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I Am a Passenger

Hacia una imagen no-tiempo.
Deleuze y el cine contemporáneo

by Sergi Sánchez
(Ediciones de la Universidad de Oviedo
, 2013)

 


Criticism is the art of passing from one film to another. Not in the banal, professional, purely contingent sense of having to see one film, and then the next one … films that are, often, not of our choosing. Rather, criticism tries to take that contingency – the external requirement to constantly view a string of films in sequence – and turn it into an art. An art of comparison, association, networking … using one film as a stepping stone to the next, and the next as a way of reframing the last, over and over, and in ever-widening rings …

 

One of the beauties of this splendid book by Sergi Sánchez is the way it gracefully connects one film to the next, and keeps looping them together. Film books, as a general rule, like to keep things neat and clean: they take one film at a time, one per chapter; or a clearly defined group of films (remakes, sequels, a sub-genre, or films that all happened to appear at the same moment around a similar theme). Not this book. It passes from Jorge Luis Borges to Gus Van Sant’s Psycho remake (1998); from Alain Robbe-Grillet to Brian De Palma and then to Jean-Luc Godard’s Histoire(s) du cinéma (1988-98); from Henri Bergson and Gaston Bachelard to Tsai Ming-liang; from Kenji Mizoguchi’s Street of Shame (Akasen chitai, 1956) to Richard Linklater’s Waking Life (2001). The ride is captivating, always surprising and informative.

 

Sánchez is a man of both criticism and theory. The critic in him is fond of (and very good at) sharp, vivid analysis of each film that comes before him – and he is also full of that restless spirit to then move on, move ahead to another film that can offer a mutually enriching illumination in comparison with the first. The theorist in him is a close, avid reader of the philosopher Gilles Deleuze: both his celebrated Cinema books (two volumes) and the wider set of philosophical writings from the 1950s until his death from suicide in 1995 – as well as the commentaries of many who have recycled or taken issue with their Master.

 

So the films come with ideas embedded in them. Like many Deleuzeans, Sánchez has probably wondered: what would Deleuze have said about the films he never saw (or ignored, as is the case with Raúl Ruiz), or the films that came after him? What would he make of the Newest American Cinema, or the digital revolution? Hacia una imagen no-tiempo is not (thank god) a simple extension, application or illustration of Deleuze’s cinema theories, using newer examples – as so many academic commentaries on this philosopher tend to be. It is not the kind of study that is content to tell us that Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind (Michel Gondry, 2004), or countless other comparable, contemporary examples, is yet another confirmation of the idea of a crystal-image (past, present and future times, actual and virtual realities, horizontal and vertical experiences, layered into one block – as in Deleuze’s favourite example of Alain Resnais).

 

Sánchez has enormous respect for the venerable, vitalist philosopher named in his book’s subtitle – and his summaries of difficult concepts are enviably lucid and accessible. But he dares the one step beyond (the Madness motto) of taking Deleuze past Deleuze – and into the challenging realm of the contemporary. To really, effectively use Deleuze-on-cinema, we have to transform Deleuze from within (as others, such as Patricia Pisters, are also doing at the moment), causing the Cinema books to mutate in response to a changing audiovisual landscape.

 

There’s not just one kind of time-image anymore. Sánchez takes us through the many, mind-boggling varieties on display in films of the past decade or so: time reincarnated, restored, duplicated; cyclical time, dead time, time of interruption, feminine time  And there is also something radically new: the non-time image, which is properly the digital image. And this new type of image is not only something we find in experimental media works, or special pieces of video art; its presence and tone, its influence and action are felt everywhere, from the rapid-fire delivery of dialogue in David Fincher’s The Social Network (2010) to the multiplication of screens in De Palma (Femme Fatale, 2002) or twin/mirror characters in Van Sant (Gerry, 2002) and David Lynch (Mulholland Drive, 2001) … In the realm of non-time, traditional notions of depth, causality, individual psychology (and so on) are in pieces, left far behind; Sánchez delves into the new kinds of aesthetic experiences, possibilities and subjectivities that are blossoming in the wake of this over-melodramatised ‘death’.

 

It is commonplace, these days, to dramatically oppose the cinematographic index (as trace or impression of reality) to the digital pixel (as coded abstraction ex nihilo) – but the transition is more gradual and complex than that, passing through the electronic-signal phase of TV and video. Sánchez rests at the significant pit-stops in this varied development, from Michelangelo Antonioni’s The Oberwald Mystery (Il mistero di Oberwald, 1980) and Godard’s TV series of the ‘70s, through Dogme and Abbas Kiarostami’s Five (2003) and Ten (2002), and coming to recent fictions by Fincher and Michael Mann, the documentaries of Wang Bing, and the work of Pedro Costa.

 

No grand statement about the digital (whether from the mouth of Fredric Jameson, Slavoj Zizek or the more recent editors of Cahiers du cinéma) is taken as absolute or defining – but each tendency produces intriguing aesthetic and narrative possibilities that are noted and appreciated. If Nobuhiro Suwa’s A Perfect Couple (Un couple parfait, 2005), for instance, uses the open frames, actorly improvisations and long takes allowed by digital filming, it also offers a new definition of André Bazin’s cherished substance of reality – because now this reality that has to be rendered is itself discontinuous, depthless, full of holes and strange, obscure zones of action and inaction. Sánchez is as interested in digital death as he is in digital life – because he searches for the keys to wisdom as much in George Romero as in Giorgio Agamben. And he is also alert to both the attraction and the trap of  nostalgia for the movement-image” that forms another strand of present-day digital production.

 

The book, in the closing pages of its proposition/argument, winds back to the productivity of Deleuze’s suggestive formulations. Sánchez evokes the contemporary spectator as someone in “a state of dissolution, abandoning his condition as subject in order to transform himself into a flux of consciousness, into a Body Without Organs where it is difficult to discern the limit-point between the gaze and the screen” – and thus in a state of “becoming-woman”, of the kind we see embodied by Laura Dern in Lynch’s Inland Empire (2006). And cinema itself, as a medium and a means of expression, is grasped in the moment of its current transition, riding a “vectorial desire” into the future. Sánchez is refreshingly non-moralistic and non-pessimistic about these developments.

 

Gilles Deleuze is, in truth, a congenial theorist for film critics – far more so than Lacan, Badiou, Latour, or countless others in his philosophical, cultural or historical proximity. His ideas (and those he coined in collaboration with Félix Guattari) are free, inventive, generous, inviting – systematic, but not dogmatic. When I was 20 years old, I dreamt of writing a long Deleuzean manifesto titled Desires, Machines, Cinemas. I ended up writing a short Deleuzean review of Godard’s Sauve qui peut (1980) instead – the working critic in me won out over the budding theorist. No problem: Sergi Sánchez has finally written the book I dreamt of writing. He has turned the virtual into the actual: Deleuze-and-cinema not merely updated, but transformed. We can all learn a lot from Hacia una imagen no-tiempo.

 

© Adrian Martin January 2014


Film Critic: Adrian Martin
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