My recent book, The Rhythm Image,[i] proposes a third audiovisual regime, based in digital technologies, following the two regimes that Gilles Deleuze delineates in his Cinema volumes of the 1980s: the movement image and the time image[ii]. I am certainly not the first critic to propose an extension of Deleuze’s schema, in order to take account of cinematic forms that developed after he wrote these volumes in the 1980s, and particularly after the rise of digital technologies changed filmmaking in profound ways.
I am preceded in this endeavor by Patricia Pisters, Sergi Sánchez, Nick Davis, Cesare Casarino, Alexander Galloway, Elie During, and Steen Ledet Christiansen, all of whom offered proposals for a new sort of cinematic image before I did. I do not claim to have synthesized or surpassed these previous thinkers in making my own formulation. I simply hope that my paradigm of the rhythm image has heuristic value for thinking about recent, post-cinematic audiovisual media.
For Deleuze, the difference between classical and modernist cinema has mostly to do with how they present time. Deleuze draws a contrast between the indirect presentation of time in classical film, and the direct presentation of time in modernist film. In classical cinema, Deleuze says, time is subordinated to movement: that is to say, time passes in such a way as to serve the articulations of the narrative. In a film like John Ford’s Stagecoach (1939), everything is organized around the twin goals of revealing character (we get to know the nine people on the stagecoach in intimate detail) and resolving the questions raised at the start of the story (the danger to the white passengers of an Indian attack, John Wayne’s quest for revenge against the people who killed his father and brother, and Wayne’s romance with Claire Trevor). Time functions as a Newtonian framework within which all the events of the narrative find their proper place.
In modernist cinema, in contrast, Deleuze finds time liberated from movement, and presented directly, for its own sake, in the thickness of its unfolding. This is exemplified, for example, in the deep exploration of memory, or the pastness of the past, in Orson Welles’ Citizen Kane (1941); in the hesitations and paralysis of Monica Vitti in Michaelangelo Antonioni’s Red Desert (1964); and in the way Delphine Seyrig is submerged in the repetitive tasks of housework in Chantal Akerman’s Jeanne Dielman (1975). In more mainstream Hollywood films, time is unleashed in what David Bordwell calls the “intensified continuity” style of the New Hollywood and after, with its “more rapid editing,” its “bipolar extremes of lens lengths,” and its “free-ranging camera.”[iii] Films like Quentin Tarantino’s Pulp Fiction (1994) and David Fincher’s Fight Club (1999) are punctuated with odd disjunctions and revisions, as if time were looping back on itself instead of moving forward in a straight line. Thanks to these displacements, Bergsonian duration breaks free from the chains of causal sequence and of purpose-directed action in order to present itself as a force in its own right. In slow cinema and in hyped-up action cinema alike, we witness the emergence of what Deleuze calls “a bit of time in its pure state.”
The rhythm image involves a new articulation of time that differs from both of those described by Deleuze. The time of the rhythm image is neither extrinsic to an action that it would measure indirectly, nor does it break free from whatever action might unfold within it. Rather, the temporality of the rhythm image is intensive and vibrational. It comprises multiple pulses and resonances. The pulsations of time seem to dictate, or even generate, an ever-varying distribution of sounds and images.
For instance, in Tony Scott’s Domino (2005), ostensibly an action film, movement is volatilized into multiple, overlapping shots that proliferate across the screen, unfolding at different speeds. In Joseph Kahn’s Detention (2011), structurally similar events are diffracted and repeated across time, with changing accouterments. And in Daniel Kwan and Daniel Scheinert’s Everything Everywhere All At Once (2022), continual shifts in the movie’s frame of reference produce a polyrhythmic complexity of ever-changing temporal configurations.
Though I am writing here about feature-length films, most of The Rhythm Image is devoted to music videos, which tend to present this configuration of time in a particularly concentrated form. In 2022, FKA twigs released nine short music videos, all directed by Aidan Zamiri, for tracks from her mixtape Caprisongs. In “honda,” twigs seems to glide down a motorway, only a few feet above the ground. The editing is extremely rapid, with cuts nearly every second, matching the beats of the song. We see twigs from various angles, together with vertiginous whip pans of the landscape streaming by. Shots are held a bit longer during the song’s chorus, as twigs raises her upper body, head high, arms spread out, exulting in the breeze and the Sun. The video is 82 seconds long; it only contains an abridged version of the song. As twigs herself describes the video, “it’s like a hole punch of your favorite scenes from a music video, nothing more, nothing less.”[iv] There’s no burst of action, no pause of duration, but only an ecstatic pulsation. It’s a heightened and enhanced vibratory moment of zooming down the highway; by the time we realize what is happening, it is already over.
[i] Steven Shaviro, The Rhythm Image: Music Videos and New Audiovisual Forms (Bloomsbury Academic 2022).
[ii] Gilles Deleuze, Cinema 1: The Movement Image, trans. Hugh Tomlinson and Barbra Habberjam (University of Minnesota Press, 1986), and Cinema 2: The Time Image, trans. Hugh Tomlinson and Robert Galeta (University of Minnesota Press, 1989).
[iii] David Bordwell, “Intensified Continuity: Visual Style in Contemporary American Film”. Film Quarterly, Vol. 55, No. 3 (Spring 2002), pp. 16-28.
[iv] TotalNTertainment, “FKA twigs releases Caprivids to accompany mixtape.” May 5, 2022. https://www.totalntertainment.com/music/fka-twigs-releases-caprivids-to-accompany-mixtape/.