Deleuze for the Desperate #6: time-image.


Dave Harris

This video is going to provide you with a chance to gain a quick initial understanding of this complex work. You need an initial grasp, for yourself, before tackling full-on Deleuze, I have been arguing in this series. I have more detailed notes on the cinema books on my website, references on the transcript, but I’m going to focus on the philosophical bits here, assuming they will be the least familiar for Film students. There is a debate about whether the main theme of the book is really philosophical anyway rather than cinematic (principally in Badiou 2000) – certainly, both are mixed together.

We’ve chosen the most accessible examples of films as illustrations and you might want to test out deleuzian readings for yourselves. As we said in the earlier video, Deleuze’s readings are very ‘centred’, and you might easily see all sorts of other things going on in the films as well.

Don't forget (as I did on the video) to look at Bogue's book to see how the system of cinematic signs is developed, via Peirce)

To start, we can think of a time-image in Bergson’s sense as a philosophical conception of time. This will not be an  ordinary conception of time, indicated by clocks or calendars. We’ll get a series of arguments about the conception of time from Bergson and then we see how films illustrate these arguments with various signs and sequences on their own.

Deleuze offers his own summary of the key bits from Bergson pp 82–3 of Cinema 2 (Deleuze 1989), and there are lots of other resources including my notes on my website if you want them. I'm going to give a quick sketch of Deleuze’s position here, perhaps with some added bits, some explanations, simplifications and vulgarizations and some asides

Bergson talks about time first of all in terms of how it affects human beings, and this is found in his book Matter and Memory.  Human beings spend a lot of time engaged in activity with the real world which they experience through sense impressions or sensations.  They have perceptions, which result in actions, and in normal action, the gap in between is filled with affections.  We saw this notion being used to explain the movement-image in the earlier video.  However in practice, something else intervenes in the gap between perception and action – memory.  The first thing the time-image has to show is how memory works.

For Bergson, memory operates with a number of levels.  Closest to practice, it supplies us with automatic or habitual ways of acting that we've learned in the past, so that I just know how to ride a motorbike or swim.  We're talking here about something that my colleagues in Sport Science used to call muscle memory, or bodily memory.  However, sometimes memory does not provide us with an automatic connection and we have to do something more deliberate, try to recollect something that's happened in the past that's going to help us in the present.  There is a further level still at which memory works, to contain all our understandings provided by the past, all our experience with no immediate implications for action. This is pure memory, and we can access it by a particular act of placing ourselves in the past, usually by recollecting some particularly significant moment, some 'shining point', or a theme.  Once we are there back in the past, we can then extend the links to other memories located in the same level of the past or in others.  If we could do this fully, we would be able to recapture all our former past life, but before long the present intervenes and sets its agenda requiring us to act,and get on with forming practical recollections.  However, we get close to living in pure memory when the demands of the present are minimized, and the most common occurrence of this presence of pure memory is when we dream.

So film is going to have to show us how memories operate. The movement-image film has already implied and shown the automatic link between bodily memories and action, but recollection and its connections with pure memory also need to be shown, and one way to do this is via dream sequences as we shall see.

Memory has a major influence on what we do in the present, and is always crowding in on us and our perceptions and feelings.  It exerts pressure, most obviously through automatic recollection, but the other levels of memory influence us too, although we might not be so aware of it.  Our total experiences make us what we are. We gain experience by having endured, having persisted over time, having experienced duration in Bergson's famous terminology.  This is not easily measured in clock time – as so many hours or years or whatever – because we know that the quality of our experiences vary so much – a moment can be as important as a year.  Clock time is a human construct designed to help us act in the world.

We act automatically, almost like objects when we display habitual movements, but we feel at our most subjective when we are back in the past exploring our memories.  However, my very subjectivity, my personality is the result of duration. Duration is what produces subjectivity: we live in and through duration. A few significant films are going to show this whole process of the way duration makes us what we are, and Deleuze lists some interesting ones, the most accessible of which is Hitchcock’s Vertigo. Others are going to show parts of this process.

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There are other implications, although these do not figure in Deleuze’s discussion of film.  One is that other living things and inanimate ones are also found in duration.  They do not have memories of experiences like we do, but they are also occupying a particular interval in time or duration. And that has given them particular characteristics and qualities.  We do not always see how important the dimension of time it is, but it is universal and constant.  We can see that human beings or animals age, that buildings and machines wear out and decay.  But everything is changing through time, even something as apparently solid as a piece of rock. That is slowly and continually being eroded by wind and water.  We cannot dispense with the dimension of time if we want to understand things. Especially as the present moment, which can seem so important, is actually almost irrelevant in the great scheme of things compared to the past.  Again, clock time seems unsuitable to grasp these very different paces and periods of duration – we argued this in the video on the haecceity (link?). Deleuze also has little interest in grand forces or great plans that seem to steer time – Destiny or Fate –although we do see those in some films, including movement-image films

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To revert back to human action for a moment, why is the present moment not very important? It is clear that things I do in the present are intended to have an impact in the future: I study hard now in order to gain a qualification next year, say.  It is also true that the present moment rapidly turns into the past, so that what I began 5 minutes ago is already past.  I still feel the effects of it since the past is always crowding in on me always affecting my perceptions, pushing me on through a series of present moments, trying to actualize itself in the special language of Bergson.  It's hardly surprising that for Bergson and Deleuze, trying to pin things down to what they are like here and now, in the present is not very fruitful, because the present is a mere point in the passage of time, between the past and the future.  In general, this is going to have considerable importance, for example in criticizing any attempts to isolate states of objects or people in the present or at any simple point in time in order to study them and generalize about them.  What is really happening in the whole of reality is what Bergson calls a state of 'general becoming', not stasis, but a constant process of time passing and changing things, linking past, present and future.  You might well be aware that for Deleuze becoming is a crucial concept, and that Deleuze and Guattari (2004) have a discussion of lots of deliberately spectacular examples where men become women, or horses.

In film, there are some examples of this constant becoming in one particular time-image – the crystal image – and examples of where the objectivity and independence of time and becoming is fully demonstrated

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One more thing about duration. If we think of our own experiences, it is clear that things need not have happened in the way they did.  I could have chosen to go to a different university, I could have a different job, partner or child. There is a whole set of possibilities, only some of which have been realized. Again the same applies to animals and objects as well.   A proper philosophical account of duration takes these into account. In deleuzian terms, duration is a multiplicity, another key term, a cluster of related but different possibilities. Some get realized, while others remain as virtual or potential.

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The point is that time-image cinema shows us all or some of these characteristics of time as duration, not all at once necessarily.  Movement-image cinema describes us when we act almost automatically or habitually.  Real men instinctively know how to respond to crisis, and their actions are almost immediate and automatic.  They solve problems with action.  But cinema increasingly comes to want to try to represent the effects of memory and time as well, partly as a reaction to films dominated by the movement image, which, incidentally were also seen as largely American, so European film-makers wanted to react.  We also saw that it is no longer easy to react just automatically to settings, after everything has been turned upside down by war or crisis—how do you live now, in a ruined city like Berlin in 1945 [the theme of Rossellini's 1948 film Germany Year Zero, as Deleuze notes]. 

There were also technological developments in cinema which enabled directors and writers to depict things non-realistically, including the effect of memory, or states of subjectivity. These are discussed in the first commentary on Bergson (Chapter 3) in Deleuze's second book on the media.  We have to remember that Bergson himself did not study cinema, but analyzed natural perception, so Deleuze has to connect his work to the cinematic image specifically. What we actually see on the screen are visual or sonic signs, and they show us what Bergson described as images (conceptions, in between ideas and things, we said in the video on the movement-image).

There is an early turn away from normal automatic movement in cinema, and the first display of it is the appearance of abstract or pure optical or sound signs.  For post-War films, the ruined landscape of Berlin offers shots of buildings and streets which look like abstract paintings, no longer belonging to the familiar world of automatic action, no longer available for any normal action at all.  If they are not so clearly tied to automatic action, they must only be available for interpretation by memory.  They serve to prompt recollection.  They become recollection-images as a first stage to engage memory—still close to perception and action as we saw above, but not automatic, rather 'attentive' in Bergson's terms.  We find these developments in early experiments, but even in popular film, as we shall see.

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Before we start discussing actual films or film techniques, it is necessary to say that probably all the techniques that Deleuze describes have now all become clichés too.  They are now all pretty familiar although they were once shockingly new. A lot of recent films deliberately parody techniques used in serious film, sometimes in the form of hommages, or pastiches.  The techniques are no longer closely linked to the serious intent to do philosophy. They have become much more playful and aimed at entertainment,and we are not supposed to leave the cinema philosophising. What we're talking about here is the cultural development usually called postmodernism, and, of course, it happened after Deleuze wrote about cinema.

It is also worth noting that in many cases, Deleuze is talking about the views of other critics about films as much as the films themselves. We should also bear in mind throughout that Deleuze’s reading is a particular philosophical one.

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Let's return to Deleuze's era and look at his examples of how time is depicted directly. We mentioned recollection and dreaming earlier. One technique is to use the flashback to indicate a part of life in the past which is being recalled in the memory.  There are also dream sequences.  Deleuze provides us with examples, but he particularly likes those which challenge naturalism or realism and oppose straightforward linear narrative.  Neither flashbacks nor dreams always do this, and both can appear as a kind of sidestep or pause without disturbing the normal course of events. 

Flashbacks used to be introduced by the screen image dissolving for example, sometimes accompanied with strange music, in order to fill out a bit of the story. Deleuze likes flashbacks that do something different, show us a ‘fork’ in time, a moment when things could have been different, where different possibilities are revealed. The films of Joseph Mankiewicz are the examples, and they include the blockbuster Cleopatra

Dreams used to be clearly indicated as dreams not reality by the use of visual clues such as slow motion or bizarre characters.  Deleuze mentions a Buster Keaton film, Sherlock Junior, one of those which you can now watch free online, where the dream of the character is projected onto a separate cinema screen enclosed in the one we're watching (after a clever bit of superimposition) —all the time we watch this separate screen, we know that the character is dreaming ( although the two screens merge after a while) .  However the best examples leave us with ambiguity about what is dream and what is reality, what is the past and what is the present. Deleuze says there are ‘implied dreams’, and these also offer an implied philosophical criticism of reality and the demonstration of its connection with states of consciousness. There are cases where everything is normal, except that the world is moving around the character, for example – the end sequence of Laughton’s classic The Night of the Hunter offers a good demonstration. I should say that a lot of dream sequences are also inspired by Freudian theory and show us the Unconscious – but Deleuze is no fan of Freud by the time he wrote the cinema books so there is no discussion.

Bergson also discusses various psychological problems with memory, which include things like hallucinations and amnesia.  These are also shown on film.  Deleuze finds some philosophical significance here as well because at least they show the disconnections between mental life and normal life based on action, although I find this a bit forced. They show that the mind has its own material that it works with in an effective way.  Again the best films here for Deleuze are the ones that refuse to differentiate conventionally between hallucination and normal life but show their connections. There are some very conventional genres which can be read in this way, including musical comedies and burlesque.  The musical, for example was often seen as depicting an idealized world alongside the mundane one, and to also display the possibilities of going from one to the other.  Deleuze likes those sequences when a character's everyday walk turns into a dance, for example, the classic one being Singin’ in the Rain, of course.  The same can be said of comedies where ordinary actions suddenly shift into a strange world of comic events, things go wrong, disasters accumulate beyond human control and so on. In Deleuze’s hands, Jerry Lewis becomes a philosopher!

Dream sequences show whole circles of connection between the objects in our dreams, as in Sherlock Junior, where balancing chairs turn into Keaton balancing on the edge of a cliff, then recovering his balance in a jungle with lions, and so on.  Freud explains these links and their logic in his great work on dreams (Freud 1977), but Deleuze says the objects are just ‘anamorphoses’, distorted projections of each other.

However, this circuit can also be shrunk into smaller and smaller circles and even to a point, at which objects themselves trigger off whole associations of images directly, as it were. This is the difficult concept of the crystal image. It might help us get a grip if we think of those school science experiments when a saturated solution was used to grow a crystal of something, usually by suspending a small object to seed the process. You can see this demonstrated on this link:. As the crystal grows, it shows us what was a liquid turning into a solid. If we were to get philosophical we could say we see a past state turning into a present one, or the liquid showing its potential to create a solid, a virtual state turning into an actual one. This is a key quality of duration, you will recall, so it is a time-image.

In cinema it is the virtual image crystallizing into an actual optical image, a ‘simultaneous double’ as Deleuze calls it (68). A crystal-image is one which is capable of showing both the virtual and the actual. The easiest case is the mirror, where the image in the mirror reflects an actual character, but then becomes actual itself, takes on a life of its own, and we cannot distinguish the mirror image and the character. Think of a homely example where you have an interview for a job and you check your appearance in the mirror  before you set off, to make sure you look like a proper candidate. Then it is the candidate that actually leaves the house, while the person stays behind. As the most accessible example, Deleuze mentions the mirror sequence towards the end of The Lady from Shanghai,  when both characters, who have already appeared as ambiguous people with different aspects to their selves just reflect themselves endlessly. There are lots of other examples of doubled images too. The effect is also to raise doubts about what we knew about the characters before – their concrete actuality also dissolves as Deleuze puts it.

And then an interesting aside about actors themselves actualising a virtual role, and, when it is done well, becoming invisible as an actual person – and vice versa as in those films when ventriloquist dummies become real, or in the superb film Freaks, where the ‘monstrous’ freak show acts reveal their full humanity. As an aside I think this is a good example of Deleuze assuming a pretty critical viewer here who is not taken in by the realism of the action or their own preconceptions, but who reads film philosophically. Or there is the ship in Moby Dick, which is ostensibly a normal commercial whaleship at one level, but also the seed for scenes from some dreadful cosmic drama that has been years in the making.  Or the hotel in Last Year in Marienbad, scene of the unfolding of two different stories where quite different things happened in the past, all of them perfectly possible alternatives. Other examples abound in Tarkovsky, keen on mirrors, and Fellini, keen on seeds, for example.

Another device is the film within the film, or films about making films (my own favourite here is Truffaut’s Day for Night), again making it hard to distinguish the real film, so to speak.  There are films about producing other works of art too, like Godard’s Passion. For some critics, this can be seen as an exhausted form, where cinema closes in on itself, but for Deleuze, they also show the capacity of film to produce these special images, crystal-images. It is also possible to offer a kind of self-criticism, showing the material reality beneath film, including the need to organize the finances (Godard’s Tout va Bien is my favourite here, which starts with lots of cheques being signed).

The doubling of such images, showing the connections between actual and virtual are related directly to Bergson’s terms, and shows one of the interesting things about the present, which we discussed earlier – the past is always there in the present, the present image also contains its past. In Bergson’s terms, the present always divides or splits and one element passes and becomes virtual. As recollection or as pure memory, it is available to raise new possibilities or potentials for present action –our past selves affect our present ones. Thus ‘we see time in the crystal’ as Deleuze puts it (81) – assuming you are a philosopher, of course. I sometimes suspect that a deleuzian could see time in just about any shot or sequence with the right philosophical blinkers.

Many examples then ensue, including a discussion of Renoir’s classic La Règle du Jeu, which, in Deleuze’s hands, shows several mirror structures linking different orders. The most obvious one is the reflection of upper class life in the simultaneous life of the servants below stairs, together with its character the gamekeeper who can operate in both worlds and who will introduce a temporary disruption or ‘crack in the crystal’ as Deleuze puts it, by killing one of his fellow workers. All crystal images need a crack in order to move on, perhaps. Deleuze hints that we might even call this a ‘line of flight’, to cite one of his most popular terms. Many other specific options are also possible, including what might be seen as failures of the crystalline – for example when recollections or memories arrive ‘too late’, and Visconti’s films are the example here.

There is also an interesting discussion of sounds acting as something uniting present and past, as in a ‘ritornello’, a recurring theme in musical compositions, and this is another concept much discussed in Deleuze and Guattari (2004).

Then we get on to two other important conceptions of time, still based on Bergson and expounded in Deleuze (1989)  Chapter 5 – time as a sheet of the past and as a series of presents. The sheet notion is easier because it recalls an actual model of memory in Bergson, where memory as a whole is represented as an inverted cone. The point of the cone represents the present in its contact with our common-sense notion of reality. The much larger base of the cone represents pure memory. There are layers or sheets in the cone representing regions of memory closer and closer to the present and to action as you head towards the point.

Orson Welles’ films, especially Citizen Kane, are going to show us these sheets of time. Characters are asked to recall Kane and they jump back into regions of the past and show a series of events happening then. We can see that these sheets do not correspond exactly with each other and cannot be organised as more or less close to some agreed truth about Kane. Nor are they seen as simply under conscious control – the point is to explain the significance of Kane’s last word ‘Rosebud’,but none of them can form a precise recollection image to explain it. Deleuze’s discussion of Welles is very interesting and full (Chapter 5) and brings in notions like how the deep focus shot acts a bit like the crystal we examined just now, with figures in the past seen in the deep background, and present action in the exaggerated foreground. Both are linked together, and even interact. Thus we see temporality itself as an independent dimension and the 'continuity of duration' (108), a depth of time not space, indicating regions of time, linked to other regions. We see what pushed Susan into attempted suicide in one deep shot: as she suffers in the foreground, Kane enters through a door in the far background and moves towards her as an indication of his bad influence on her over time.

Let’s tackle the more difficult notion of the peaks of the present. It follows from what was said about the crystal as showing us present, past and future. For Bergson, as we saw, the actual present is an elusive moment between past and future, so it is hard to get a stable notion of the actual present. In practice we operate with different senses of the present – not so much the actual moment, but a present of the past and one of the future. If we philosophize hard enough, we can use this sort of experience to see behind chronological time and the supposed importance of the actual present moment. Instead we can think of a ‘peak present’, one which informs us particularly well about objects and their pasts as well as presents, offers a useful point of view of events. We can activate the chronological past of an event and bring it into the present, adding together past and present characteristics to develop a clear point of view. This is what a properly philosophical grasp of the crystal image shows us, and so does a proper philosophical grasp of the event – I’ve argued this in the video on the haecceity (

The point is that cinema provides us with excellent opportunities to develop this sort of enhanced perception by linking past and present. Last Year in Marienbad is again a good example. Each character offers recollection images, which we see on screen as reconstructions of events, but none of their recollection images show fully what happened.  Deleuze argues that for Resnais at least, this was the whole point, to show that the full past is never grasped in the characters’ recollection images, but the film as a whole CAN do this and provide an enhanced or peak view in the present. This is one way to read the film, as a deliberate construction, a work of art, to show a past that has a real and independent existence which escapes any subjective attempt to grasp it. Deleuze cites other Resnais films which pursue the autonomy and separation of levels of time not grasped in subjective recollection.

This justifies cinema as one art form that does better than subjective memory, showing the fragments of the past, beyond any subjective grasp and then showing how they can be linked to each other artistically, breaking with naturalism or realism, in montage and in depth shots. These links are non-natural but important creatively and politically.

Once cinema gets the general idea of breaking with naturalism, it continues to do so, challenging natural linear forms of narrative, organic notions of composition so on for example. Both of those notions are difficult to sustain as true accounts if there is no longer any agreement on past events –what happened, what happened first. Some cinema sets out to be deliberately pedagogic in this sense, hoping to correct or challenge common sense ideas about time and events and open new possibilities.

The rest of the book goes on to discuss various arthouse or avant-garde movies as examples of non-natural, even downright false, depictions and connections developed in the name of art or politics, but this video is already long, so we will have to leave it to you to explore...

Good luck.


Badiou, A. (2000). Deleuze. The clamor of Being.  Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press. My notes:
Bergson, H. (2004) [1912] Matter and Memory. New York: Dover Publications. My notes:

Bogue, R.  (2003) Deleuze on Cinema.  London: Routledge.  Mynotes:
 Deleuze, G (1989) Cinema 2 -- the time-image, London The Athlone Press. My notes:
Deleuze G and Guattari F (2004) [1987] A Thousand Plateaus, London: Continuum. My notes:
Deleuze, G.and Guattari, F. (2012) Kafka. Toward a Minor Literature. Trans. Dana Polan.  Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press. My notes:
Freud, S. (1977) The Interpretation of Dreams. London: Penguin.

Bogue, R.  (2003) Deleuze on Cinema.  London: Routledge.
 Citizen Kane (1941). Dir. Orson Welles. RKO Pictures.
Cleopatra (1963). Dir Joseph Mankiewicz. Twentieth Century Fox Film Corporation
Day for Night. (1973) Dir. Francois Truffaut. Les Films du Carrosse
Freaks. (1932). Dir. Tod Browning. Metro-Goldwyn Mayer Studios
Germany Year Zero. (1948). Dir. Roberto Rossellini. Tevere Film. online
La Règle du Jeu. (1939) Dir. Jean Renoir. Nouvelles Éditions de Film
Last Year in/at Marienbad. (1961). Dir. Alain Resnais. Cocinor
Moby Dick. (1956). Dir. John Huston. Moulin Productions Inc.
Passion. [aka Godard’s Passion]. (1982) .Dir. Jean-Luc Godard. Sara Films.
Sherlock Junior. (1924). Dir. Buster Keaton. Buster Keaton Productions
Singin’ In the Rain. (1952) Dirs. Stanley Donen, Gene Kelly. Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer Studios
The Lady from Shanghai (1947). Dir. Orson Welles. Columbia Pictures
The Night of the Hunter (1955) Dir. Charles Laughton. Paul Gregory Productions
Tout va Bien (1972). Dirs. Jean-Luc Godard, Jean-Pierre Gorin.
Vertigo (1958) . Dir. Alfred Hitchcock. Alfred J. Hitchcock Productions.