Gilles Deleuze’s cinema books make for difficult reading, and if one is to make headway into them, it helps not only to know something about Bergsonian philosophy, Piercian semiotics, and (a lot about) the history of film, but also to have clips at hand of the films Deleuze discusses. Fortunately, Corry Shores has been very helpfully compiling such clips, accompanied by excerpts from the books, at his Deleuze Cinema Project 1 blog site.
The two books are books of philosophy centered on the moving image — a term that is somewhat redundant in a Deleuzian/Bergsonian framework, for which everything is (in) movement and becoming, and in which the image, which is both visual and auditory, is part of the very texture, or nature, of things. Deleuze, in other words, does not distinguish between a thing and its representation; rather, there are things, which are always in motion, in process, in becoming, and these things appear as “images,” which can be visual, auditory, etc., depending on the sensory equipment that is brought to them. Since the images are always in motion, it is cinema, the art of the moving image, that has best come to capture this quality of world-in-motion. The books are primarily dedicated to articulating Deleuze’s Bergsonian (and Piercian) schema and to setting out a fairly detailed typology of images. Its historical argument — that a shift after World War II allowed for the emergence of the “time-image”, which comes to supplement and ultimately supplant the “movement-image” — can be taken, albeit loosely, or left, but its ontological underpinnings are original, powerful, and I believe very useful for an emergent eco/geophilosophy.
Marcy Saude’s 5 or 6 minutes on cinematic time is a nice short video discussing Deleuze’s “time-image” concept over clips from Rosselini’s Umberto D, Bela Tarr’s Satantango and Gus van Sant’s Gerry:
As I see it, there are at least three reasons why Deleuzian film theory should be of interest to ecophilosophy. The first is the same reason why Deleuze is of interest more generally: because in providing one of the most coherent and self-consistent accounts of the world as process and change, his philosophy helps us understand the ways that things — i.e. relational systems from the molecular to the social to the ecological — come together and drift apart, territorialize and detteritorialize, with us, psycho-biological processes that we are, caught amidst them and acting from within them upon them (and upon ourselves).
The second reason is Deleuze’s Bergsonian and Piercian (and somewhat biosemiotic) focus on the image and its nature as carrier of affect. This brings imagination — the perception of things as not only a passive “reception” of what is “out there” but also an active reconception and engagement with the images and image-affects — to the center of cultural and environmental theory. Environmentalism needs a better understanding of how images do their work in the world; Deleuze can help with that.
The third reason has to do with time and our perception and understanding of it. One of the key insights of ecology is that everything comes from somewhere and goes somewhere — everything is in motion between one state of matter/energy and another — and when we treat something as a mere resource bank or waste disposal site, as a source or a sink, a “from” or an “away to,” we relegate a subset of the circular or systemically interrelated processes that make up the self/world system to a shadowy “outside,” hoping to forestall its return by a kind of freezing of time. We make a cut in time, but this cut is artificial, conceptual, and ultimately unsustainable; the “real” will return in one form or another. (This is precisely where an ecological ontology becomes most congruent with Buddhist ontology, and at least partly resonant with psychoanalysis. In Buddhism, there are no inherently self-existent things; there are only relational processes within which what we perceive as “things,” “selves,” etc., are codependently arisen, always changing, and destined to pass from their current state into another, and another, and another.)
Time, then, does not stand still, and as our society induces progressively quicker rates of change on and in the world, it also intensifies its efforts to stave off the changes that it sets into motion. We want to freeze property lines, national boundaries, and personal and group identities, to stop the aging of our bodies, to squeeze out as much productivity as we can from a dwindling resource base, and we want to do all that without facing the inevitable repercussions — collapsing ecosystems, population movements, and the like — that these all set into motion.
As an art form of time, cinema can help us arrive at a more adequate understanding of the nature of time. If Deleuze is correct and the production and dissemination of a “direct” image of time within cinema expands our capacity to conceive of our own and the world’s temporality — or, rather, expands our capacities for ethically inhabiting time, for thinking, feeling, and affectively being with others, for generating productive syntheses in the differential fabric of the world, for becoming — then moving-image media hold great potential for our ability to understand and visualize the relationship between the world and ourselves in our common nature as time, duration, becoming, and change.
Time-lapse photography is perhaps too obvious an example of cinema’s creative reimagination of time. Andrei Tarkovsky’s long slow takes of landscapes in decay and decomposition are another. Take, for instance, the pool sequence from Stalker:
Like all of Tarkovsky’s long takes, this one is about the “pressure of time” running through the shots. More specifically, Stalker is about the time that it takes to arrive at the yawning gap, the dark void and open wound that is at the center of the self; like all his films, it is about our relationship and elemental interdependence with the earth and with God (in Tarkovsky’s preferred language; Heideggerians, pagans, and Jamesian ontological pluralists would say “with the gods”).
For a few Deleuzian readings of Tarkovsky, see here, here, and here. Zerkalo (The Mirror) is full of mesmerizing time-image sequences like these (which do begin to yield some meaning in the context of the rest of the film):
But the slowness of (certain kinds of) thought and memory so evident in Tarkovsky is only one form of time-image. Cinematically imaged time can also be mercurially swift, or recursive; it can be one of multiple rhythms and counterpoints, coexistent “sheets of past” unfolding in parallel, at different speeds, meshing together, converging and diverging and spinning by each other, overlapping in thick and thin streams of duration and relational motion. The identity of a person, a place, an idea, can crystallize in moments where past (memory) and present converge onto an open future; but it can also seethe with tension or be torn asunder. Deleuze’s crystal-image is a moment that simultaneously looks forward to the not-yet and back to a past that set the conditions for it. It is a forking bifurcation point pregnant with possibilities and at the same time caught in the momentum of time’s flow(s), a “point of indiscernibility” between the actual of perception and the virtual of recollection, an image that “makes visible” the “hidden ground of time, that is, its differentiation” or “splitting” into “two flows, that of presents which pass and that of pasts which are preserved” (see Cinema 2, esp. pp. 78-83, 98).
Understanding identity/subjectivity and its vicissitudes — how subjectivity congeals under pressure, how it opens and escapes its own frames — is part of the project whereby seven billion humans can come to a more workable accommodation with each other and with the other life forms we share the Earth with. To the extent that moving image media can generate viscerally felt images of the times of things — things in production and in decay, in differentiation and in synthesis, things making up the unfolding materiality of the world, of identity and of relationality (in all their narratively spun forms), and the swift, dark flow of their vanishing — to that extent cinema is a powerful tool for eco/geophilosophy.
I’m still working out the implications and limitations of this argument. Deleuze, for instance, considers Eisenstein’s dialectical montage as a form that subordinates time to an overarching historical meaning, and what I’ve been describing can be taken as a variation of that — a subordination of time not to Marxist dialectical materialism but to a broader, socio-ecological materialism, a form of Dovzhenkian pantheism (which Tarkovsky was arguably a pre-eminent practitioner of). For Deleuze, there’s something more radical in the way cinema touches the quicksilver serpent of time — not the time of this or of that, but time itself. And yet, the aberrant cuts and false continuities of the time-image have also become tamed in more recent cinema, having become cliches of bad art films and also part of the new normal within the digital-era mainstream (as John Mullarkey argues in his excellent Refractions of Reality).
What I like most about Tarkovsky is the way he combines the density of memory — the persistence of the past — with materiality, the very thingness of things, which, as processes, carry their own inevitable future, their own demise and transformation. This combination suffuses, breathes through, practically every image in his films. It’s not time as an abstraction that is shown in Tarkovsky’s “time-images”; it is materiality, which is time; as are we.
The availability on YouTube of individual sequences of films, sequences with alternate soundtracks, remixes of sequences you would never see watching the original film, etc., all makes writing about film more enjoyable and communicable. Since I’m currently doing that (writing about film), expect more clips and posts like these in the future.