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Gilles Deleuze & Sublime Cinema: Painting Time with Light

D.C. Ambrose

In his philosophical work on cinema Deleuze provides a startlingly original and

suggestive examination of cinematic form. He shows how cinematic form is still at a
germinal stage in terms of its investigation of its own resources for capturing and
rendering visible certain relationships of time in a moving image. There are, Deleuze
suggests, new and yet unexplored powers for capturing the ‘invisible forces of time’,
together with considerable resources which already exist in the form of cinema’s
historical experiments with new ways of configuring moving images. In this chapter I
will examine his often overlooked account of two forms of historical montage, French
Impressionism and German expressionism, which he argues produce two distinct and
new forms of sublime cinema. I will argue that these early forms of sublime cinema
offer considerable compositional and affective resources for contemporary art
filmmakers, and will conclude with a brief analysis of one contemporary exponent of
sublime painterly lightwork, Anthony McCall.

Bergson, Duration and the Production of the New

Deleuze conceives the cinema as an experimental mechanism for producing new

sensory forms that affect the body in new and unforeseen ways and elaborate new
images of thought. His two books on cinema (Cinema 1: The Movement-Image &
Cinema 2: The Time-Image) systematically examine the historical production of this
new body-brain through a highly innovative taxonomy that articulates an entirely new
account of cinema, together with an original account of its historical evolution. As is
well-know and much discussed Deleuze situates his philosophy of cinema in relation
to key elements contained within the work of Bergson (Matter and Memory and
Creative Evolution), in particular the notions of temporality and movement. So, for
example, Bergson argued that ‘real’ movement cannot be adequately thought through
representation, which becomes one of the key notions explored by Deleuze in relation
to its contemporaneous instantiation, the cinema. Has the cinema not, Deleuze asks,
developed subtle, nuanced and complex ways of successfully representing the real
movement of time? Bergson argued that previous philosophical attempts to represent
movement through abstract categories of thought have all failed, and are condemned
to continue to fail. Thus, the normative categories of space and time merely translate
movement into abstract and reified coordinates, and think movement as a sequential
numerical passage appearing as a continuous line drawn through space and time.
Movement is thereby reduced to a line connecting different instantiated points.
Reason produces such a representation by attempting to define movement as simply a
difference of degree between abstract points that in themselves remain the same.
Movement thus becomes equated with measure. However, for Bergson Zeno’s ancient
paradoxes had already shown the impossibility of thinking movement adequately in
this way, and in doing so had revealed its fundamental difference from numerated and
represented movement. The error of thought vis-à-vis movement rests on its failure to
understand the difference between two sorts of time, a determinate and measurable
present that is continually and repetitively coming to pass, and the duration (duree) of
all time co-existing with the present. The very condition of all our normative
experience of movement, Bergson argued, is to be found in the virtual co-existing
dimension of duration (duree). The virtual dimension of duree, despite not being
actualised, is nevertheless real, and produces the movements we normally perceive
and subsequently represent. Insofar as duree is the past, it is a past that can no longer
be understood as a numerated line leading backwards from the present instantiated
moment. It is an immanent totality, the open-whole of time in its continual interaction
that constructs the repetitive becoming of the present. Duree is the immanent, virtual
and ontogenetic life of becoming, of which the present moment is its actual and
realised expression. Bergson writes:

‘Duree means invention, the creation of forms, the continual elaboration of the
absolutely new.’1

Duree is neither contained nor represented in space or time, simply because it is the
vital becoming of space and time. Deleuze, in the first part of his ongoing
commentary on Bergson’s philosophy undertaken within the Cinema books2, argues
that duree is perhaps best understood as an open set or an open whole, where the
virtual dimension is both expressed and constructed anew in each actual manifest
movement. This is contrasted by Deleuze with the idea of the closed set of abstract
represented movement, or what he terms ‘immobile sections’:

‘Immobile sections + abstract time refers to closed sets whose parts are in fact
immobile sections, and whose successive states are calculated on an abstract time;
while real movement + concrete duration refers to the opening up of a whole which
endures, and whose movements are so many mobile sections crossing the closed

As Deleuze shows, for Bergson the infinite movement of duree and the finite
movements of represented images were not different in kind, since the latter are actual
expressions of the former once they have passed through the brain. Crucially for
Deleuze the cinema functions in precisely this way – like a type of brain which
constructs actual moving-images as representational becomings capable of
dynamically expressing their real and immanent conditions in duree. For Deleuze the
history of cinema is, in a certain sense, the history of the attempt to express, through
moving-images, manifest changes in duree or in the whole. However, this is precisely
where Deleuze departs from Bergson, since for Bergson when images are understood
as representations of objects moving in space and time they are only capable of
providing ‘a snapshot view of a transition’4. These snapshots cancel the genetic
movement of duree, and only give a frozen image of what ultimately escapes them.
As Bergson insisted, ‘what is real is the continual change of form’5. The snapshot
depends on the abstract mechanism that produces it, i.e. the slow machinery of reason,
which only produces representations of movement by freezing it. According to
Deleuze, despite Bergson’s apparent antipathy towards cinema as merely an artificial
means for replicating reason’s own frozen mechanics of representation, there is within
his work an implicit philosophical elaboration of cinema’s great discovery – the real
moving image of duree. Thus cinema, rather than being consigned to replicating
reason’s limitations, has shown itself more than capable of carving out an essentially
H. Bergson, Creative Evolution, (CE) p. 11
See G. Deleuze, ‘Theses on movement: First commentary on Bergson’ in Cinema1: The Movement
Image, (C1) pp. 1- 11
Ibid, p. 11
H. Bergson, CE, p. 302
successful series of means for both indirectly and directly representing and expressing
duree and for developing Bergson’s philosophical insights in its own directions. By
opposing the idea of cinema as a consisting of abstract photographic snapshots and
concentrating on its capacity for representing and expressing movement, Deleuze
embarks upon a search for the attainment of a real image of duree in the history of
cinema. The attainment of such an image will requires an extraordinarily complex
symbiosis between cinema’s moving-image and new perceptual and conceptual
mechanisms. By providing such a detailed and rich philosophical treatment of that
symbiosis, Deleuze effectively rehabilitates the form of cinematic movement-image
within Bergson’s philosophy, and effectively shifts our perceptual mechanism from
the film projector and its projection of mere abstract photographic snapshots to the
screen. On the emergent ‘brain-screen’ of cinema a new series of images and new
modes of perception and thought – a new form of cine-intuition – emerges. In
response to Bergson Deleuze writes the following about this extraordinary cine-
intuition opposed to natural or normative modes of perception:

‘For Bergson the model cannot be natural perception…The model would be rather a
state of things which would constantly change, a flowing-matter in which no point of
anchorage nor centre of reference would be assignable. On the basis of this state of
things it would be necessary to show how, at any point, centres can be formed which
would impose fixed instantaneous views. It would therefore be a question of
‘deducing’ conscious, natural or cinematographic perception. But the cinema perhaps
has a great advantage: just because it lacks a centre of anchorage and of horizon, the
sections which it makes would not prevent it from going back up the path that natural
perception comes down. Instead of going from the acentred state of things to centred
perception, we could go back up towards the acentred state of things, and get closer to

This affirmation of a new form of cine-intuition as the mechanism of a new cinema-

brain takes us beyond, through a process of countereffectuation, the human condition
and its wholly inadequate and limited mode of rationality, in order to reveal ‘the
inhuman and superhuman’ conditions of cinema and thought – real duration (duree).
Deleuze goes on to refer to this acentred inhuman dimension of duree – following
Bergson – as a ‘spiritual reality’7. For Deleuze, as indeed it had been for Bergson, the
spiritual reality of duree is both ‘atheist and mystical’, since it exists as entirely
material ‘cerebral vibrations’, but these vibrations keep everything ‘open somewhere
by the finest thread which attaches it to the rest of the universe.’ 8 Echoing Bergson’s
closing lines in Matter and Memory,9 Deleuze argues that this ‘spiritual’ movement is
imparted through the perceptual process of intuitive thought – the process of the

G. Deleuze, C1, pp. 57-8
Ibid, p. 11. For a particularly useful discussion of the notion of ‘spirit’ derived from Bergson, and
how it contributes to understanding Deleuze’s thought as mystic-atheism see S. Zepke’s Art as
Abstract Machine: Ontology and Aesthetics in Deleuze & Guattari, esp. chapter 3. This work has been
particularly important in developing my overall understanding of Deleuze’s relation to Bergson in the
Cinema books provided in the first part of this chapter. For a more critically aggressive understanding
of this theme in Deleuze’s philosophy see P. Hallward’s Out of this World: Deleuze and the
Philosophy of Creation.
G. Deleuze, C1, p. 10
Bergson writes - ‘Spirit borrows from matter the perceptions on which it feeds and restores them to
matter in the form of movements which it has stamped with its own freedom.’, Matter and Memory, p.
cinema-brain – that returns to things their living becoming in duree. As a ‘mystical’
movement Bergson’s ‘spirit’ is immanent to life, as what provides vitalism to life. It is
a type of thought which is materialist, but that takes us beyond the rational limits of
the human. This vital life, Deleuze believes, is the spirit that cinema has consistently
displayed itself capable of discovering as the vital principle and movement that
animates its moving images. Spirit is the immanent and non-organic life of duree,
which is expressed in the perceptive mechanism of the brain as it constructs and
produces the new. The challenge for Deleuze is to show precisely how the cinema-
brain countereffects natural perception and ‘ascends’ to the immanent and virtual
plane of duration duree without transcending or subordinating its actual moving
images, to show, in other words, how the cinema-brain constructs moving images in
such a way as to express their vital spiritual dimension. He begins the difficult task of
explaining how the cinema renders the invisible and spiritual dimension of duree as
something visible by outlining two broad yet distinct historical manifestations which
he terms Movement-Image and Time-Image. The Movement-Image of early 20th
century cinema expresses the open-whole of duree as its immanent cause, but
indirectly, through already given conditions of possibility of moving images. Modern
post-second world-war cinema, by contrast, breaks with these established conditions
and establishes an entirely new set of compositional techniques for linking images
into a moving series, in order that such images become capable of directly expressing
duree in a Time-Image. Much critical attention has been focussed on his treatment of
the direct presentation of time in the modern Time-Image form of cinema, and rather
less time has been spent examining in detail his remarks on much earlier cinematic
manifestations of the indirect presentation of time. In Cinema 1 Deleuze develops a
fascinating account of the power that the early movement-image cinema developed to
produce a sublime shock to thought. Writing of this early cinematic power in the later
second volume he says:

‘It is as if cinema were telling us: with me, with the movement image, you can’t
escape the shock which arouses the thinker in you.’10

For Deleuze there is a shock and a form of violence to thought associated with the
evolution of the movement-image. Deleuze identifies this power of the movement-
image as ‘a sublime conception of cinema’, and develops the Kantian insight that
what constitutes the sublime is the shock undergone by the imagination when it is
pushed to its limit, but a shock produced by the new art of cinema as opposed to
nature. We are confronted in these early forms by fundamental challenges to our
normative perceptual apparatus – our natural powers of recognition, association,
knowledge and habits of thought. In the next section I propose to turn my attention to
briefly examining the formal innovations instantiated as a challenge to normative
perception by the early forms of cinematic sublimity.

The Cinematic Sublime in Early French and German Montage: The Abstract
Spiritual Form of the Future

Each of the early forms of montage discussed by Deleuze in Cinema 1 presents a

different expression of duree as a whole that changes. Each form expresses change by
giving us an image of real time whether indirectly or directly. He provides a detailed
account of four different historical ideas of montage, or four different ways of
Ibid, p. 156
organising the whole of duree in movement-images in the history of cinema. These
are the organic montage of American cinema, the dialectical montage of Soviet
cinema, the quantitative or extensive montage of French Impressionist cinema, and
the intensive montage of German Expressionistic cinema. The four ideas of montage
each present different compositional strategies for formulating the whole of duree as
changing and becoming, both in itself and as it appears in any discreet part of the
movement-image. Each presents unique conceptualisations of the essential openness
of the whole of duree, and I propose to focus on developing an understanding of the
latter two forms of historical montage, which managed to express two distinct forms
of sublimity.

French Impressionist Cinema: The Sublimity of Quantitative Montage

The early French approach to montage, evident in filmmakers such as Abel Gance,
Jean Epstein, Rene Clair, Jean Renoir, Germaine Deluc and Jean Vigo, is described
by Deleuze as a break from organic modes of composition towards ‘a kind of
Cartesianism’ characterised by a controlling interest in ‘the quantity of movement,
and in the metrical relations that allow one to define it.’ 11 Such an approach manifests
‘a vast mechanical composition of movement-images’.12 There is in the French
cinema of the 1920’s and 1930’s an evident obsession with mechanism and automata
(e.g. the presence of mechanical automata in La Regle de Jeu (1939)), which Deleuze
argues it utilises in two ways to attain a certain mechanical mode of movement-image

‘A first type of machine is the automaton, a simple machine or clock mechanism, a

geometrical configuration of parts which combine, superimpose or transform
movements in homogenous space, according to the relationships through which they
pass. The automaton…illustrates a clear mechanical movement as law of the
maximum for a set of images which brings together things and living beings, the
inanimate and the animate, by making them the same. The puppets, the passers-by,
the reflections of puppets, the shadows of passers-by, enter into very subtle
relationships of reduplication, alternation, periodical return and chain reaction, which
constitute the set to which the mechanical movement must be attributed…The other
type of machine is the engine which runs on steam and fire, the powerful energy
machine which produces movement out of something else, the inside and the outside,
the engineer and the force – in a process of internal resonance or amplifying

From this machinic compositional strategy emerged an entirely abstract art in which
pure forms of movement were extracted, and a new form of cinematic kinetics is
subsequently produced. The fascination with machines and the emergent machinic
kinetics leads eventually, Deleuze claims, to a fascination with water. This fascination
with water is to be understood, however, as a continuation of mechanical composition
and mechanical kinetics. It is, he writes, simply ‘a passage from a mechanics of solids
to a mechanics of fluids which, from a concrete point of view, was to find in the
liquid image a new extension of the quantity of movement as a whole. It provided
better conditions to pass from the concrete to the abstract, a greater possibility of
G. Deleuze, C1, p. 41
Ibid, p. 42
communicating an irreversible duration to movements, independently of their
figurative characters, a more certain power of extracting movement from the thing

The emergent non-organic fluid mechanics provided a much more effective strategy
for filmmakers to countereffect the actual or the concrete and elaborate a new abstract
cinematic art where duree could be more effectively communicated to movements in
images. It provided, Deleuze maintains, ‘a more certain power of extracting
movement from the thing moved.’15 This innovation led them to an entirely new
conception of the interval of the variable present in movement as ‘a numerical unity
that produces in the image a maximum quantity of movement in relation to other
determinate factors, and that varies from one image to another according to the
variation of the factors themselves.’16 The interval in this form of montage functions
as a unit of measure for constructing a new type of movement-machine, with each
emergent movement-machine having its own units of motion and standards of
measure. There is also, Deleuze claims, an absolute maximum quantity of movement
at the level of the open whole of duree. The movement-image always has two sides,
one facing the relative movement of the set, the other the open-ended and hence
infinite movement of duree. Deleuze argues that the quantitative numerical units of
the French school, the intervals of the variable present, express an infinite whole that
is similar to the Kantian notion of the mathematical sublime. Indeed for Deleuze the
early French montage creates a cinema of the sublime:

‘Kant said that as long as the numerical unit of measurement is homogenous, one can
easily go on to infinity, but only abstractly. On the other hand, when the unit of
measurement is variable, the imagination quickly runs up against a limit: beyond a
short sequence it is no longer capable of comprehending the set of magnitudes or
movements that it successively apprehends. Nevertheless, Thought, the Soul, by
virtue of a demand proper to it, must understand the set of movements in Nature or
the Universe as a whole. This latter is what Kant calls the mathematical sublime: the
imagination devotes itself to apprehending relative movements, and in doing so
quickly exhausts its forces in converting the units of measurement. But thought must
attain that which surpasses all imagination, that is, the set of movements as whole,
absolute maximum of movement, absolute movement which is in itself identical to the
incommensurable or the measureless, the gigantic, the immense: canopy of the
heavens or limitless sea. This is the second aspect of time: it is no longer the interval
as variable present, but the fundamentally open whole as the immensity of future and
past. It is no longer time as succession of movement, and of their units, but time as
simultaneism and simultaneity (for simultaneity, no less than succession, belongs to
time; it is time as whole).’17

There exists a dualism of matter and spirit in early French montage, hence its apparent
Cartesianism, which consists of the relative mechanical movements of material
elements co-existing with the absolute movement of a conceptual, mental whole. The
ideal toward which relative quantitative movement tends is that of a simultaneous co-

Ibid, p. 43
Ibid, p. 44
Ibid, p. 46
presence of temporal movements, an infinite comprised of superimposed successive
moments grasped simultaneously as a whole:

‘The interval has become the variable and successive numerical unit, which enters
into metrical relationships with the other factors, in each case defining the greatest
relative quantity of movement in the content and for the imagination; the whole has
become the simultaneous, the measureless, the immense, which reduces imagination
to the impotence and confronts it with its own limit, giving birth in the spirit to the
pure thought of a quantity of absolute movement which expresses its whole history or
change, its universe. This is exactly Kant’s mathematical sublime.’18

Deleuze sees in Gance’s use of superimpressions and the triple screen in Napolean the
logical end point toward which early French montage’s quantitative tendency aspires.
Something is presented here that goes beyond the senses, ‘an image as absolute
movement of the whole that changes’.19 The open whole is conceived as a ‘great
spiritual helix’, a geometric figure of multiple movements grasped as simultaneously
co-present to one another in a single mental reality.

‘It is no longer the relative domain of the variable interval, of kinetic acceleration or
deceleration in the content, but the absolute domain of luminous simultaneity, of light
in extension, of the whole which changes and is Spirit.’20

There is here the production of a new cinematic presentation of time through the
dualism of material numerical units and spiritual simultaneities.

German Expressionist Cinema: The Sublimity of Intensive Montage

Having established the mathematical sublime being expressed by early French

montage techniques Deleuze attempts to elaborate a different form of montage
produced within German Expressionism which expresses a Kantian principle of
dynamic sublime. He establishes the fundamental difference between the two forms of
montage by focussing upon their respective understandings of the relationship
between movement and light. By acknowledging the now familiar characteristics of
German Expressionist cinema – sharp contrasts of light and shadow, dramatic
chiaroscuro, unstable and improbable compositions of diagonals, oblique angles, and
contorted surfaces, as well as themes of madness, hallucination, violence, possession,
the supernatural, and the diabolic - he attempts to show that the themes, the
atmosphere, and the formal elements of German Expressionism all arise from a single
conception of movement and light, one that brings together Worringer’s notion of the

Ibid, p. 47
Ibid, p. 48
Gothic line of non-organic life21 and Goethe’s theory of colour22. Movement and light
are understood as forms of intensity, affective quantities that extend into space to
varying degrees and that ultimately generate a dynamic cinematic sublime of
apocalyptic power.

He argues that in German expressionism too there is a fundamental break from

organic modes of composition, but that it is achieved through the introduction of a
Gothic non-organic vitalism as outlined by Worringer, ‘a pre-organic germinality,
common to the animate and the inanimate, to a matter that raises itself to the point of
life and to a life that spreads itself throughout all matter.’ 23 Deleuze perceives
throughout German expressionist cinema this conception of aberrant and autonomous
movement as vital non-organic force. In contrast to the French configuration of
montage which operates through a mechanical geometry of measure and metrical
quantity, German expressionist montage shapes its images through a geometry of
‘prolongation and accumulation’,24 of kinetic lines, surfaces, and volumes that prolong
movements beyond their fixed limits and bring vectors together in intersecting
junctures of accumulation. In German expressionism a wild and dynamic geometry of
intensive forces serves to connect elements in a network of changing and developing

‘Expressionism can claim kinship with a pure kinetics; it is a violent movement which
respects neither the organic contour nor the mechanical determinations of the
horizontal and the vertical; its course is that of a perpetually broken line, where each
change of direction simultaneously marks the force of an obstacle and the power of a
new impulse; in short, the subordination of the extensive to intensity.’25

Of particular interest to Deleuze here is the expressionistic handling of light which

signals the overwhelming and sublime presence of a vital non-organic force. In early
French cinema light was handled in a fundamentally different way from that of
German expressionist film insofar as light was conceived as a function of movement.
According to Deleuze light ‘ceaselessly circulates in homogenous space and creates
Wilhelm Worringer, in Abstraction and Empathy: A Contribution to the Psychology of Style, Trans.
M. Bullock, New York: International Universities Press [1953] and Form in Gothic, Trans. H. Read,
London: Alec Tiranti [1994] posits an aesthetic category that he called the Gothic or Northern Line.
This was, according to Worringer the product of a fundamentally “nomadic” existence among Northern
or Barbarian people. The “nomadic” tendency robbed them of any stable referents within the external
world, so in a sense the world was doubly chaotic. There was within them, Worringer claims, a
fundamental discord. Within the Northern form we encounter abstract, geometric forms but without
any of the corresponding equilibrium and tranquillity associated with the Egyptian form. This abstract
geometrical form is an aberrant, questioning and vital movement, but which is also a movement utterly
divorced from organic life. It is, Worringer claims, best understood as a “super-organic mode of
expression”. We are confronted here by a vitality which appears to be independent of us, which
challenges us – it appears to have an expression of its own, which is stronger than our own life. It
seems to give us the impression that we are being assailed by some type of alien will. Worringer claims
that we ascribe to this line the sensation of the process of its chaotic execution and as such it appears to
impose its own expression upon us. We perceive this line as something absolute, independent of us,
and we therefore speak of a specific type of expression of non-organic life associated with the Gothic
Deleze bases his understanding of Goethe’s colour theory on Eliane Escoubas’s essay ‘L’oeil (du)
teinturier’, Critique 418 (March 1982): pp. 231-42
Ibid, p. 51
luminous forms through its own mobility rather than through its encounter with
moving objects.’26 Light and shadow were merely rhythmic alternations of a luminous
matter. Light was ‘pure mobility’ that created its luminous forms. In German
expressionism, by contrast, light was treated as ‘a potent movement of intensity,
intensive movement par excellence.’27 Here a Goethean conception of light prevails,
according to which light and shadows are separate, infinite forces in perpetual
conflict. Goethe had argued that light is invisible, and that the visible exists only
through light’s encounter with the realm of shadows. Here all colours are varying
degrees of opacity, ‘degrees of shadows in light’, according to a relation of more and
less. Such a view prevails in German expressionism film where light and shadow are
treated like two separate conflicting entities. Every shade of light is a degree of
intensity in relation to shadow, an intensive quantity that takes its value in relation to
a certain degree zero of black:

‘The confrontation of two infinite forces determines a zero-point, in relation to which

all light is a finite degree. Light’s role, effectively, is to develop a relationship with
black as negation = 0, as a function of which it is defined as intensity, as intensive
quantity. Here the instant appeared as that which apprehends the luminous magnitude
or degree in relation to black.’28

Each temporal unit of configuration, the moment of the variable present, is an

intensive degree of the relation between light and shadow. But as Deleuze notes each
specific configuration also expresses the whole of duree, the whole is the intensive
degree raised to a higher power, a qualitatively distinct duree of infinite
intensification. Intimations of duree are discovered in certain effects of light. Again,
Goethe’s colour theory argues that black and white represent the minimum and the
maximum of opacity through which invisible light becomes visible. The colours
yellow and blue are movements of intensification, with yellow resulting from a
progressive addition of shadow to white, and with blue arising from a gradual
subtraction of shadow from black. If white and black are the extreme left and right
end points of a continuum, the colour yellow is created in a left-to-right movement
toward black, and blue in a right-to-left movement toward white; and if the two
movements of intensification are continued, they meet in the centre at a point of
maximum intensity – which Goethe says is a reddish-purple.

White Yellow Reddish-Purple Blue Black

(Addition of shadow) (Subtraction of shadow)

Goethe observes that as yellow and blue become more intense they are imbued with a
reddish reflection or shimmer. The ultimate result of red-purple is ‘the incandescent’ –
‘flash, brilliance, the turbulence of fire, which is the very excess of the visible’.29
There is a brilliant, blinding and burning light at the very periphery of the visible, an
excess of visual sensation that can scintillate but also burn, and hence a possible
source of pleasure and pain. The effects of fiery brilliance – scintillation, glistening,
sparkling, fluorescence, phosphorescence, shimmers, auras, halos – are manifestations

Ibid, p. 44
Ibid, p. 49
E. Escoubas, ‘L’oeil (du) teinturier’, Critique 418 (March 1982): p. 241
of the terrible, burning fire of red-purple light, and Deleuze finds such effects
manifest throughout German expressionist film. The burning light appears directly in
such images as the circle of flames in The Golem and in Faust, the phosphorescent
demon’s head in The Golem, the blazing head of Mabuse and of Mephisto, the
silhouetted figure of Nosferatu as he emerges from a depthless luminous space. What
one sees in such images, says Deleuze, is a ‘pure incandescence or flaming of a
terrible light that burns the world and its creatures. It is as if finite intensity had now,
at the summit of its own intensification, regained a flash of the infinite from which it
had parted.’30 Such effects intimate the presence of an infinite non-organic force
animating the natural world, and the images of burning incandescence directly present
the light of infinite intensification as ‘the spirit of evil that burns Nature in its
entirety.’31 Such a terrible, burning light Deleuze regards as an instance of Kant’s
‘dynamic sublime’, a sublime generated not through mathematical number but
through overwhelming force:

‘In the dynamic sublime, it is intensity which is raised to such a power that it dazzles
or annihilates our organic being, strikes terror into it, but arouses a thinking faculty by
which we feel superior to that which annihilates us, to discover in us a supra-organic
spirit which dominates the whole inorganic life of things: then we lose our fear,
knowing that our spiritual ‘destination’ is truly invincible.’32

The brilliant, fiery light of expressionist cinema is an infinite, apocalyptic force in

which ‘the non-organic life of things culminates in a fire that burns all of Nature,
functioning as the spirit of evil or of darkness’,33 but Deleuze argues that at rare
moments this terrible, burning light is shown to be of a different order, it is the light
of a ‘non-psychological life of the spirit which belongs neither to nature nor to our
organic individuality, which is the divine part in us, the spiritual relation in which we
are alone with God as light.’34

This is the essence of the expressionist dynamic sublime, ‘it ‘keeps on painting the
world red on red, the one harking back to the frightful non-organic life of things, the
other to the sublime, non-psychological life of the spirit…Expressionism attains the
cry…which marks the horror of non-organic life as much as the opening up of a
spiritual universe which may be illusory’.35 The forces of shadow and light, when
raised to an infinite degree of intensity, become apocalyptic burning fire and
supernatural spiritual light, and it is in this infinity of intensive fire/light we find
German expression’s configuration of the open whole of duree – ‘the blazing has
become the supernatural and the supra-sensible.’36

In the open whole of French montage all the mechanistic movements of individual
configurations of elements are subsumed within a single, infinite dimension of
simultaneous co-present movements. In German expressionism’s open whole,
G. Deleuze, C1, p. 53
Ibid, p.54
Ibid As Deleuze notes, for Goethe ‘blazing red is not merely the frightful colour in which we burn,
but the noblest colour, which contains all the others, and engenders a superior harmony as the whole
chromatic circle’. (Ibid pp. 53-4)
however, the time of individual movements is not so much subsumed within an
infinite totality as it is destroyed entirely. Light and shadow become dynamic forces,
which when raised to the infinite, becomes an absolutely explosive dynamic power - a
destructive fire or creative light that ceases to have normative temporal coordinates.
The open whole of duree becomes an infinite intensification of force, a concentrated
power that draws time into a single shrinking point, and if there is time at all in this
infinitely contracting and rising point, it is that which ‘passes through the fire’ and
emerges when the whole is able ‘to break its sensible attachments to the material, the
organic, and the human, to detach itself from all states of the past and thus discover
the abstract spiritual Form of the future.’37

For Deleuze montage is always guided by a conception of the open whole of duree.
The whole contracts into a minimum moment of the variable present and dilates into a
corresponding form of the infinite. In the French form a numerical unity is the
minimum, and its corresponding maximum is an ideal infinity of all mechanical
movements simultaneously co-present to one another. In the German, an intensive
degree is the minimum, and its maximum is an ideal infinity of all intensive forces
contracted into a single contraction of force. For Deleuze both of these forms,
together with the empiricist montage of American cinema and the dialectical montage
of Soviet cinema, puts the cinematographic image into relationship with the whole;
that is, with time as duree conceived as the Open. In this way it gives an indirect
image of duree, simultaneously in the individual movement-image and in the whole
of the film. On the one hand, it is the variable present; on the other the immensity of
future and past.

The Sublime Filmwork of Anthony McCall

Anthony McCall’s contemporary art filmwork is concerned with realising an implicit

cinematic logic of the sublime which to date remain relatively unexplored. I believe
his work to be producing important new developments upon the different
configurations of the sublime, quantitative and intensive, which Deleuze identifies
with French Impressionist film and German Expressionism. McCall’s work consists
of composed solid-light films where there is a concentration upon what he calls ‘the
projected light beam itself, rather than treating the light beam as a mere carrier of
coded information’38. In his early filmwork ‘Line Describing a Circle’ (‘the first film
to exist in real, three dimensional space’) projected light (shone through an opaque
atmosphere) itself becomes remarkably tactile and textural, and involves varying
degrees of complex modulation, permutation and repetition. McCall’s subsequent
filmwork has continued to develop these ideas in increasingly sophisticated and
complex ways (e.g. multiple permutated film projections, increasingly complex
geometrical forms unfolded in time and space). McCall’s filmwork presents us with a
profound aesthetic meditation upon the complex nature of duree, change and
becoming, forcing us to become engaged with continuous, overlapping and multiple
durations that have the capacity to affect and alter us physiologically and articulate
the instantiate a new form of spiritual cine-intuition.

Ibid, pp. 54-5
See McCall’s remarks in G. Baker, ‘Film Beyond its Limits’, Anthony McCall: Film Installations
(Warwick: Mead Art Gallery, 2004)
There is an implicit critique of certain notions of temporality within much of
McCall’s work that seemingly displays an implicit affinity with Bergson and
Deleuze’s philosophy of time. Time, duration, movement and becoming are very
important aspects in all of McCall’s work. Much of his work, for example, contains
an implicit critique of the hierarchical distinction between so-called atemporal
artforms such as painting and sculpture and time-based artforms such as film and
video. McCall embraces the disruptive insights of Performance, Happening or Event
based artworks, (i.e. the insight that everything that occurs, including the process of
looking and thinking, always occurs within time and that many conventional
distinctions which operate in the artworld are patently ‘absurd’).

At the heart of McCall’s filmwork is a profound disruption of conventional notions of

time together with a radical attempt to expand our notions of temporality and
duration. In effecting his work It appears that McCall is drawing upon the
countereffecting capacity of cinematic intuition vis-a-vos natural perception. His work
struggles against the illusion of time generated by conventional normative
representations by attempting to rethink the aesthetics of movement and the
complexities of ‘real’ temporality and duration. For him, as for Bergson and Deleuze,
the illusory nature of temporality emerges from a certain thinking of time
subordinated to spatial concepts., i.e. the seemingly pre-given understanding of static
and homogenous spatiality from which we often derive our normal interpretation of
time. The problem addressed very profoundly by his work is how to rethink
temporality on the basis of movement, qualitative change, modulated becoming and
coexisting qualitative durations. For all three our bodies, our nervous systems, are
open to a succession of qualitative changes that are not mapped out as mechanical
intervals but as a flow of time, each instant permeating each other. In conventional
thought we tend to think of time as an abstract, homogenous element, which we
measure through the discreet intervals of clock time. However, these discreet intervals
are merely artificial and ultimately interchangeable static points. For Bergson,
Deleuze & McCall the passage of time is more than the mere succession of states
inscribed within discrete and even intervals. Our experience of time is that of duree,
of a dynamic continuation of a past into a present and toward a future. Each present
moment interpenetrates the next present moment, with each new present functioning
as a qualitatively different moment, each moment pushing into the next in a single
movement of becoming. With each present moment something new comes into
existence, something unpredictable emerges which then forms with the subsequent
moments of becoming a qualitatively distinct ensemble or assemblage of time. Duree
is fundamentally indeterminate; the future is truly open and unforeseeable. Time is
creation, time is invention, time is becoming. Time makes a difference in that each
moment brings forth something qualitatively new. It is this aspect which accounts for
the radically different qualitative experience of time (e.g. in some circumstances 5
minutes can seem like an hour, and in others an hour speeds by and feels like barely a
few minutes). Time is not homogenous but is heterogeneous, and McCall’s filmwork
precisely evokes this heterogeneous aspect of time.

McCall’s movement-images of solid light display the co-existence of distinct

durations, levels or strata of duration whereby a single ‘event’ can belong to several
qualitatively different temporal levels. His work precisely encompasses this temporal
multiplicity through its presentation of permutated and modulated temporal rhythms
in the projected work itself (e.g. ‘Long Film for Four Projectors’, the undulating
modulation of two lines in ‘Doubling Back’ and ‘Turn’), and then also through the
introduction of the qualitatively different concrete durations of different spectators
into the complex assemblage of duration already present within the work. There is a
kind of ongoing confrontation between the different concrete durations of work and
spectator in the creation of a complex assemblage or co-existence of different
durations. It is in this way that McCall film works begin to articulate a broadened and
expanded conception of time. Drawing upon the machinic compositional strategies
associated with the quantitative form of montage created by the early French cinema,
McCall’s films explore the logic of repetition, permutation, virtual stasis,
imperceptible modulation, which paradoxically succeed in rendering the strange
qualitative nature of time as something sublimely sensible. Our imagination becomes
overwhelmed by the quantitative simultaneism so carefully executed by these films,
and we literally become ‘lost’ and ‘enveloped’ within these works (e.g. this is
particularly evident with his ‘Long Film for Four Projectors’39) Homogenous clock-
time becomes dissipates as we become subject to the complex co-existence of
multiple rhythms of duration. As in the French quantitative sublime montage the open
whole of duree is conceived within McCall’s work as a ‘great spiritual helix’, a
geometric figure of multiple movements grasped as simultaneously co-present to one
another in a single mental reality. As Deleuze notes:

‘It is no longer the relative domain of the variable interval, of kinetic acceleration or
deceleration in the content, but the absolute domain of luminous simultaneity, of light
in extension, of the whole which changes and is Spirit.’40

In addition to mobilising the quantitative logic of the cinematic sublime, McCall’s

work often draws upon the strategies more associated with the intensive sublimity of
expressionism. An intensive plane of immanence becomes manifested by these
filmworks, whose movement-images become time itself as a real movement of
genesis in space, or the form of time as change. Time is associated here with the
perspective of universal variation, of an ever changing whole without horizons,
centres or points of anchorage. Deleuze himself claims that the plane of immanence is
made up entirely of light, where the luminosity of matter in movement is not that of
the physical and human eye organised in relation to bodies human or otherwise, but
rather that of the propagation of energy throughout the entire universe. An aberrant
energetics of intense light emerges from McCall’s solid light experiments, whose
frenetic movements through space seem to express the gothic dynamism Deleuze
associates with the intensive cinematic sublime. Like the early form of gothic
intensive sublimity McCall’s work demonstrates the ongoing capacity for experiments
in film to detach itself from normative modes of perception and redundant
presentations of temporality states thus discover the abstract spiritual form of the
future which so energises the present, that returns to things their living becoming in

It might seem that the Cinema projector just operates in a manner similar to our
ordinary discursive modes of perception, intellection and language; i.e. we attempt to

This filmwork from 1970 consists of a long permutated series of repeated and multiple planar solid
light forms that describe the entire volume of a surrounding space. The film is run simultaneously
through four different projectors, with each section of the film being built from repetitions of one
movement of a tilted plane (line) travelling through the frame.
comprehend process, becoming and movement by slicing time into an abstract
sequence of static moments, or immobile cuts, and then somehow re-link them back
together into a homogenous systematic and rational order. Rather than grasping each
particular specific movement as an indivisible whole with its own concrete duration,
in which there is no distinction between motion and that which moves (what McCall
calls the atemporal and the temporal), we imagine a single, homogenous space-
container, within which we situate the moments of an object’s movement as so many
static, co-present points, and from this spatial image we develop the concept of an
abstract, mechanical time as a regular repetition of homogenous, interchangeable
moments. Real movement and concrete duration give way to immobile cuts and
abstract time. However, as we have seen, for Deleuze cinema from its earliest
manifestations is in fact capable of going way beyond these discursive tendencies of
thought and perception, in fact it is capable of fundamentally offering a challenge to
them, of countereffecting them and instantiating an aberrant form on cine-intuition.
Cinema has certain implicit resources for rendering real movement and concrete
duration visible, which then subsequently emerge as ‘shocks to thought’.

For Deleuze, as for McCall, the cinema (the cinematic form) is still at a germinal
stage in terms of its investigation of its own resources for ‘capturing’ and rendering
visible certain relationships of time in an image, of painting time with light. There are
new and barely unexplored powers for capturing the ‘invisible forces of time’, and it
is these barely explored powers of sublime cinema that McCall’s film works evoke, it
is these powers that can once again serve to challenge our conventional modes of
thought, that provide a ‘shock to thought’, and that demand the invention and
production of new ways of looking, relation, and thought.

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