Gilles Deleuze: The cinema of the brain

Give me a brain - The cinema of the brain and the question of death (Kubrick, Resnais) - The two fundamental changes from the cerebral point of view - The black or white screen, irrational cuts and relinkings - Fourth aspect of experimental cinema

by Gilles Deleuze

‘Give me a brain’ would be the other figure of modern cinema. This is an intellectual cinema, as distinct from the physical cinema. Experimental cinema is shared between these two areas: the physics of the body, everyday or ceremonial; the formal or informal ‘eidetics’ of the spirit (to use Bertetto’s formulation). But experimental cinema develops the distinction according to two processes, one concretive, the other abstractive. The abstract and the concrete, however, are not the right criteria, in a cinema which creates rather than experiments. We saw that Eisenstein already laid claim to an intellectual or cerebral cinema, which he considered to be more concrete than the physics of bodies in Pudovkin, or physical formalism in Vertov. There is no less of the concrete and abstract on the one side than on the other: there is as much feeling or intensity, passion, in a cinema of the brain as in a cinema of the body. Godard initiates a cinema of the body, Resnais, a cinema of the brain, but one is not more abstract or more concrete than the other. Body or brain is what cinema demands be given to it, what it gives to itself, what it invents itself, to construct its work according to two directions, each one of which is simultaneously abstract and concrete. The distinction is thus not between the concrete and the abstract (except in experimental cases and, even there, it is fairly consistently confused). The intellectual cinema of the brain and the physical cinema of the body will find the source of their distinction elsewhere, a very variable source, whether with authors who are attracted by one of the two poles, or with those who compose with both of them.

Antonioni would be the perfect example of a double composition. The unity of his work has often been sought in the established themes of solitude and incommunicability, as characteristics of the poverty of the modern world. Nevertheless, according to him, we walk at two very different paces, one for the body, one for the brain. In a fine passage, he explains that our knowledge does not hesitate to renew itself, to confront great mutations, whilst our morality and feelings remain prisoners of unadapted values of myths that no one believes any more, and find only poor excuses – cynical, erotic, or neurotic – for freeing themselves. Antonioni does not criticize the modern world, in whose possibilities he profoundly ‘believes’: he criticizes the coexistence in the world of a modern brain and a tired, worn-out, neurotic body. So that his work, in a fundamental sense passes through a dualism which corresponds to the two aspects of the time-image: a cinema of the body, which puts all the weight of the past into the body, all the tiredness of the world and modern neurosis; but also a cinema of the brain, which reveals the creativity of the world, its colours aroused by a new space-time, its powers multiplied by artificial brains. If Antonioni is a great colourist, it is because he has always believed in the colours of the world, in the possibility of creating them, and of renewing all our cerebral knowledge. He is not an author who moans about the impossibility of communicating in the world. It is just that the world is painted in splendid colours, while the bodies which people it are still insipid and colourless. The world awaits its inhabitants, who are still lost in neurosis. But this is one more reason to pay attention to the body, to scrutinize its tiredness and neurosis, to take tints from it. The unity of Antonioni’s work is the confrontation of the body-character with his weariness and his past, and of the brain-colour with all its future potentialities, but the two making up one and the same world, ours, its hopes and its despair.

Antonioni’s formula is valid for him only, it is he who invents it. Bodies are not destined for wearing out, any more than the brain is destined for novelty. But what is important is the possibility of a cinema of the brain which brings together all the powers, as much as the cinema of the body equally brought them together as well: there are, then, two different styles, where the difference itself is constantly varying, cinema of the body in Godard and cinema of the brain in Resnais, cinema of the body in Cassavetes and cinema of the brain in Kubrick. There is as much thought in the body as there is shock and violence in the brain. There is an equal amount of feeling in both of them. The brain gives orders to the body which is just an outgrowth of it, but the body also gives orders to the brain which is just a part of it: in both cases, these will not be the same bodily attitudes nor the same cerebral gest. Hence the specificity of a cinema of the brain, in relation to that of the cinema of bodies. If we look at Kubrick’s work, we see the degree to which it is the brain which is mise en scène. Attitudes of body achieve a maximum level of violence, but they depend on the brain. For, in Kubrick, the world itself is a brain, there is identity of brain and world, as in the great circular and luminous table in Doctor Strangelove, the giant computer in 2001: A Space Odyssey, the Overlook hotel in The Shining. The black stone of 2001 presides over both cosmic states and cerebral stages: it is the soul of the three bodies, earth, sun and moon, but also the seed of the three brains, animal, human, machine. Kubrick is renewing the theme of the initiatory journey because every journey in the world is an exploration of the brain. The world-brain is A Clockwork Orange, or again, a spherical game of chess where the general can calculate his chances of promotion on the basis of the relation between soldiers killed and positions captured (Paths of Glory). But if the calculation fails, if the computer breaks down, it is because the brain is no more reasonable a system than the world is a rational one. The identity of world and brain, the automaton, does not form a whole, but rather a limit, a membrane which puts an outside and an inside in contact, makes them present to each other, confronts them or makes them clash. The inside is psychology, the past, involution, a whole psychology of depths which excavate the brain. The outside is the cosmology of galaxies, the future, evolution, a whole supernatural which makes the world explode. The two forces are forces of death which embrace, are ultimately exchanged and become ultimately indiscernible. The insane violence of Alex in A Clockwork Orange is the force of the outside before passing into the service of an insane internal order. In Space Odyssey, the robot breaks down from the inside, before being lobotomized by the astronaut who penetrates it from the outside. And, in The Shining, how can we decide what comes from the inside and what comes from the outside, the extra-sensory perceptions or hallucinatory projections? The world-brain is strictly inseparable from the forces of death which pierce the membrane in both directions. Unless a reconciliation is carried out in another dimension, a regeneration of the membrane which would pacify the outside and the inside, and re-create a world-brain as a whole in the harmony of the spheres. At the end of Space Odyssey, it is in consequence of a fourth dimension that the sphere of the foetus and the sphere of the earth have a chance of entering into a new, incommensurable, unknown relation, which would convert death into a new life.

In France, at the same time as the new wave launched a cinema of bodies which mobilized the whole of thought, Resnais was creating a cinema of the brain which empowered bodies. We saw how states of the world and the brain found their common expression in the bio-psychic stages of My American Uncle (the three brains), or in the historical epochs in Life is a Bed of Roses (the three epochs). Landscapes are mental states, just as mental states are cartographies, both crystallized in each other, geometrized, mineralized (the torrent in L’amour a mort). The identity of brain and world is the noosphere of Je t’aime je t’aime, it can be the diabolic organization of the extermination camps, but also the cosmo-spiritual structure of the Bibliotheque Nationale. In Resnais this identity already appears less in a whole than at the level of a polarized membrane which is constantly making relative outsides and insides communicate or exchange, putting them in contact with each other, extending them, and referring them to each other. This is not a whole, but rather like two zones which communicate all the more, or are all the more in contact, because they cease to be symmetrical and synchronous, like the halves of the brain in Stavisky. In Providence, the bombshell is in the state of body of the old, alcoholic novelist, who rattles in every direction, but also in the state of the cosmos in thunder and lightning, and in the social state in machine-gun and rifle bursts. This membrane which makes the outside and the inside present to each other is called memory. If memory is the explicit theme of Resnais’ work, there is no reason to look for a latent content which would be more subtle; it is better to evaluate the transformation that the notion of memory is made to undergo in Resnais (a transformation as important as that carried out by Proust or Bergson). For memory is clearly no longer the faculty of having recollections: it is the membrane which, in the most varied ways (continuity, but also discontinuity, envelopment, etc.), makes sheets of past and layers of reality correspond, the first emanating from an inside which is always already there, the second arriving from an outside always to come, the two gnawing at the present which is now only their encounter. These themes have been analysed earlier; and, if the cinema of bodies referred in particular to one aspect of the direct time-image – series of time according to the before and the after, the cinema of the brain develops the other aspect – the order of time according to the coexistence of its own relations.

But, if memory makes relative insides and outsides communicate like interiors and exteriors, an absolute outside and inside must confront each other and be co-present. René Prédal has shown the extent to which Auschwitz and Hiroshima remained the horizon of all Resnais’ work, how close the hero in Resnais is to the ‘Lazarean hero’ which Cayrol made the soul of the new novel, in a fundamental relation with the extermination camps. The character in Resnais’ cinema is Lazarean precisely because he returns from death, from the land of the dead; he has passed through death and is born from death, whose sensory-motor disturbances he retains. Even if he was not personally in Auschwitz, even if he was not personally in Hiroshima .. . He passed through a clinical death, he was born from an apparent death, he returns from the dead, Auschwitz or Hiroshima, Guernica or the Algerian war. The hero of Je t’aime je t’aime has not simply committed suicide; he speaks of Catrine, the woman he loves, as a marsh, a low tide, night, mud, which means that the dead are always victims of drowning. This is what a character in Stavisky says. It should be understood that, beyond all the sheets of memory, there is this lapping which stirs them, this death from the inside which forms an absolute, and from which he who has been able to escape it is reborn. And he who escapes, he who has been able to be reborn, moves inexorably towards a death from the outside, which comes to him as the other side of the absolute. Je t’aime je t’aime will make the two deaths coincide, the death from the inside from which he returns, the death from the outside which comes to him. L’amour à mort, which seems to us to be one of the most ambitious films in the history of cinema, moves from the clinical death from which the hero comes back to life, to the definitive death into which he goes down, ‘a shallow stream’ separating the two (it is clear that the Doctor had not been mistaken the first time, it was not an illusion, there had been apparent or clinical death, brain-death). Between one death and the other, the absolute inside and the absolute outside enter into contact, an inside deeper than all the sheets of past, an outside more distant than all the layers of external reality. Between the two, in the in-between, it is as if zombies peopled the brain-world for a moment: Resnais ‘insists on preserving the ghostly character of the beings he shows, and on maintaining them in a society of spectres destined to be included for a moment in our mental universe; these shivering heroes . . . like to wear warm, out-of- date clothes’. Resnais’ characters do not just return from Auschwitz or Hiroshima, they are philosophers, thinkers, beings of thought in another way too. For philosophers are beings who have passed through a death, who are born from it, and go towards another death, perhaps the same one. In a very happy story, Pauline Harvey says that she understands nothing about philosophy, but is very fond of philosophers because they give her a double impression: they themselves believe that they are dead, that they have passed through death; and they also believe that, although dead, they continue to live, but in a shivering way, with tiredness and prudence. According to Pauline Harvey, this would be a double mistake, which amuses her. According to us, it is a double truth, although this is cause for amusement as well: the philosopher is someone who believes he has returned from the dead, rightly or wrongly, and who returns to the dead in full consciousness. The philosopher has returned from the dead and goes back there. This has been the living formulation of philosophy since Plato. When we say that Resnais’ characters are philosophers, we are certainly not saying that these characters talk about philosophy, or that Resnais ‘applies’ philosophical ideas to a cinema, but that he invents a cinema of philosophy, a cinema of thought, which is totally new in the history of cinema and totally alive in the history of philosophy, creating, with his unique collaborators, a rare marriage between philosophy and cinema. The great post-war philosophers and writers demonstrated that thought has something to do with Auschwitz, with Hiroshima, but this was also demonstrated by the great cinema authors from Welles to Resnais – this time in the most serious way.

This is the opposite of a cult of death. Between the two sides of the absolute, between the two deaths – death from the inside or past, death from the outside or future – the internal sheets of memory and the external layers of reality will be mixed up, extended, short-circuited and form a whole moving life, which is at once that of the cosmos and of the brain, which sends out flashes from one pole to the other. Hence zombies sing a song, but it is that of life. Resnais’ Van Gogh is a masterpiece because it shows that, between the apparent death from inside, the attack of madness, and the definitive death from outside as suicide, the sheets of internal life and the layers of external world plunge, extend and intersect with increasing speed up to the final black screen. But, between the two, what flashes of lightning there will have been; these were life itself. From one pole to the other a creation will be constructed, which is true creation only because it will be carried out between the two deaths, the apparent and the real, all the more intense because it illuminates this interstice. The sheets of past come down and the layers of reality go up, in mutual embraces which are flashes of life: what Resnais calls ‘feeling’ or ‘love’, as mental function.

Resnais has always said that what interested him was the cerebral mechanism, mental functioning, the process of thought, and that here was the true element of cinema. A cinema which is cerebral or intellectual, but not abstract, because it is clear to what extent feeling, affect, or passion are the principal characters of the brain-world. The question is rather that of knowing what difference there is between the ‘classical’ intellectual cinema, for example, Eisenstein’s, and the modern, for example, Resnais’. For Eisenstein already identified cinema with the process of thought as this necessarily develops in the brain, as it necessarily envelops feeling or passion. Intellectual cinema was already the cerebral whole which brought together pathos and the organic. Resnais’ pronouncements may be close to those of Eisenstein: the cerebral process as object and motor of cinema. Nevertheless, something has changed, which undoubtedly has something to do with scientific knowledge of the brain, but still more with our personal relationship with the brain. So that intellectual cinema has changed, not because it has become more concrete (it was so from the outset), but because there has been a simultaneous change in our conception of the brain and our relationship with the brain. The ‘classical’ conception developed along two axes; on the one hand integration and differentiation, on the other association, through contiguity or similarity. The first axis is the law of the concept: it constitutes movement as continually integrating itself into a whole whose change it expresses, and as continually differentiating itself in accordance with the objects between which it is established. This integration-differentiation thus defines movement as movement of the concept. The second axis is the law of the image: similarity and contiguity determine the way in which we pass from one image to another. The two axes cut across each other, according to a principle of attraction, in order to achieve the identity of image and concept: indeed, the concept as whole does not become differentiated without externalizing itself in a sequence of associated images, and the images do not associate without being internalized in a concept as the whole which integrates them. Hence the ideal of knowledge as harmonious totality, which sustains this classical representation. Even the fundamentally open character of the whole does not compromise this model, on the contrary, because the out-of-field shows an associability which extends and goes beyond the given images, but also expresses the changing whole which integrates the extend- able sequences of images (the two aspects of the out-of-field). We have seen how Eisenstein, like a cinematographic Hegel, presented the grand synthesis of this conception: the open spiral, with its commensurabilities and attractions. Eisenstein himself did not hide the cerebral model which drove the whole synthesis, and which made cinema the cerebral art par excellence, the internal monologue of the brain-world; ‘The form of montage is a restoration of the laws of the process of thought, which in turn restores moving reality in process of unrolling.’ For the brain was both the vertical organization of intergration-differentiation, and the horizontal organization of association. Our relationship with the brain has followed these axes for a long time. Of course, Bergson (who was, with Schopenhauer, one of the rare philosophers to propose a new conception of the brain) introduced a profound element of transformation: the brain was now only an interval [écart] a void, nothing but a void, between a stimulation and a response. But, whatever the importance of the discovery, this interval [écart] remained subject to an integrating whole which was embodied in it, and to associations which traversed it. In yet another area, it could be said that linguistics maintained the classic cerebral model, both from the point of view of metaphor and metonymy (similarity-contiguity) and from the point of view of the syntagm and paradigm (integration-differentiation).

Scientific knowledge of the brain has evolved, and carried out a general rearrangement. The situation is so complicated that we should not speak of a break, but rather of new orientations which only produce an effect of a break with the classical image at the limit. But perhaps our own relationship with the brain changed at the same time, and, on its own account, independently of science, and consummated the break with the old relationship. On the one hand, the organic process of integration and differentiation increasingly pointed to relative levels of interiority and exteriority and, through them, to an absolute outside and inside, in contact topologically: this was the discovery of a topological cerebral space, which passed through relative mediums [milieux] to achieve the co-presence of an inside deeper than any internal medium, and an outside more distant than any external medium. On the other hand, the process of association increasingly came up against cuts in the continuous network of the brain; everywhere there were micro-fissures which were not simply voids to be crossed, but random mechanisms introducing themselves at each moment between the sending and receiving of an association message: this was the discovery of a probabilistic or semi-fortuitous cerebral space, ‘an uncertain system’. It is perhaps through these two aspects that the brain can be defined as an acentred system. It is obviously not through the influence of science that our relationship with the brain changed: perhaps it was the opposite, our relationship with the brain having changed first, obscurely guiding science. Psychology has a good deal to say about a lived relationship with the brain, of a lived body, but it has less to say about a lived brain. Our lived relationship with the brain becomes increasingly fragile, less and less ‘Euclidean’ and goes through little cerebral deaths. The brain becomes our problem or our illness, our passion, rather than our mastery, our solution or decision. We are not copying Artaud, but Artaud lived and said something about the brain that concerns all of us: that ‘its antennae turned towards the invisible’, that it has a capacity to ‘resume a resurrection from death’.

We no longer believe in a whole as interiority of thought – even an open one; we believe in a force from the outside which hollows itself out, grabs us and attracts the inside. We no longer believe in an association of images – even crossing voids; we believe in breaks which take on an absolute value and subordinate all association. This is not abstracting, these two aspects define the new ‘intellectual’ cinema and examples can be found in particular in Téchiné, and Benoit Jacquot. Both are able to take the sensory-motor collapse on which modern cinema is constituted as read. But they distinguish themselves from the cinema of bodies because for them (as for Resnais) it is the brain which initially orders attitudes. The brain cuts or puts to flight all internal associations, it summons an outside beyond any external world. In Téchiné, associated images slide and flee on windows, following currents up which the character must go back to move towards an outside which calls them, but which he will perhaps not be able to meet up with (the boat in Barocco, and then L’hôtel des Ameiriques). In Jacquot, by contrast, it is a function of literalness of the image (flattened, redundancies and tautologies) which will shatter associations, to replace them with an infinity of interpretation whose only limit is an absolute outside (L’assassin musicien, Les enfants du p1acard). In both cases, this is a cinema inspired by neo-psychoanalytical themes: give me a slip [lapsus] an act that is lacking and I will reconstruct the brain. The new cerebral images are defined by a topological structure of the outside and the inside, and a fortuitous character at each stage of the linkages or mediations.

The great corresponding novel is Andrei Bely’s Petersburg. This masterpiece evolves in a noosphere where a corridor is hollowed out inside the brain in order to communicate with a cosmic void It no longer works by totalization, but by application of the inside on the outside, of the two sides of a membrane (the bomb of the inside and of the outside, in the belly and in the house). It no longer works through linkage of images, but through continual re-linked parcellings (the fiendish appearances of the red domino). This is the constructivist novel as ‘cerebral game’.

Resnais seems to us close to Bely because he makes cinema the cerebral game par excellence: hence the organic-cosmic bomb of Providence and the fragmentations through transformation of sheets in Je t’aime je t’aime. The hero is sent back to a minute of his past, but this is perpetually relinked in variable sequences, through succeeding drafts. Or again the ghostly city, as world and brain, Boulogne as much as Petersburg. This is a space which is both topological and probabilistic. In this respect, we can return to the great difference between classical cinema and modern cinema. The so-called classical cinema works above all through linkage of images, and subordinates cuts to this linkage. On the mathematical analogy, the cuts which divide up two series of images are rational, in the sense that they constitute either the final image of the first series, or the first image of the second. This is the case of the ‘dissolve’ in its various forms. But even when there is a pure optical cut, and likewise when there is false continuity, the optical cut and the false continuity function as simple lacunae, that is, as voids which are still motor, which the linked images must cross. In short, rational cuts always determine commensurable relations between series of images, and thereby constitute the whole rhythmic system and harmony of classical cinema, at the same time as they integrate associated images in an always open totality. Time here is, therefore, essentially the object of an indirect representation, according to the commensurable relations and rational cuts which organize the sequence or linkage of movement-images. This grandiose conception finds its apogee in the theory and practice of Eisenstein. Now, modern cinema can communicate with the old, and the distinction between the two can be very relative. However, it will be defined ideally by a reversal where the image is unlinked and the cut begins to have an importance in itself. The cut, or interstice, between two series of images no longer forms part of either of the two series: it is the equivalent of an irrational cut, which determines the non commensurable relations between images. It is thus no longer a lacuna that the associated images would be assumed to cross; the images are certainly not abandoned to chance, but there are only re-linkages subject to the cut, instead of cuts subject to the linkage. As in Je t’aime je t’aime, there is return to the same image, but caught up in a new series. Ultimately, there are no longer any rational cuts, but only irrational ones. There is thus no longer association through metaphor or metonymy, but re-linkage on the literal image; there is no longer linkage of associated images, but only re-linkages of independent images. Instead of one image after the other, there is one image plus another, and each shot is de-framed in relation to the framing of the following shot. We saw this detail in the case of Godard’s interstitial method, and, more generally, it is the re-linked parcelling that is found in Bresson, in Resnais, and in Jacquot and Téchiné. It is a whole new system of rhythm, and a serial or atonal cinema, a new conception of montage. The cut may now be extended and appear in its own right, as the black screen, the white screen and their derivatives and combinations: hence the great blue image of night, where little feathers or corpuscles flutter at various speeds and in various arrangements, which keeps reappearing in Resnais’ L’amour a mort. In the first place, the cinematographic image becomes a direct presentation of time, according to non commensurable relations and irrational cuts. In the second place, this time-image puts thought into contact with an unthought, the unsummonable, the inexplicable, the undecidable, the incommensurable. The outside or the obverse of the images has replaced the whole, at the same time as the interstice or the cut has replaced association.

Even abstract or ‘eidetic’ cinema shows a similar evolution. According to a rough periodization, the first epoch is that of geometrical figures, taken at the intersection of two axes, a vertical axis which concerns the integration and differentiation of their intelligible elements and a horizontal axis which concerns their linkages and transformations in a movement-material. A powerful organic life therefore sustains the figure, from one axis to the other, and sometimes gives it a linear ‘tension’ similar to Kandinsky (Eggeling’s Diagonal Symphony), sometimes a punctual expansion closer to Paul Klee (Richter’s Rhytmus 23). In a second period, line and point are freed from the figure, at the same time as life is freed from the axes of organic representation: power has passed into a non-organic life, which sometimes traces a continuous arabesque directly on to the film from which it will draw images by point-cuts, and sometimes generates the image by making the point flicker on and off on the void of a dark film. This is the camera-less cinema of McLaren, which implies a new relationship with sound, whether in Begone Dull Care or Workshop Experiment in Animated Sound, or Blinkity Blank. But although these elements already had an important role, a third epoch appears when the black or white screen stands for the outside of all the images, when the flickerings multiply the interstices like irrational cuts (Tony Conrad’s The Flicker), when proceeding by loops effects relinkages (George Landow’s The Film that Rises to the Surface of Clarified Butter). The film does not record the filmic process in this way without projecting a cerebral process. A flickering brain, which re-links or creates loops – this is cinema. Lettrism had already gone a long way in this direction, and, after the geometric epoch and the ‘engraving’ epoch, proclaimed a cinema of expansion without camera, and also without screen or film stock. Everything can be used as a screen, the body of a protagonist or even the bodies of the spectators; everything can replace the film stock, in a virtual film which now only goes on in the head, behind the pupils, with sound sources taken as required from the auditorium. A disturbed brain-death or a new brain which would be at once the screen, the film stock and the camera, each time membrane of the outside and the inside?

In short, the three cerebral components are the point-cut, re-linkage and the black or white screen. If the cut no longer forms part of either of the two series of images which it determines, there are only relinkages on either side. And, if it grows larger, if it absorbs all the images, then it becomes the screen, as contact independent of distance, co-presence or application of black and white, of negative and positive, of place and obverse, of full and empty, of past and future, of brain and cosmos, of the inside and the outside. It is these three aspects, topological, of probabilistic and irrational. which constitute the new image of thought. Each is easily inferred from the others, and forms with the others a circulation: the noosphere.

Source: Gilles Deleuze, Cinema 2: The Time-Image, Althone Press, 1985, pp. 204–215.


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