The Philosophical Underpinning of Cinema Studies

A review of Gilles Deleuze′s Time Machine, David Rodowick, Duke University Press, 1997.

Rodowick.jpgThe Duke Reader doesn’t usually review philosophy books. Duke University Press doesn’t publish a philosophy series, and only addresses the work of philosophers in conjunction to other disciplines such as anthropology, cultural studies, or loosely defined “theory”. Gilles Deleuze’s Time Machine stands at the intersection between philosophy and cinema studies. It provides a companion reader to the two books Deleuze devoted to cinema, The Movement-Image and The Time-Image, and can be read along with them. Deleuze’s philosophy is notoriously hard to grasp. Readers who have fully mastered his thought and are able to discuss it intelligently can mostly be found in philosophy departments of universities, and even there their numbers may be scarce. At the same time, Deleuze provides easy snipets and ready-made concepts that can be mobilized by other disciplines, with little consideration for philosophical rigor and accuracy. Books by Deleuze and Guattari have coined concepts and metaphors that were used in avant-garde cultural productions, from the film Matrix to the techno music label Mille Plateaux. Deleuze himself encouraged these derivative uses of his thought, and allowed for different levels of reading. His famous video series of interviews, The Abécédaire, was designed for a wide audience and was appropriated as such by many persons who had only little exposure to philosophy. Does Rodowick’s book make Deleuze easier to read and more user-friendly? Is it redundant with Deleuze’s twin books on cinema, or does it provide added value for the non-specialist? And more broadly, does Deleuze’s philosophy offer something meaningful to our understanding of films?

A philosopher is a person who creates concepts

My answer to these questions is a qualified yes. As a reader unfamiliar both with Deleuze’s philosophy and with film theory, I was sometimes put off by the difficult jargon and abstract reasoning that may be more familiar to scholars well versed in both disciplines. Here I must confess that the cinema terms, such as the frame, the shot, the montage, the close-up, or the out-of-field, were no more easy to assimilate than the philosophical concepts. In our society saturated by media images and screen pictures, a basic understanding of how movies are shot and produced should be a requisite part of a general education; but film and media training often fall outside the formal curriculum of the school system. On the other hand, philosophy is part of secondary education in my native France, and I have always enjoyed playing with abstract ideas and concepts. I may therefore conform with Deleuze’s definition of a philosopher as a person dealing with concepts. Here I have to confess that most of Rodowick’s Time Machine fell way beyond my reach, and that I skipped through entire paragraphs without being able to retain a single clear idea. But I nonetheless found the book useful in providing a running commentary of Deleuze’s cinema essays, and it helped me work through these French theory texts as I read them along with this volume. I also was able to get a better understanding of film critiques that use Deleuze as a standard reference. Below are the notes that I took in the course of my reading, the points that I found most clear, and the parts that remained obscure or unaccessible. Of course, the limitations I found in Rodowick’s book may be largely my own, and other readers may get a more substantive intake of food for thought.

Deleuze’s purported goal in Cinema I and II is not to produce a history of the cinema but to isolate certain cinematographic concepts. Concepts, for Deleuze, are not ‘concepts of’, understood by reference to their external objects. They are things to think with, images and signs that can be combined in complex figures and assemblages. This is the meaning of the “time machine” evoked in Rodowick’s book title. Time as a concept is a machine, a device or apparatus that produces certain effects onto other categories of thought.  For Deleuze, thought is inseparable from its object. In this sense, thinking about cinema is inseparable from making it. Filmmakers and artists can be philosophers, just as philosophers must become artists. Great directors and film-makers propose a new cutting or découpage of reality in the same way that thinkers attempt to delineate the world through new concepts and ideas. Alfred Hitchcock, Sergei Eisenstein, or Alain Resnais are philosophers in their own right. Engaging their work requires the same intellectual rigor and attention to detail that one would devote to the commentary of a great philosophy book. Conversely, philosophers who engage cinema think with notions that are the tools and trade of movie-makers. They don’t write from a position of exteriority, but inhabit the universe they are mapping. Indeed, one of the virtue of Deleuze’s books on cinema is to acknowledge philosophy’s debt to film and to film theory. Thinking with the sensory power of sound and image, Deleuze also broaches deeply philosophical themes such as time and space, movement and stillness, desire and imagination. Cinema, he confesses, helps him to think.

Our debt to cinema goes deep and wide

This indebtedness to cinema is not limited to philosophers. Our culture has become a predominantly audiovisual culture. Even in our daily life, we think and understand ourselves and the world with categories we have inherited from cinema’s history. Deleuze allows us to explore what happens to life when everything begins to look and feel like a movie. This colonization of everyday life affects our inner selves and changes our most intimate beliefs. In Deleuze’s parlance, our bodies become bodies-without-organs; the crowd becomes the multitude and accedes to the status of true political agent; and people are unmoored from their ascribed position and become nomadic subjects. Even the categories of time and space are affected by our film culture. In a paradigm shift first hinted by Bergson and fully developed through film history, movement can no longer be imagined as physical movement in space; it must be reconsidered as the form of change through time. The fate of the concept—and therefore the fate of philosophy—is linked to that of the image and the history of its transformations. Through the recorded picture, one sees better and farther than one reacts or feels. We often think and reason like a camera. And the camera itself is animated with a life of its own. After the director has commanded “Action!”, the film reel runs without control or interference from the operator. It is a kind of spiritual automaton, a thinking-machine or a machine désirante: it thinks and desires by itself, without the help of a conscious intervention. Life as movie, thought as camera: by taking cinema as the source of his exploration, Deleuze is only repaying our debt back, and returning the letter to the sender.

The main author Deleuze engages in his essays on cinema is Henri Bergson. In his book Matter and Memory, written in 1896, Bergson had the intuition of the changes that cinema would bring to our conceptions of time and space. He argued that thought is quintessentially temporal, a product of movement and change. In Bergson’s view, thought always moves in two directions at once: while it unfolds along a horizontal axis of association, it also expands across a vertical axis of differentiation and integration into open sets and ensembles. Through integration, related images are internalized into a conceptual whole whose movement expresses a qualitative change: the whole is different from the sum of its parts. Deleuze argued that the classical cinema, the cinema of the movement-image, provides a concrete representation of this process. By reducing the interval between photograms—the twenty-four images per second that are perceived by our brain as continuous—, between shots and between sequences—integrated through montage—, cinema introduces a new possibility for the image: the representation of movement, or the movement-image. This is similar to the concept of la durée that Bergson introduced in his early work. But in Creative Evolution, written ten years after, Bergson denied the revolutionary potential of the invention of the “moving pictures” and presented the “cinematographic illusion” as an example of false movement. In fact, said Bergson, when the cinema reconstitutes movement with mobile sections, it is merely doing what was already being done by the most ancient thought (Zeno’s paradox) or what natural perception does. Deleuze’s purpose is to reenact Bergson’s fundamental intuition of the representation of thought and movement by reading him through the lenses of film theory and in conjunction with other philosophers, such as Peirce, Nietzsche, Kant, and Leibniz.

There are different levels of reading

This makes The Movement-Image and The Time-Image, as well as Rodowick’s Time Machine, difficult books to read. But books can be read at different levels. Non-specialists can read a philosophy book and get as much insights and inspiration for their own thinking as patented philosophers. The same goes with painting, music, and other art forms: one doesn’t need to ‘understand’ art or ‘know’ art history to be deeply moved at an existential level by an artwork. This even holds true for science: Deleuze confessed he was very poor at reading math and understanding formal models, but he nonetheless gained a lot from his conversations with mathematicians and scientists. Indeed, some pages of his essay on cinema seem to come straight out of a discussion on set theory. No wonder many scientific readers of Deleuze’s texts told him his philosophy “made sense” to them. But they are not the only public that could be reached by philosophy: Deleuze also confided that the most insightful testimonies of readers of his study on Leibniz, The Fold, came from surfers and from origami (folded paper) fans, who told him they could relate to his writing. Similarly, he found the most potent metaphor of his own thought process in the kneading operation that bakers apply to dough, folding and stacking the dough repeatedly so that points located on opposite sides in the original plane can come into close contact with each other. In Deleuze’s words, one needs to stand always at the tip of one’s ignorance. The autodidact can be as insightful as the academic. One just needs to know enough to work through the text and let one’s imagination run loose, in order to generate thought associations and create new meanings. Deleuze’s advice to his readers is: don’t let your ignorance inhibit you. Don’t pretend to know when you don’t know, but get as much as you can from existing knowledge.

Paradoxically for a book that is supposed to help readers interpret Deleuze, I found Rodowick’s text harder to read than Deleuze’s Cinema I and II. Part of it may be due to a language issue. I read Deleuze in the original French, whereas Time Machine uses Deleuze’s English version, with abstruse discussions on the proper way to translate certain concepts and expressions. Part of the message conveyed in the original text may be lost in translation. Deleuze is generally considered as a hard-to-read philosopher, but he also paid a great deal of attention to issues of style and aesthetic rendering. He used colorful images and metaphors to convey meaning, and he had a talent for drawing connections and making shortcuts between very different realms. By contrast, David Rodowick uses a bland and emotionless prose, and proceeds analytically to interpret Deleuze’s thought. He keeps references to movies commented by Deleuze to the minimum, and concentrates on his conceptual work as opposed to his style. The reproductions of film stills are sparse, following Deleuze’s opinion that an excessive reliance on using frame enlargements in a print medium in the name of “cinematic specificity” would be entirely oxymoronic. Rodowick operates through classifications and orderings, decomposing an idea into several components that are addressed successively. Whereas Deleuze uses digressions and often deviates from his plot line, Rodowick proceeds orderly and step-by-step,

Making sense of Deleuze’s Cinema books

Another source of difficulty is that David Rodowick considers that Deleuze’s twin books on cinema cannot be properly understood without making reference to his whole work, including books published before (such as Difference and Repetition, A Thousand Plateaus, Foucault, and What Is Philosophy?) and afterwards (The Fold). Interpreting Deleuze, in turn, cannot be made without a solid understanding of the history of philosophy, and in particular an in-depth knowledge of Bergson, Nietzsche, Kant, and Leibniz. To compound the difficulty, he adds that Deleuze should also be read in the context of the history of French film theory, with references to André Basin, Christian Metz, and Jean-Louis Schefer, most of whom remain untranslated in English. Of course, this is only a methodological postulate: one should always feel free to skim through Deleuze’s work, to delve deeply in limited passages and pages while skipping others, and to pick up only the themes and ideas that one can relate to. This is, in essence, the invitation that I would like to make: if you are not theoretically inclined, skip the commentary and go straight to the text.

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