Thoughts On: Cinema 1: The Movement-Image (Cinéma 1. L’Image-Mouvement, 1983)
This is a post is confined primarily to the title above. We will then be exploring fragmented elements of Gilles Deleuze’s Cinema 1 with reflection on the creative act of writing.
I have recently been revisiting and attempting to understand the work of the French philosopher, Gilles Deleuze, specifically, his writing on cinema through his book Cinema 1: The Movement-Image. I have read (and re-read) chapters from this book before and have tried to find explanations of his work, but never really grasped what it is that Deleuze means by movement-image. In my recent efforts to try and understand his ideas, I’ve decided not to just jump into his books, but to slowly work my way in by researching the man himself and parts of his wider work.
One thing that must be noted for anyone who hasn’t heard of Deleuze before is that he had very little to do with cinema. Whilst there are film theorists like Eisenstein who put their ideas into practice, whilst there are film theorist like Bazin who only worked in essay format and whilst there are ‘film theorist’ (or rather, critics) like Ebert, Deleuze does not, though we could squeeze him to, fit into this spectrum. Moreover, nor, does it seem, that he wanted to exist in the realm of cinema like someone like Bazin did. Deleuze was a philosopher, and this is what he called himself, whose work was tied to a concept of immanence. Immanence has its basis in theology and metaphysics, and, for Deleuze, immanence meant “existing or remaining within” in quite a complex way. As an extension of often asking himself what it is that he is doing, a question of “What Is Philosophy?” (which is what one of his last books was called), Deleuze assumed that what he was doing in his field was confined to it. In such, what he did with philosophy was not for the purpose of science, nor art, nor the world (though it eventually finds itself in such a predicament of serving these entities in a contributory way). Philosophy, to Deleuze, existed for its own sake, and this is his conception of immanence in practice. Deleuze nonetheless recognised that, a), there is an act to be defined in each individual field of thought, and, b) that all endeavours, fields or concepts exist in space-time (reality) and so do come to effect one another. Thus, from a stance of immanence, when Deleuze questioned what it was that cinema is, he not only devised the theory of the movement-image, but also formulated it as a philosophical tool through which the world could be understood – not so much just film itself.
From what I have grown to understand – and I wouldn’t say I completely comprehend this theory – it seems that “movement-image” was Deleuze’s re-definition of the idea of a “motion picture”. Whilst cinema has always been thought of as pictures that move, Deleuze was against the idea that cinema is simply still photographs played at 24fps. Cinema could not be defined by a single frame in this respect, instead, the movement defined the frame. This in turn implies the importance of movement in cinema as not just a trick, but an abstract, perceivable and cohesive block of being and meaning. Again, movement defines the image, the images do not merely not conjure movement. Whilst this may be technically wrong, the technical aspect of cinema has little to do with how it is perceived. After all, we do not think of vibrating molecules bearing an abundance of energy when we put our hand in hot water, we think of pain and danger. In fact, we do not think this. Pain and danger are conscious after thoughts of an automatic response in the body. Nonetheless, it is clear that the automatic nervous system functions like the movie projector or camera: they receive and process stimuli on a practical level whilst it takes a conscious, thinking audience to bring what is received to life through concepts in relation to our own being – and this is, again, the crux of immanence. Thus, to understand water as hot is the same as understanding that cinema is made up of movement-images; it is to conceptualise moving pictures as stories made up of cohesive spaces, not necessarily individual parts, or, to refer to Soviet Theorists Proop and Shklovsky, a syuzhet of the audience’s own making. We ‘watch’ movies just like we ‘feel’ hot water.
There comes to be further complexity in the work of Deleuze when he further defines the movement-image to be made up of the action-image, the perception-image and the affection-image. These labels, which I do not yet fully understand, allow Deleuze to better define and discuss cinema through its various spaces as caught by a frame. Without wanting to get much further into this, as the movement-image itself is not really the topic of this essay, we should return to Deleuze’s idea of immanence and separate fields of thought.
Through defining cinema and attempting to provide vocabulary with which to discuss it philosophically, Deleuze confronts the ‘creative act’. The creative act is connected to thought, and thought itself is a concept that people have struggled over for millennia. What does it mean to think? In turn, what does it mean to create something from thought? What is the creative act?
There are two fundamental stances or approaches you can take to this question, and they are very much so linked to concepts of determinism and free will. Determinism itself implies that the human mind is guided by other forces (such as biology, society or even some spirit or God). Free will implies that a certain power comes from within ourselves, which allows us to think as independent, self-sovereign entities. These are two very broad camps of thinking, but, in relation to thought, we can simplify these two approaches to mean: thoughts come from within us, or we exist in thoughts. These abstract ideas can be best conceptualised by imagining thought as a physical object: a box. If this box was embedded in your head and wired up to your brain like something such as a power cell, then you could imagine that that box, whilst the source of thought, is under your control. However, if that box was bigger than yourself – say it was a building that you were stuck in – then the opposite would be true. Instead of controlling the box, which you can’t because you don’t even fully comprehend it, nor can you look at it from the outside, you can only work within it and maybe clean up and maintain it. With his philosophy of immanence, Deleuze seems to think that people work within the box of imagination; we do not have control and a free will to just command thoughts and conceptualise what we desire – after all, we often rarely know what we desire, much less what we’re even ignorant of. What this suggests is that the creative act is the management of, the study of and the being in, the thought box and sometimes emerging with a creation, a concept, of ‘your own’. In relation to cinema, inside the concept of the movement-image, inside the manner in which human beings perceive films as movement, filmmakers then work to create blocks of their art.
What Deleuze does with this assertion is make a case for cinema as a unique and individual art separate from science and other art forms. Because he was a philosopher who aimed to understand the world through the act of thinking – that which you may call philosophy – cinema was then important to him in this respect. To understand people and to understand the concepts upon which this world functions, Deleuze seemingly wanted to understand cinema.
Having felt that I’ve absorbed and understood much of this introductory material to Deleuze, I had to stop a while and think of why this matters. In fact, many people have already questioned the purpose of a book like Cinema 1 to a filmmaker. In a certain sense, the idea of the movement-image has no relation to filmmakers – it is for philosophers to think about and use in their own field. However, there is a clear element to Deleuze’s work that engages a conversation with those who make cinema. Hearing Deleuze’s ideas, and hopefully understanding them, then essentially allows a filmmaker to articulate exactly what it is that they’re doing. Whilst someone such as Tarkovsky would suggest that he is creating a sculpture out of time and a piece of poetry to appeal the emotions and subconscious of his viewers, and whilst someone such as Eisenstein would suggest that he is formalising cinema through montage as to create meaning which would in turn be able to project political ideals, Deleuze suggests that the cinema is a medium through which continuity and movement produces its own form of meaning and communication. These ideas guide and coach filmmakers to varying degrees, so there is a capacity of Deleuze’s work, which I think is most abstract, that is very much so useless to filmmakers. But, if engaged correctly, Deleuze’s work would have a filmmaker approach cinema with an articulated sense of what it is, and how it is, that they are trying to communicate their thoughts and ideas to an audience.
Again, here I reach an impasse in which I have to stop and think. Cinema has its own immanent function, so what has writing got to do with the cinema? As Deleuze suggests, whilst all fields of creative thought and action are separate and, to a degree, self-concerned, they all exist in this world (in space-time). There is then a connection that everything shares through a vast network that sprawls throughout our known reality. So, there must be a connection between writing and cinema, and the fact that most movies are made from written screenplays and publicised and marketed (to a great degree) through written reviews seems to confirm this. There are then practical connections that cinema and writing share, which means it is quite easy to understand what it is that screenwriters such as Aaron Sorkin, Charlie Kaufman and Efthymis Filippou (who works with Yorgos Lanthimos) are doing. Furthermore, it is easy to comprehend what reviewers/critics such as Pauline Kael, Roger Ebert or Mark Kermode do, also, what theorist such as Dulac, Kuleshov, Grierson and Truffaut do through their writing. But, whilst screenwriters provide blueprints for films through their writing, critics attempt act as a quality filter for what comes out of the cinematic process and theorist such as Dulac, Kuleshov, Grierson and Truffaut use their concepts to make and reflect upon movies, there are figures such as Bazin, Bordwell and Deleuze who do not have such direct links to cinema. This is why, unless you study film, names such as André Bazin, David Bordwell and Gilles Deleuze are probably ones you’ve never heard of whilst Ebert and Sorkin likely are if you have a keen interest in film.
In an attempt to produce work in the same genre of cinema writing as Bazin, Bordwell and maybe Deleuze, I, myself, am not demonstrating a practical approach to the cinema. Whilst I use my writing to fuel and reflect upon my screenplays, my attachment to the creation of actual moving pictures, outside of a few personal short films, is non-existent. This is quite true of our mentioned figures also, and so to understand what it is that we are doing is quite a bit more difficult than understanding what screenwriters and critics do. However, if we consider that all separate fields of creative output exist in reality and are connected, it is quite clear that there is a quanta, or a fuel that circulates this system. As has been implied, this is consciousness and thought; through perceiving reality, or by creating something from and in it, we somehow think. Thought means nothing, however, until it is recognised by another thinking entity, and thus there is communication: the veins and arteries through which thought flows.
I believe someone like Deleuze, especially through his ventures into the field of cinema, is not so much, or is not just, defining fields of thought and creating vocabulary to describe them. What Deleuze is doing is demonstrating how these fields outsource their creations; he is outlining the manner in which thoughts birthed in one field can be communicated to the world. Simultaneous to this, Deleuze is apart of this process as he too attempts to communicate what exists in one field (philosophy or cinema for example) into the more general realm of space-time (society or the zeitgeist). Seemingly conscious of this, Deleuze spent a large portion of his career re-articulating to the world the ideas of those in his own field: philosophers such as Nietzsche, Hume and Foucault. Deleuze, much like Bazin and Bordwell, is then an educator of sorts as he is taking the thoughts and products of one form (philosophy for example) and projecting them through another (like writing as social commentary or education), presumably, in the hope that a greater understanding of the world-in-general and the topic-at-hand could emerge from this re-articulation.
This answers a question such as “Why Write About Cinema?”. Whilst you can do this as a screenwriter, a reviewer or a self-serving theorist, there is also the wider, more general, purpose of developing human understanding by forcing separate fields of creation to communicate with one another. We can see this through Thoughts On if we chose to; not only are we finding more films and discovering more about cinema here, but a portion of this blog is dedicated to the re-telling of films in new lights. For instance, we may discuss the subtext of, for example, Cinderella, The Planet Of The Apes or The City Of Lost Children. In discussing these films, revealing what some would refer to as a “hidden meaning”, we are only taking the medium of cinema, stripping it down to its basic parts, and re-articulating it through a very specific kind of writing. There is a nuance that exists in all forms of expression, through which the innate substance of a story is projected, that varies – and often, the essence of one form, say cinema, is lost on another; say for instance: writing. However, by consuming these different forms of communication that are themselves communicating, there emerges a meta-narrative: an entity that transcends all individual forms through which a story is told. This meta-narrative is what writers such as Bazin, Bordwell and Deleuze in particular (though, all involved in each field play their part) aid in creating.
So, to conclude, why write about cinema? We, in a direct sense, write about cinema to create it (screenplays and practical theories) and to process it (reviews and pure theoretics). However, there is a more complex effort underlying this, and this is the creation of cinematic meta-narratives – ultimate expressions of human thought derived from various fields of thinking and creation – which can last through time and maybe have a great impact on society.
To end, as always, I’ll turn to you. What are your thoughts on Deleuze, Cinema 1 and all we’ve covered today?
P.S. If you want to delve further in Deleuze, I’d of course recommend his books, but I also found these videos very helpful: Gilles Deleuze by Philip Goodchild and Gilles Deleuze on Cinema: What is the Creative Act 1987.
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