Deleuze and World Cinemas

David Martin-Jones
Deleuze and World Cinemas
London: New York; Continuum, 2011
ISBN: 9780826436429
US$34.95 (pb)
(Review copy supplied by Continuum publishers)

The reception of Deleuze’s Cinéma books in academia has, in recent times, definitively entered a new stage. Having swept through the field of Film Studies in the 1990s – and in the process supplanting the earlier semiotic/psychoanalytic paradigm – interpretations of Deleuze’s “taxonomy” of cinematic forms had become so widespread by the 2000s that they, in turn, reached saturation point. What more could be said about the books, when reams had already been dedicated to deciphering and understanding Deleuze’s inimitable blend of philosophy and film analysis? The legions of Deleuzians were thus faced with a stark choice: either move on to fresh pastures (with Rancière, Badiou and Nancy being the obvious destinations), or expand the scope of Deleuze’s writings, read him against the grain, and admit to the limitations of the original work, while using the books’ broader logical thrust in order to surmount these perceived shortcomings.

The latter impulse has seemingly become all the more pressing, given that Cinéma 1 and 2 are now nearly thirty years in vintage. While Deleuze was admirably able to keep abreast of the cinema’s contemporary output at the time of writing, the intervening three decades have witnessed a sweeping transformation in not only the types of films we watch, but also the very conditions in which we view them. As such, the purportedly “Eurocentric” bias of his selected subject matter becomes all the more glaring in the vaunted era of globalisation, when formerly peripheral nations such as India, Korea and even Nigeria have just as much claim to “film culture” as “core” countries like the US, France or Germany. Ironically, then, the philosopher of deterritorialisation would, himself, be in need of deterritorialising.

Famously, too, Deleuze splits his encyclopaedic account of a clutch of canonical auteurs into an overarching duality: classifying them into the categories of the “movement-image” and the “time-image”, whose chronological scission roughly corresponds to World War II. The temptation for contemporary Deleuze scholars is thus twofold: to escape this bifurcation by devising new manifestations of the image (invariably to be dubbed the “[blank]-image”), and to use the methodology developed by the philosopher to explore both filmmaking traditions he neglected as well as those which have germinated since the time the books were written. David Martin-Jones’ monograph Deleuze and World Cinemas typifies both tendencies, and the British academic has managed to read Deleuze’s Cinéma against the grain with a level of acuity rare among the myriad similar projects to have surfaced lately.

Introducing his work, Martin-Jones is unequivocal in his diagnosis: the “image categories that Deleuze conceived of in the 1980s no longer cover all cinematic eventualities,” and this state of affairs necessitates “dedicated analysis of the applicability of Deleuze’s ideas in various other international contexts.” (19) Such an approach, however, leaning on Chakrabarty’s in vogue concept of “provincialising Europe,” should be seen as “the natural extension of [Deleuze’s] own philosophical project,” as it yields “productive assemblages” with “Othered cinemas”. (7) While it is admitted that Deleuze does, at times, discuss filmmakers from outside the West (such as Rocha, Chahine and Sembene), Martin-Jones insists that this is primarily due to their acceptance as “equals to the great Western directors through the questionable Romantic conception of the individual artistic genius, or auteur.” (12) The existence of emphatically pluralised “world cinemas” thus leads him to relativise the movement-image/time-image distinction, and propose a number of other categories of the image, which would take into account the dispersed nature of the production and consumption of moving images in the contemporary era.

This is undertaken in the ensuing six chapters, the first of which points to another of Deleuze’s limitations: not only does his account of the cinema conclude in the mid-1980s (understandably enough), it also does not begin until the mid-1910s. At the very time that a number of academics were making pioneering studies into the early history of the cinema, Deleuze refrained from discussing the work of any filmmaker prior to D.W. Griffith, and Martin-Jones reacts by positing the existence of an “attraction-image”, which “takes the form of a series of spectacles through which a non-continuous movement of the whole can be perceived, even in the fixed shot, through non-continuous montage.” (42) While this uneasy amalgam of Deleuze and Gunning is initially applied to Méliès, Martin-Jones makes the more unconventional move of using the concept to discuss the spaghetti westerns of Corbucci and Castellari, whose “terza visione” screenings in Italy bore uncanny parallels with the mode of viewing predominant in the early years of the cinema.

From this point, Martin-Jones moves through a range of genre cinemas which, in various ways, update, merge or nullify the categories established by Deleuze. From discussing the position of the “seer” in the Argentine historical melodrama Kamchatka (Piñeyro, 2002), he proceeds to examine the Leibnizian temporal fold in relation to South Korean time travel films, the presence of the “any-space-whatever” in Hong Kong action films, and, finally, the existence of an “action-crystal” in the work of Michael Mann, who is able to combine elements of the A-S-A’-form of the movement image with the crystalline assemblages of the time-image. This chapter is, in fact, the most engrossing one of the book, with its use of political economists such as David Harvey and Mike Davis to explore the “spatial apartheid” of Mann’s Los Angeles, but its connections with Deleuze can, at times, be tenuous at best.

Martin-Jones closes his work with a curious concept: the term masala-image, with its unmistakable culinary connotations, is cooked up to encapsulate the manner in which the philosophical notion of the “dharmic whole” governs the image structures of popular Indian cinema. India is, for the writer, one of the major blindspots in Deleuze’s work, and he ascribes this lacuna to an excessive dependence on Bergsonian ontology. This charge, however, risks misunderstanding the nature of Cinéma 1 and 2. Far from relying on Bergson to comprehend the cinema, it may be more apt to view Deleuze as using the cinema in order to interpret Bergson, along with the semiology of C.S. Peirce. In this vein, Deleuze’s preponderant focus on North American and continental European cinema becomes more justifiable.

Martin-Jones conceives of himself as “a-Deleuzian”, in the dual sense of being neither particularly pro- nor anti- Deleuze, as well as offering one among a vast plurality of approaches to Deleuzian film theory. This is a prudent course of action, and gives his work greater subtlety than, say, Felicity Colman’s comparable Deleuze and Cinema: the Film Concepts. But rather than expand Deleuzian film theory into areas of the cinema the philosopher would surely reject – given that he was explicitly working with a “pantheon” of masterpieces, and made claims that “the cinema is dying from its quantitative mediocrity” – perhaps it would be a more fruitful avenue to inquire into why he persisted with such a well-established canon of auteurs. This procedure no doubt has institutional roots (Langlois’ Cinémathèque programming, the critical writing of Cahiers du cinéma), but it also has philosophical grounds, which I alluded to earlier.

This is not to say that Deleuze’s works are without contradiction: for someone who advocated a Bergsonian “open whole”, his overview of the cinema is a remarkable example of a “closed set”, itself beholden to binary logic. Beyond the modern cinema’s “direct image of time”, there is simply no more viable progress for the cinema within the classification system Deleuze has set up. The irony is that an overwhelmingly optimistic and forward-looking philosopher produced a work which, from the vantage point of today, resembles nothing more than an elaborate inscription on the tomb of cinematic modernism. Martin-Jones adroitly refuses such a gloomy outlook, but in doing so he must discard certain core aspects of Deleuze’s Cinéma, and adopt an exceptionally liberal approach to the rest of it.

About the Author

Daniel Fairfax

About the Author

Daniel Fairfax

Daniel Fairfax is a doctoral candidate in Film Studies and Comparative Literature at Yale University.View all posts by Daniel Fairfax →