Deleuze published his two volumes on the cinema in 1983 and 1985. Recognised by many at the time as key interventions, their impact had only begun to be felt in the late 1990s in Anglophone Film Studies. Keith Reader pointed out in the mid-1980s that ‘Deleuze gazes from a place very different to that learnt by most of us’ (Reader,1987: 99), which could act as the leitmotif for the reasons lying behind Deleuze’s late impact.
The first reason is that the volumes appeared at about the same time as the major controversy in film theory was debated in the mid-1980s, between theorists working in the psychoanalytical and feminist tradition on the one hand, and their opponents led by David Bordwell representing what has come to be known as Historical Poetics. Deleuze’s work has very little to do with either side of that debate. If at times he seems to reprise some of the positions taken by Bordwell in relation to film history and ways of thinking about the film image, he has nothing to say about what was then the dominant theoretical paradigm, psychoanalysis, still less with what that tradition moved towards in the 1990s, and which might be said to hold sway currently in Anglophone French cinema studies, namely the combi- nation of Gender Studies and Cultural Studies. This silence where psychoanalysis is concerned is all the more surprising given that Deleuze is probably best known for his influential volume written with Felix Guattari, L’Anti-Oedipe: Capitalisme et schizophrenic (1972), which criticised the two theorists used most frequently in French film theory at that time, Saussure and Lacan.
A second reason is that not only did his work seem out of touch with current debates, but it relied heavily on nineteenth-century theorists who have never been used in Film Studies, the French philosopher Henri Bergson (1859-1941) and the American logician Charles Sanders Pierce (1839-1914).
A third reason is what might appear to be Deleuze’s very unfashionable high- culture view of cinema. Put at its most simple, he believes that there are ‘great directors’:
The great directors of the cinema may be compared … not merely with painters, architects and musicians, but also with thinkers. They think with movement-images and time-images instead of concepts. One cannot object by pointing to the vast proportion of rubbish in cinematographic production – it is no worse than anywhere else. (Deleuze, 1992: xiv)
He adopts the point of view of the cultured cinephile, and a view of cinema resem- bling that of film critics in the 1960s at the height of European auteurist cinema. For Deleuze there are great directors and the rest is rubbish. The great directors are Welles, Hitchcock and Fellini, amongst others, and the French directors he speaks at length about are typically iconoclasts: Bresson, Clair, Dulac, Duras, Garrel, Godard, Gremillon, Resnais and Robbe-Grillet. He mentions many more, of course, some frequently, such as L’Herbier, or Rohmer. However, Deleuze is not interested in these directors as directors. He is interested in the way in which they have worked in cinema so as to advance cinema as a form; and his approach to this form is not empirical and cognitivist like Bordwell’s, it is philosophical. As the q u o – tation above suggests, Deleuze sees in cinema a way of thinking, in this case a way of thinking about the nature of time and how to represent time.
Indeed, the most striking thing about Deleuze’s volumes for a student of Film Studies is the combination of philosophising and the acute sense of film history and film form. The discussion of film is highly philosophical, involving very abstract ideas and a plethora of neologisms: dicisigns, mnemosigns, noosigns, onirisigns, opsigns, qualisigns, soundsigns, synsigns and many more, frequently confusing in their multiplicity.And yet, Deleuze’s analyses of the films themselves, and the ways in which they develop ways of seeing unconstrained by commercial imperatives, can be deeply absorbing.
One reason why Deleuze’s work has increasingly been making an impact is related to the development of film theory more generally. Since the important mid-1980s debate between the psychoanalytical theorists on the one hand, working in what Bordwell dismissivelycalls’Grand Theory’, and,on the other hand, Bordwell’sown Historical Poetics, combining a more pedagogical approach based in Formalism and historical contextualisation, film theory has moved in two variant directions. One of these is Cultural Studies, which privileges popular films and has attracted the psy- choanalytical theorists, partly because it lends itself well to Gender Studies; the other is the development of’film philosophy’, to which the adherents of Historical Poetics have been drawn, mainly because it allows new sorts of questions to be asked of films. If anything, then, Deleuze is closer to this latter strand of film theory. And yet, paradoxically, Bordwell thinks that Deleuze’s work is derivative (Bordwell, 1997: 116-17), and his staunchest defender has been a theorist associated with the psychoanalytical paradigm, David Rodowick (see Rodowick, 1997).
Trying to situate Deleuze within the development of general film theory, however, makes less sense than situating him within a very French tradition of film theorists. Those he cites most are, in chronological order, Epstein, Mitry, Burch, Bonitzer and Daney, as well as citing copiously from articles in Cahiers du cinema. Metz’s lin- guistics-oriented work is dismissed in a few pages, as Deleuze, running counter to the long-running attempt by the French to determine in what ways film might be a language, states baldly that film is not a language, but rather a pre-linguistic ‘matter’, a variety of’signs’ (hence the list of neologisms above), articulated around two major types of image: the movement-image, and the time-image.
The simplest definition of these two basic image types is to conceive of the first as an unquestioning forward movement and the second as an introspective medita- tion shot through with ambiguity. In his conclusion, Deleuze characterises the difference thus: ‘[The film character] has gained an ability to see what he has lost in action or reaction: he SEES so that the viewer’s problem becomes “What is there to see in the image?” (and not now “What are we going to see in the next image?”)’ (Deleuze, 1989: 272). Deleuze’s meditations, complex and illuminating though they are, thus correspond very much to the standard way of conceiving of the history of narrative forms, that between classical Hollywood cinema, with its seam- less narrative, and the European art cinema, with its ambiguity, as established, for example, by David Bordwell.
Deleuze divides the movement-image into three basic types. The first is the perception-image, which resembles what film theory understands by the point- of-view shot (for example, a shot of a room followed or preceded by a shot of a person looking, which we then assume to be the room as seen by the character). However, Deleuze is interested in challenging that particular notion, and shows how the perception-image can be both clearly subjective in the manner described above, and also, following Mitry, semi-subjective, sometimes adopting the point of view of the characters, sometimes floating free. Adapting some of the ideas of the Italian director and theorist Pier Paolo Pasolini, Deleuze uses this combination of subjective and semi-subjective camera to suggest that where there is insistence on the semi-subjective (such as in constant reframing, empty frames and so on), it leads to a cinema where the spectator becomes more aware of film as film, a more ‘poetic’ cinema.
The second type of movement-image is the affection-image, more commonly known as the close-up. Deleuze’s discussion of the affection-image, however, is provocative, because for him a close-up turns any object into the equivalent of a face, it ‘faceifies’ it, to use his neologism, abstracting the object or the face from space and time, and acting as a complex concentration of affects, such as desire, fear or wonder.
Deleuze’s third type of movement-image is the action-image, which describes a nar- rative structure. Here Deleuze distinguishes two basic types of structure. The first is what he calls, following Burch, the ‘large form’, a situation modified by an action, leading to a new situation, typical of American realist and epic cinema (Ford and Griffith). The other type is the ‘small form’, where an action leads to another action via an intermediary situation, more typical of comedy (e.g. Lubitsch), or of some types of detective film where, for example, a careless action creates a situation.
Deleuze situates the crisis of the action-image in the post-war period. This led to a different conception of time in the films of the period going from the Second World War through to the late 1960s. The change is anchored in the socio-politi- cal, as Deleuze makes clear in his conclusion, without being preoccupied with the way in which film might ‘reflect’ historical change. He talks of:
The rise of situations to which one can no longer react, of environments with which there are now only chance relations, of empty or disconnected any- space-whatevers replacing qualified extended space. It is here that situations no longer extend into action or reaction in accordance with the requirements of the movement-image. These are pure optical and sound situations, in which the character does not know how to respond, abandoned spaces in which he ceases to experience and to act so that he enters into a flight, goes on a trip, comes and goes, vaguely indifferentto what happens to him, undecided as to what must be done. (Deleuze, 1989: 272)
There are two types of time-image, one in the past and the other in the present. It might be thought that Deleuze is referring to flashbacks or dream-images, but he points out that these types of image occur in the pre-war cinema dominated by the movement-image. He is trying to capture the quality of particular types of reflective images, images that enter into a new relationship with time. The most important notion in the second volume is that of the crystal-image. By this he means an image that is double, its doubling consisting in a perpetual shuttling to and fro between the real and the imaginary:
What we see in the crystal is no longer the empirical progression of time as succession of presents, nor its indirect representation as interval or as whole; it is its direct presentation, its constitutivedividing in two into a present which is passing and a past which is preserved, the strict contemporaneity of the present with the past that it will be, of the past with the present that it has been. It is time itself which arises in the crystal, and which is constantly recommending its dividing in two without completing it, since the indiscernible exchange is always renewed and reproduced. The direct time-image or the transcendental form of time is what we see in the crystal. (Deleuze, 1989: 274)
What Deleuze means in practice is particularly the mirror; he cites, for example, the famous mirror scenes in two of Orson Welles’ films, Susan’s departure in Citizen Kane (1941), and the hall of mirrors in The Lady from Shanghai (1948). He also con- siders that images of ships are crystal-images, because they are open to the sky but closed to the sea in a kind of mirror image. Similarly, mises-en-abyme or self-reflex- ive moments in film (or indeed whole film narratives that ‘reflect’ on themselves, such as Godard’s Passion, 1982) constitute the crystal-image. The crystal-image, then, is a privileged moment in film for Deleuze. When we come across such an image, which seems to confuse the real and the imaginary, ‘the two become con- fused in a process that both deepens our understanding of objects or events and widens our access to circuits of remembered experience in a mutual interpenetra- tion of memory and matter’ (Rodowick,1997: 92).
It may seem that Deleuze’s work is little more than a taxonomy, a list of image types, and therefore more concerned with film form, in much the same vein as Metz before him. In that respect, he may not seem very different from other European theorists, whether German, Soviet or French, who were attracted to systems and descriptive structures. It is important to remember, however, that Deleuze’s work is not a history of film form, it is a philosophical enquiry into the potential of the film image. Even if many readers may find his overall conception of that development difficult, because no writer on film has worked in this fashion since perhaps the great Soviet film-maker and theorist Sergei Eisenstein (fre- quently quoted by Deleuze), his volumes can still yield surprisingly acute analyses of individual directors’ films. For students of French cinema there are, for example, his intriguing comments on the role of water in 1930s cinema (in Chapter 5 of the first volume), or the ‘thinking cinema’ of Resnais (in Chapter 8 of the second volume), or the description of Rohmer’s films of the 1980s and 1990s: ‘It is the female body which suffers fragmentations, undoubtedly as fetishes, but also as pieces of a vase or an iridescent piece of pottery that has come out of the sea: the Contes are an archaeological collection of our time’ (Deleuze, 1989: 244).
Deleuze’s work remains a philosophy of the cinema rather than film theory in the normal sense. In that respect, it is difficult to see how one could use Deleuze’s work systematically to illuminate specific films without falling into the trap of simply repeating Deleuze’s categories, effectively ending up illustrating Deleuze by the film under investigation. That said, current practice seems to suggest that some terms will survive in common usage in French Film Studies, much as ‘intellectual montage’ is one of the few terms coined by Sergei Eisenstein in the 1920s to survive his own complex musings on the cinema. The most obvious of these is Deleuze’s attractive notion of the crystal-image, as explained above.
The interest of Deleuze for contemporary Film Studies is principally that, like all good philosophy, his challenges us to think film anew, as Rodowick points out: ‘Deleuze challenges contemporary film theory to confront its blind spots and dead ends, as well as to question its resistances to other philosophical perspectives on image, meaning, and spectatorship’ (Rodowick, 1997: xi)