Review of

 

Gilles Deleuze's Time Machine

 

by D. N. Rodowick

 

Durham and London: Duke University Press, 1977

 

258 pp.

 

 

Now that academics in the U.S. and Canada have thoroughly assimilated the ideas of Jacques Derrida and Michel Foucault, they are turning to other French thinkers of the same generation, most notably Gilles Deleuze. The interest of Deleuze for cultural studies, political theory and philosophy is not hard to explain. Deleuze not only developed a highly original "philosophy of difference" (particularily in his magnum opus, Difference and Repetition), but he did so by relying on a very unusual conjunction of philosophers: not only such standard 60s references as Nietzsche, Marx and Blanchot, but also philosophers who had more or less been consigned to the history of philosophy: Spinoza, Leibniz and Henri Bergson. From Bergson, Deleuze draws a theory of time and memory that links freedom with a cosmic and unconscious force of becoming, and the central idea of "the virtual." The fortuitous resonances of the very idea of the virtual with current notions of "virtual reality," and the ways in which Deleuze connects this with a "philosophy of life" that transcends the divide between human and non-human, makes Deleuzian philosophy a "natural" for media theorists, particularily those concerned with the complex ways in which modern mechanization/cybernetics affect human life and culture.

 

Which brings me to D.N. Rodowick's recent study of Deleuze's film theory. In large part, Rodowick offers an exposition of Deleuze's two books on film, Cinema 1: The Movement-Image and Cinema 2: The Time-Image. Rodowick contends that Deleuze's film theory offers new and different perspectives, which have been largely ignored thanks to the dominance of phenomenological and structuralist approaches to film. Not only does Deleuze offer an original semiotics of film (complete with a rather complex armature of concepts and typology of signs), but Deleuze's analysis of film elaborates a neo-Bergsonian theory of time that is of direct cultural-political relevance. Like Deleuze's own books, then, Rodowick's proceeds along two axes: that of an ontology of time, and that of film analysis.

 

The relation between time and film (or "cinema") is obvious and direct: films are motion pictures, which not only physically move and unspool over time, but which also depict and represent physical motion through space as a way of expressing the passage of time (it's worth remembering that one of the first films depicted a train arriving in a station). But Deleuze follows Bergson in arguing that the motion of bodies through space fails to express the true nature of time. When time is considered a function of physical objects moving through space, this is because both space and time are taken to be homogeneous, linear, continuous and rather static: each "space" into which an object moves is qualitatively indistinguishable from the preceding and succeeding spaces, each moment of time is a "temporal space" occupied by an object, connected in a linear fashion with other moments that are qualitatively indistinguishable, and which succeed each other in the manner of objects moving along an assembly line. On this view, all spaces and moments are equivalent and interchangeable, distinguishable only quantitatively (how big a space? how long a time?). Rather than expressing movement, says Bergson, this theory does away with movement altogether: movement is composed of inert spaces and moments, added onto one another end to end, like matchsticks. This linear conception of time (Bergson calls it "the spatialization of time") also stands at the basis of linear cause-effect relations, and so subtends determinism, the doctrine in which every event is the necessary and inevitable consequence of the events leading up to it. According to Bergson, such a theory eliminates the possibility of freedom.

 

In motion pictures, this linear conception of time is expressed in a number of ways. When successive film frames are joined in such as way that the end of one is the beginning of another, this creates an effect of temporal continuity (Deleuze calls such linkage that of a "rational interval"); when the "out-of-frame" implied by a shot is a space that would appear on film if the camera aimed further left of right, this creates spatial continuity; if the incidents of the film, no matter whether they are presented in chronological succession or are intercut with "flash-backs" or "flash-forwards," can be united in a continuous chain with a distinct beginning, middle and end, this creates narrative continuity; when the audio aspect of the film is commensurate with the visual aspect (for example, the sound is of Bogart and Bacall and the visual is a close-up of their faces), then this establishes a unified audio-visual totality. All of these feature in what Deleuze calls "classical cinema," the cinema of the movement-image, where film presents or expresses time as a function of movement (and hence indirectly). Of course, there is more to it than that, and Deleuze (and Rodowick) go into considerable detail exploring the various nuances and permutations of the classical style, from Keaton and Eisenstein, through French impressionism, to Hitchcock.

 

According to Deleuze, though, cinema undergoes a powerful shift after the Second World War. To explain this shift, we need to go back to Bergson. Bergson argues that belief in linear time is a function of human psychology, and particularily of our lower level psychic functions of stimulus-response, including habituated or conditioned response. Perception reaches consciousnesses only after the mind has subtracted from the percept all that is of no practical interest, namely, everything irrelevant to a practical response in the form of action. This is what Bergson calls the sensori-motor circuit, where perception is an interval opened on the one side as sensation (stimulus) and closed on the other as action (response), and affection is whatever cannot be converted to action-response, but persists as a quality or state. Bergson, however, considers this circuit to be a lower form of mind. He contrasts it with memory, or (since habit is also memory), with a deep memory that goes beyond habit: the memory that the attentive mind is able to move through freely, not as successive points on a line, but as layers that are discontinuous but linked (a memory of childhood, juxtaposed with a memory of last summer): which layer of memory is reached is a function of choice (attention, effort), not conditioning or determinism. And although there's no space to explain this in a short review, this profound memory connects to the past: not an imagined or subjective past, but the past itself. Conscious memory is then just an individual perspective on a transpersonal memory that penetrates an immemorial past. Instead of time being a series of successive existing presents, in which each present determines the next, time is that of a present that passes and a past that is conserved, in which the present is divided between the duration of its passing, the past it will become, and its future becoming-past. The future, then, rather than being determined by prior presents, is open and indeterminate, each present passing into the past instead of pushing forward into the future. This is a time of becoming, in which each moment is qualitatively distinct from every other in virtue of the past and future that divide it, and each moment that arises is the creative production of something new and unforeseeable. We have access to this time through what Bergson calls "intuition," a mental act that can take place only if the sensory-motor circuit is disrupted, overcome or shut down. In short, we are required to think, and not merely react.

 

Again, this thumb-nail sketch of Bergsonism is incomplete, but adequate to explain the transformation of time in post-war cinema. Beginning with Italian neo-realism, says Deleuze, characters are portrayed as not being able to act, or incapable of believing in the efficacy of action. They then become witnesses of events, rather than agents, but witnesses no longer able to interpret or perceive according to the pragmatic stimulus-response, action-reaction model. The result is a disruption of linear time and of the unified self of agency. Freed of the sensory-motor schema, time becomes non-linear: instead of the rational interval connecting one shot to the next in a continuous line, there are irrational intervals, a disjunction between successive shots that produces a "false continuity" (Rodowick discusses the shot sequence of Resnais' Last Year at Marienbad to illustrate the point: see pages 100-108): "the passage between shots occurs as associative leaps in time rather than as the chronological succesion of actions in space" (109). There are also disjunctions between sound and image: what is spoken is what is not (or what cannot be) seen, what is seen is what cannot be spoken (see the discussion of Claude Lanzmann's Shoah, pages 145-149), or the "point of view" expressed by the sound is incommensurate with that of the image, with no way of deciding which "point of view" is more "true." All these disjunctions (of shots, or sound and image, of points of view) are non-hierarchical (none is superior to the others) and non-teleological (there is no resolution or cancellation of differences in a final goal that subsumes them). Consequently, the gaps and intervals are not filled by actions or narrative, but are connected by a non-linear becoming that passes between disjuncts without unifying them. This, says Deleuze, gives us a direct image of time, where the place in time occupied by people and things is incommensurable with the space they occupy, and people and things are carried off in an indefinite becoming-other that precludes the establishment of any stable identity. In shattering identity and chronological-linear time, post-war cinema opens up new possibilities, and in fact, opens us up to possibility as such, the new as such, a future to come.

 

This all very heady stuff, and indeed, Deleuze (and Rodowick) focus on films that are self-consciously "intellectual": the films of Resnais, Godard, Pasolini, Syberberg and the like. While Rodowick notes that Deleuze's view of cinema "expresses a cultural elitism and snobbery" that many find distasteful, he never really addresses the point. And while Rodowick also notes how Deleuze's aspirations for film link him to the utopian promise of art in Adorno or Ernst Bloch, he doesn't consider how old-fashioned and high modernist these theories are: all of them believe in a "future" that will be superior to the present, and that art's vocation is to tear viewers, readers or hearers away from the banality of everyday life, providing insight into something deeper that will awaken us to the unsatisfactory nature of things as they are. As Paul Valéry once quipped, the future isn't what it used to be, and the revolutionary and emancipatory promise of the avant-garde, if ever there was one, seems utterly exhausted by now.

 

And this takes me to a central defect of Rodowick's book: over 210 rather densely written pages, Rodowick does little more than summarize and paraphrase Deleuze, sometimes with illuminating comparisons with other theories, but all too often through the repetition of Deleuzian catchphrases about simulacra, becoming, "the outside farther than an exterior," and so on. Rodowick isn't helped much by the carelessness with which the book was produced: in my copy, fully 16 pages of text were missing (unless these were "irrational intervals" deliberately inserted to disrupt the flow of the argument), and the photographic reproductions of movie stills are rather shoddy (too small, often fuzzy or too dark to make out). Rodowick's great strength is his discussion of particular films: Last Year at Marienbad, Shoah, Senegalese director Ousmane Sembene's Borom Sarret, Keaton's Sherlock Jr. Even here, however, Rodowick often recapitulates Deleuze's own analyses.

 

The point of Rodowick's book, one would think, would be to make clear Deleuze's very difficult ideas to readers unfamiliar with Deleuze's work, but in that respect, Rodowick often comes up short: his explanations of Deleuze are often as murky as Deleuze himself, but without Deleuze's inventiveness and flair. Most readers would probably be better served by turning directly to Deleuze's two cinema books. As for the importance of these books, this lies more in the light they shine on Deleuze's neo-Bergsonian theory of time (see page 83) than in Deleuze's high modernist film aesthetic, which belongs to a time now long past.

 

 

Bruce Baugh

Philosophy

University College of the Cariboo,

Kamloops, B.C., Canada


CanFilm | Essays | FAQ | History of NFB | Images | Links | Film Festivals | Resources | Reviews | TRU Film Courses

Contact:   abrandoli@tru.ca        ratsoy@tru.ca       

Last update Sep 2007
Hosted by The Thompson Rivers University