Thom Andersen’s Get Out of the Car plays at Anthology Film Archives on Saturday, in a program with Jack Smight’s The Sound of Jazz (1957), and —- ———- (“short line long line,” 1967), an early Andersen short co-directed with Malcolm Brodwick.
About a minute into Get Out of the Car—Thom Andersen’s new short about the semiotics of the Southern California cityscape—an off-screen pedestrian pushing, by the sound of things, a shopping cart, comes upon the filmmakers. Andersen and his crew, who are also off-screen, are shooting a pair of billboard skeletons bereft of any advertisements. “What are you making?” the man with the cart asks.
“It’s a documentary about signs,” Andersen says.
“But there’s nothing there. It’s empty.”
“It’s kind of a film about houses.”
“When you make a film about something, call me.”
Nobody walks in L.A., huh? Yeah, right. Though they are invisible to the drivers hurling past them, and though they are unseen by us in the movie, Get Out of the Car gives voice to, among other things, the sidewalk passerby, an omnipresent but largely ignored feature of SoCal life.
Described in a series of opening title cards as a “city symphony in 16mm,” Get Out of the Car is composed of footage of commercial signs, bodega wall murals, buildings, and ruins depicted at street level, and set to snippets of ambient noise and an eclectic range of American vernacular music. Andersen’s most recent film, the near four-hour Los Angeles Plays Itself (2004), was a gigantic, scholarly feat of historical excavation, but his latest is the opposite, a modest 34-minute triumph of compacted meaning, a breezy and lighthearted tour on foot through a Southland no one riding in a car would ever see.
Rebuking the dystopian tradition (and giving an implicit finger to Michelangelo Antonioni’s Zabriskie Point, a similarly themed picture Andersen derided in Los Angeles Plays Itself), Get Out of the Car manages to be hopeful even in its despair. Standing before the site of a legendary drive-in burger joint in Downey that was demolished illegally by its owner in 2007, the director grumbles bitterly about the crime, until another lookie-loo shows up and asks what it is he is filming. “We’re just trying to document what is left,” Andersen explains. Fortunately, that’s quite a bit. If Get Out of the Car tells us anything, it’s that there’s a whole other side to Los Angeles still waiting for the cinema to discover it.