- Why is time so important to Deleuze in his thoughts on cinema? Use at least two films as examples.
It will be argued here that time is of vital importance to Deleuze in his thoughts on cinema. Whether indirectly, through the movement image; or directly, through the time image, cinema presents us, according to Deleuze, with time itself. This ‘time itself’ is a specific type of temporality that comes from Deleuze’s readings of Bergson, based on flow, becoming and the potentiality of ‘the virtual’. Its relation to cinema will be analysed here, firstly through a general discussion of how the time-image of cinema in inseparable from Deleuze’s philosophical project as a whole. The focus will then move to a close-reading of Deleuze’s argument for the ‘crystal-image’ of time, considering the difference between two different chronosigns – the ‘co-existence of sheets of past’ and ‘the simultaneity of peaks of present’. The first will be discussed in relation to La Jetee (1962), while the second will be discussed in relation to Mulholland Drive (2001), arguing that a Deleuzian approach can challenge attempts to make the films linear and coherent, embracing instead their non-linear temporality as an image of the virtual power of time. This leads to a discussion of the political implications of Deleuze’s cinema analysis, considering how it can act as a call to ‘the people to come’. Finally, some potential criticisms of Deleuze’s thoughts on cinema will be outlined.
Time is so important to Deleuze in his thoughts on cinema because, as Colebrook has summarised (2006, p.30), cinema provides Deleuze with an image of time itself. In his Cinema books (2000; 2002), Deleuze argues that the movement image offers an indirect image of time, while the time image offers a direct image of time. This is important for Deleuze, as both Colebrook (2006, p.29) and Rodowick (1997, p.194) have pointed out, because the Cinema books provide an insight not only into film but also into fundamental aspects of Deleuze’s philosophy as a whole. Time, for Deleuze, drawing on Bergson, is understood as a form of creative becoming, a virtual reservoir of pure difference from which we can transform ourselves and create new futures. Crucially, the Cinema books show how it is through the specific qualities of film itself and the cinematic experience that we are able to access this transformative potential. Deleuze’s use of cinema then is neither an interpretation of films according to his theory nor just the explanation of his theory through film examples. Rather, he uses film as a way of philosophising, producing new thought and suggesting new relations, and cinematic time is of vital importance to this. Buchanan, for example, argues that Deleuze’s analysis of cinema is also and at the same time an examination of subjectivity (2008, p.25). Colebrook argues that film, according to Deleuze, “forces us to confront the very becoming and dynamism of life” (2006, p.30). It presents a specific image of this Deleuzian time, in other words, which emerges from cinema but has effects beyond its confines. Rodowick proposes that cinema, through the time-image is able to “throw thought off balance” (p.195), forcing new ways of thinking and being. In order to consider these claims in more detail it is necessary to consider Deleuze’s arguments in the Cinema books.
Deleuze’s ontology is based on the division between ‘the virtual’ as a realm of pure potential and ‘the actual’ as specific actualisations of this. Both, within his philosophy, are equally real and co-existing. The inherently creative virtual, drawn from Bergson’s vitalism, is different from the ‘possible’ precisely because it is real, and new realities emerge from it through processes of ‘differentiation’, or difference becoming different from itself (Deleuze, 2006, pp.96-7). Life, in other words is in a state of constant flow or becoming, rather than something defined as fixed and static, and this flow can be understood as time. One of his fundamental arguments for cinema as an image of time is that cinema produces the ‘crystal-image’, containing both the virtual and actual through its presentation of this flow of time:
The past coexists with the present that it has been; the past is preserved in itself, as past in general (non-chronological); at each moment time splits itself into present and past, present that passes and past which is preserved. (2000, p.82)
This split in time is made visible through cinema. One effect of it is to show, crucially for Deleuze, that it is not time that is internal to our subjectivity, but instead, the other way around – subjectivity is internal to and emerges from time (p.82). Another effect is to reveal time as ‘the virtual’, allowing access to this continuum of potential, and time as a constant flow or becoming (p.98). As John Mullarkey has pointed out in his analysis of Deleuze, the time image therefore offers a direct image of reality itself (2010, p.93). Deleuze goes on to make a distinction between two possible time images, or chronosigns, one focused on the past and one on the present. The first of these is defined as “co-existence of sheets of past” (Deleuze, 2000, p.98). Through this chronosign, recollection gives us access to the past as “pre-existence in general” (p.98), making visible an image not of memory moving within us, but us moving within the flow of memory itself (p.98). Through accessing this ‘pure-recollection’, we can form a ‘recollection-image’ by jumping into sheets, or different aspects, of the past (p.99).
This type of time-image could be understood through a consideration of the image of time produced in Chris Marker’s film La Jetée (1962). In this film, set in a post World War III future, scientists experiment on the film’s protagonist, attempting to use a powerful image from his memory of the past as a way to access the future. The film is structured through these ‘jumps’ into sheets of the past, as the protagonist finds himself thrown into a flow of time, which he enters temporarily at certain moments, disappears from and then re-emerges eventually at a future point. Time, in this sense, is presented as a continuous flow, from which the subject emerges, not confined to the protagonist’s own memory but part of the pure memory of time itself. Accessing the virtuality of memory allows for new futures to emerge from these jumps into the past. The film’s structure as a succession of still images draws attention to the interplay between movement and stillness in the cinematic apparatus itself – in all film, we look at a succession of still images to see an illusion of movement. The effect of this is to suggest an oscillation between the virtual flow of pure memory and the capture of time in actualized still moments. When the protagonist witnesses his own death, he joins the people of the future, suggesting that the flow of time is more enduring than individual subjectivity.
The second type of time image discussed by Deleuze is that of the “simultaneity of peaks of present” (2000, p.101). Here he discusses how film is able to ‘de-actualize’ the present of the past, the present of the present and the present of the future into a simultaneously occurring event, through different ‘accents’ of the present all happening at once (p.101). An example of this type of time image could be the presentation of time in David Lynch’s Mulholland Drive (2001). The narrative in this film, as is typical of Lynch’s work, differs radically from expected Hollywood conventions. It is unclear, for example, whether some events are the fantasy or memory of one character, or the actual experience of another. It is uncertain when some events happen in relation to others, and surreal moments such as, for example, the disconnection between voice and body in the nightclub scene, seem to have no narrative explanation at all. The indeterminacies and uncertainties of Mulholland Drive have led to it being interpreted in a range of different ways by critics. McGowan (2007, p.195), for example, focuses on its use of fantasy to give experience meaning and coherence. Focusing on Deleuze’s thoughts on cinema, however, offers an alternative interpretation. It could be argued that the film shows different peaks of present by assigning different presents to different characters. Within the logic of the film, for example, it could be read that Diane has shot herself, is about to shoot herself, has not and is about not to shoot herself. All of these virtual pasts and future converge into the collapse of time into a series of presents. Reading the film in this way means not to attempt to re-assemble it into a linear narrative but to embrace its non-linearity as a production of the event-like nature of time itself. As Deleuze argues, it “gives narration a new value” (2000, p.101), challenging expectations of artificial narrative ordering through direct access to the virtual flow of time itself.
As mentioned earlier, time is so important in these analyses for Deleuze as it allows for the creative transformation of the future. This is where time and the cinema become political in his analysis, in the creation of a ‘people yet to come’:
Art, and especially cinematographic art, must take part in this task: Not of addressing a people, which is presupposed already, but of contributing to the invention of a people. (2000, p.217)
In other words, rather than repeating the past, an understanding of time as inherently creative and of cinema as a direct image of this time, has the political potential of creating, through experimentation, futures not yet known. It allows for change to occur within forms and structures that already exist. As Rodowick has argued, time, for Deleuze, must be tied to invention and to thought as a form of experimentation (1997, p.197), while Colebrook points to the importance of thinking time in order to transform ourselves and the future (2006, p.37). As can be seen from the above quote, cinema plays, and must play, a vital role in this experimental production of the future and potential for change. A film like La Jetee could be understood not merely as presenting the crystal image of time but also contributing to this new future through its reworking of the past.
It is possible to criticise Deleuze’s analysis of cinema. Colebrook, for example, points out how he focuses on ‘high-culture’ films (2006, p.47). This suggests that his theories of cinema as a radical presentation of time itself may not apply so easily to more conventional Hollywood narratives. In his defence it could be argued that Deleuze does not make the claim for all cinema. He does though focus on films that fit neatly with his philosophy rather than examining those that may challenge it through a different presentation of time. His work on cinema is, as Mullarkey has argued (2010, p.106), highly selective, choosing to pay no attention to issues such as the economic context of the film industry or the possibility of directorial agency. Films are used within his philosophy as part of his philosophy, and any other effect or context is subordinated to this. Another criticism could be the utopianism of the politics of temporality to emerge from his analysis. Steven Shaviro, for example, who drew heavily on Deleuzian philosophy in his work The Cinematic Body, was later critical of the “political confusion” (2008, p.5) in his own work, and the disconnection between affective and real social transformation. Another point made by Mullarkey (2010, p.108), however is the multiplicity of ‘post-Deleuzian’ film theories suggesting that his work has been taken up in different ways, drawing on different elements of his philosophy. Time is fundamental to Deleuze’s thoughts on cinema, but it also connects to fundamental aspects of his philosophy as a whole – his reading of Bergson, the virtual, becoming and transformation for example. Deciding how to develop and take his work in new directions is to engage critically with his analysis of time, but also of subjectivity and of film itself.
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Rodowick, D.N. (1997) Gilles Deleuze’s Time Machine. Durham, NC: Duke University Press.
Shaviro, S. (1993) The Cinematic Body. Minnesota: University of Minnesota Press.
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La Jetee (1962) Dir. C. Marker. France.