Gilles Deleuze and Contemplative Cinema

Written for and posted to the Contemplative Cinema blogathon.

“Against those who defined Italian neo-realism by its social content, Bazin put forward the fundamental requirement of formal aesthetic criteria. According to him, it was a matter of a new form of reality, said to be dispersive, elliptical, errant or wavering, working in blocs, with deliberately weak connections and floating events. The real was no longer represented or reproduced but ‘aimed at.’ Instead of representing an already deciphered real, neo-realism aimed at an always ambiguous, to be deciphered real; this is why the sequence shot tended to replace the montage of representations. Neo-realism therefore invented a new type of image, which Bazin suggested calling ‘fact-image.’ This thesis of Bazin’s was infinitely richer than the one that he was challenging, and showed that neo-realism did not limit itself to the content of its earliest examples. But what these theses had in common was the posing of the problem at the level of reality: neo-realism produced a formal or material ‘additional reality’. However we are not sure that the problem arises at the level of the real, whether in relation to form or content. Is it not rather at the level of the ‘mental’, in terms of thought? If all the movement-images, perceptions, actions and affects underwent such an upheaval, was this not first of all because a new element burst on to the scene which was to prevent perception being extended into action in order to put it in contact with thought, and, gradually, was to subordinate the image to the demands of new signs which would take it beyond movement?” p 1 Gilles Deleuze, Cinema 2

Deleuze opens his second book on cinema with a suggestive thesis: that post-war cinema engages thought, is a thought cinema, an emergence of a new kind of cinematic production (he would avoid the term “language” for specific reasons) interested in exceeding the limits of action and narration. He situates this break in the films of neo-realism, which offered us scenes and shots that fall outside the conventional use of camera to capture the actors’ physical and motivated participation in a visual story.

In these shots the camera chooses to dwell on its subjects not to show us their motivation, their actions or reactions, but to show us their subjectivity, their physicality, their presence outside of dramatic narration. The shots may even resemble a conventional reaction shot, but be placed in a segment of the film that has no need of it. The technique is common today but was not at the time.

In films like those of Lou Kerrigan, in examples like The Last Life in the Universe, Cafe Lumiere, or Morvern Callar, we are given subjects standing alone, or alone amongst others, mute or stuck, frightened or distressed, emptied out or meditative, attached to some interior trouble or block that renders them unable to find an action that might correspond to their present situation. The films give us situations in which actors have no present and immediately-available course of action.

These are new images for film. Characters are not meant to step outside of the dramatic flow of a narrative story-telling. The challenge of doing this in theater risks creating an untenable situation, for the character’s sudden pause can so easily make those of us in the audience uncomfortable and distressed for the actor. Theater places the audience in relation to stage actors in a way that makes it difficult for them to change their role vis a vis performance without also threatening to break the “third wall” between them and the audience. In film, the camera enables the possibility that we might see the character watching, stilled, and silent without feeling that something is going wrong, without feeling that a performance has now stalled or that an actor has possibly changed his or her relation to us.

On the relationship of viewer to actor/action in convention film:
“What the viewer perceived therefore was a sensory-motor image in which he took a greater or lesser part by identification with the characters.” p 3 Gilles Deleuze, Cinema 2

Painters would inevitably paint with paint alone, apart and away from representation, from perspective, away from the picture and with the contrast, movement, and force of paint itself Composers would discover the sounds and rhythms that lay just off the page of sheet music, where sounds might break free of the harmonies and melodies whose own familiarity made it difficult to sound something new without sounding something recognizable. In film, too, the signifying production of moving image and sound would have to peel off the printed page to unravel on the cutting room floor, awaiting new modes of reconstruction and assemblage.

“This is how, in an ordinary or everyday situation, in the course of a series of gestures, which are insignificant but all the more obedient to simple sensory-motor schemata, what has suddenly been brought about is a pure optical situation to which the little maid has no response or reaction. The eyes, the belly, that is what an encounter is… ” p 2 Gilles Deleuze, Cinema 2

Deleuze sees some of the films of the 50’s and 60’s as participating in this movement: a movement to rewrite the art of film-making. For the sake of creating new films, finding new moves and new movements, new ways of constructing time, of capturing it, freezing it, stilling it, cutting it or drawing it out…

“What defines neo-realism is this build-up of purely optical situations (and sound ones, although there was no synchronized sound at the start of neo-realism), which are fundamentally distinct from the sensory-motor situations of the action-image in the old realism. It is perhaps as important as the conquering of a purely optical space in painting, with impressionism.” p 2 Gilles Deleuze, Cinema 2

Time through movement and motion within a shot, and not just through the whole that a film presents. Time, as in Tarkovsky’s case, as a pressure within the shot. Or in Tarr’s case, as the time that it takes to walk from a village to the market square. Time as waiting, for a daughter to return or perhaps for knowledge. For example, Antonioni and Ozu each created new ways to place shots within a film, found new relations between the camera and subject, set up symmetries or wanderings that were like inverting the relationship between footnotes and a text: the viewer would now become stuck within footnotes. The film’s action seemed undercut, and a story so under-told, that something else had to be going on. It is the mark of these new films that their departure from conventional constructions seems at first boring, incomplete, uninteresting or unsatisfying. All of which could be said of any attempt to speak in a new tongue: is it the language, or what is being said, that’s nonsense? One would need to learn the language to know if an utterance made sense or not…

“This is a cinema of the seer and no longer of the agent.” p 2 Gilles Deleuze, Cinema 2

Having described, in just two pages, the needs of this new cinema, Deleuze can now proceed to develop some of its inventions. Christian Metz’s well-known and accomplished account of a semiotics of film makes a similar attempt at teasing apart a grammar of film’s signifying language. He identifies shots as as units; scenes, phrases, cliches, and on up to stylistic and narrative elements of genres. And indeed many of these phrases are so widely known that an animation like The Simpsons can produce parodies by quoting cinematic codes. But to Deleuze, Metz makes a critical mistake by approaching film as narrative, one that he believes eliminates the possibility of discovering cinematic material and substance, not to mention the construction of films themselves. We can take Deleuze’s comments on the widespread use of the banal in the films of Antonioni and Ozu (many contemporary indie and art films insist on the banal almost by rule) as a means of liberating place from setting. The banal, he claims, provides a new image because it so easily asserts itself. The film-maker only has to lift it out of its conventional role as a setting for action and story-telling.

“Similarly, if everyday banality is so important, it is because, being subject to sensory-motor schemata which are automatic and pre-established, it is all the more liable, on the least disturbance of equilibrium between stimulus and response (as in the scene with the little maid in Umberto D), suddenly to free itself from the laws of this schema and reveal itself in a visual and sound nakedness, crudeness and brutality which make it unbearable, giving it the pace of a dream or a nightmare. There is, therefore, a necessary passage from the crisis of image-action to the pure optical-sound image.” p 3 Gilles Deleuze, Cinema 2

From the slackening of the sensory-motor schema in neo-realism, Deleuze claims that film can now create pure optical and sound situations. Situations divorced from action, from narrative, and the film’s traditional organization of itself as dramatic and representational form. In Visconti and Antonioni, we are now not only given actors to observe (who are themselves observing, rather than acting), but we are given objects and places disembedded from story-line and from their role as grounding storyline (as settings).

“After Obsession, however, something appears that continues to develop in Visconti: objects and settings [milieux] take on an autonomous, material reality which gives them an importance in themselves. It is therefore essential that not only the viewer but the protagonists invest the settings and the objects with their gaze, that they see and hear the things and the people, in order for action or passion to be born, erupting in a pre-existing daily life. …. So the situation is not extended directly into action: it is no longer sensory-motor, as in realism, but primarily optical and of sound, invested by the senses, before action takes shape in it, and uses or confronts its elements.” p 4 Gilles Deleuze, Cinema 2

“And Antonioni’s art will continue to evolve in two directions: an astonishing development of the idle periods of everyday banality; then starting with The Eclipse, a treatment of limit-situations which pushes them to the point of dehumanized landscapes, of emptied spaces that might be seen as having absorbed characters and actions, retaining only a geophysical description, an abstract inventory of them. As for Fellini, from his earliest films, it is not simply the spectacle which tends to overflow the real, it is the everyday which continually organizes itself into a travelling spectacle, and the sensory-motor linkages which give way to a succession of varieties subject to their own laws of passage.” p 5 Gilles Deleuze, Cinema 2

Spaces now present new opportunities for relations, for the construction of relations between actor and space, action and space, space and situation, and ultimately, for the viewer and the cinematic image. Where spaces as settings were conventionally governed by their need to situate actor in action, they were subordinate to narration and requirements of dramatic staging: they were the stage and set design, if you will, in which action might unfold.

“The space of a sensory-motor situation is a setting which is already specified and presupposes an action which discloses it, or prompts a reaction which adapts to or modifies it.” p 5 Gilles Deleuze, Cinema 2

The new image would be free of those needs, free of drama, and thus free to suggest, show, and become either on their own terms or in new relations (to viewer, to actor, to situation). We need only think of Herzog, Kieslowski (especially in Double Life of Veronique), of Tarkovsky, Sokurov, Greenaway, even Kurosawa (whose love of drama is complemented by his own talent as a painter) to recognize this.

Another step is now taken. The image, becoming free to take on new significations, is assigned: to a subjective or objective position.

“In short, pure optical and sound situations can have two poles—objective and subjective, real and imaginary, physical and mental.” p 9 Gilles Deleuze, Cinema 2

A sheet of rain can be given to us as an image, or it can be given to us as a mental image: a sheet of rain through a character’s eyes. In the second case, the possibilities for meaning or interpretation are multiplied. Is this a sheet of rain here and now, or in memory, in fantasy, or dream? What are we seeing? What the character sees, or what the film is made of (the landscape dream sequence in Fata Morgana, which he obtained from his brother’s 16 mm and which is utterly alien to the film, visually and in terms of location or setting)?

“As for the distinction between subjective and objective, it also tends to lose its importance, to the extent that the optical situation or visual description replaces the motor action. We run in fact into a principle of indeterminibility, of indiscernibility: we no longer know what is imaginary or real, physical or mental, in the situation, not because they are confused, but because we do not have to know and there is no longer even a place from which to ask.” p 7 Gilles Deleuze, Cinema 2

Deleuze invents new terms. These are signs, but not direct indexical signs (e.g. smoke = fire) but optical and sound signs. Deleuze is giving cinema a “language,” but it’s a “language” that has nothing to do with narration…

“No longer being induced by an action, any more than it is extended into one, the optical and sound situation is, therefore, neither an index nor a synsign. There is a new breed of signs, opsigns and synsigns…subjective images, memories of childhood, sound and visual dreams or fantasies, where the character does not act without seeing himself acting…” p 6 Gilles Deleuze, Cinema 2

Film, even when they contain individuals, couples, families, and other personal compositions, can be told impersonally. He sees this especially in Antonioni’s trilogy (Avventura, Eclisse, La Notte). This is not just a tale of modern alienation, of aimless drifting, or of existential crisis and loss. That would be the narrative reading (and it’s fine, as that). But to measure the invention at the level of the image, of the sound, and of the assemblage of these Antonionis we must see more than just the muted angst and longing, in the ennui distributed across Monica Vitti, Alain Delon, and Marcello Mastroianni.

“…it is noticeable that Antonioni’s objective images, which impersonally follow a becoming, that is, a development of consequences in a story [recit], none the less are subject to rapid breaks, interpolations and ‘infinitesimal injections of a-temporality’…” p 8 Gilles Deleuze, Cinema 2

For Deleuze, Antonioni has invented spaces whose presence provides possibilities for characters in transit, transit emotionally, privately and unto themselves, spaces open for occupying, moving through, but not for making into a home, not for making familiar, not for personalizing. Spaces perhaps alien, whose distance is almost contagious, infecting those who find themselves in them suddenly afflicted with a modern purposeless. Spaces as were available in the American western, for the taking and colonizing, for the occupying and purchase, for the railroad and the law. But spaces as they were just before they were mapped: urban deserts.

“We are returned once more to the first form of the any-space-whatever: the disconnected space. The connection of the parts is not given, because it can come about only from the subjective point of view of a character who is, nevertheless, absent, or as even disappeared, not simply out of frame, but passed into the void.” p 8 Gilles Deleuze, Cinema 2

“From The Eclipse onwards, the any-space-whatever had achieved a second form: empty or deserted space. What happened is that, from one result to the next, the characters were objectively emptied: they are suffering less from the absence of another than from their absence from themselves….” p 9 Gilles Deleuze, Cinema 2

But I have already said too much, for Deleuze insists that we avoid “reading” cinema, for it is to be seen.

I wanted to present Deleuze’s film theory by providing a close reading of just a couple cinematic inventions that would seem critical to our Contemplative Cinema blogathon. Deleuze is, for me, the only theorist whose work makes a serious attempt at grasping film from the inside, from what it does as it unrolls at 24 frames a second, as if magically staging whole places and times, people, and events, succeeding at folding us in and taking over our position in time and space… There is much more in these books, some 500 pages of film theory (I’ve covered only nine of those pages here!). It would be possible to seek out the new images of contemporary Contemplative Cinema, I think, if we got down inside them, swept the floor, and took the lid off those cans… Black and white versus color, Christopher Doyle vs Sven Nyquist, action vs meditation (is there not contemplation in Wai’s Fallen Angels?), scene vs event, and so on. Can CC still be CC if it makes up only a part of a film’s style (e.g. 101 Reykjavik; Last Life in the Universe)? Can it be CC if it is of the Asian Tartan Extreme variety (e.g. Snake in June)? Is a haiku a form of poetry, and if so what’s an epic tale told in verse? Is CC in the form itself, in elements, in style, or in the film-maker’s own ambitions? I think Deleuze would have an easy time of this one, but a Deleuze comes along only once in a great great while.

I’ll try to get another one together, this time on camera moves, before the blogathon is over. A shorter one, I hope!

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