Levine Ed: Adam R. Levine Snd: Craig Smith
- Thom Andersen and William E. Jones, Between Artists (Canada: A.R.T. Press, 2013), p. 15. ↩
- Thom Andersen, “Get Out of the Car: A Commentary,” in Urban Cinematics: Understanding Urban Phenomena Through the Moving Image, François Penz and Andong Lu, eds. (Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 2011), p. 72. ↩
- Anderson and Jones, Between Artists, p. 16. ↩
- Anderson, “Get Out of the Car: A Commentary”, p. 59. ↩
- Walter Benjamin, Illuminations (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 1968), p. 255. ↩
- Benjamin, Illuminations, p. 256. ↩
- Andersen, “Get Out of the Car: A Commentary”. ↩