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Deleuze and "The Lady from Shanghai"

by Alison Kozberg

Gilles Deleuze begins chapter four of Cinema II, by stating “The cinema does not just present images it surrounds them with a world” (68). This quote instigates his discussion of the “crystal image,” an idea that he approaches through multiple burrows within cinematic apparatus and diegesis. It reflects the consideration of cinema as both part of the world and created within it. He does not distinguish image from actuality, instead opting to bind them together within the crystal: “This is why, early on, [THE CINEMA] looked for bigger and bigger circuits which would unite an actual image with recollection-images, dream-images, and world-images….Should not the opposite direction have been pursued? Contracting the image instead of dilating it. Searching for the smallest circuit that functions as an internal limit for all the others and that puts the actual image beside a kind of immediate, symmetrical, consecutive, or even simultaneous double” (68). Henri Bergson’s conception of the image in Matter and Memory. was extremely influential on this description of the “crystal image.” Within Matter and Memory Bergson appealed to common sense to assert that the image is folded between “representation” and “thing,” neither completely objective nor purely dependent on the perceiving subject. “By an ‘image’,” Bergson writes, “we mean a certain existence [of matter] which is more than which the idealist calls a representation, but less than that which the realist calls a thing—an existence placed halfway between the ‘thing’ and the ‘representation’.” (Bergson 9, original emphasis). Deleuze performs a similar work in Cinema II, by advocating for the mitigation of the distance between cinema images and the so-called actuality they seek to portray. As opposed to a realm of opposites, we are better served by thinking of the world as “the coalesence of the actual image and the virtual image, the image with two sides, actual and virtual at the same time” (Cinema II 69), in other words an image—recollected, dreamed, imagined—that is coextensive with, instead of separate from, its referent. By a similar line of Deleuzian reasoning, films are not separate from the world they represent, because the cinema exists in a continuum with its material environment. There is a virtuality to the images that flicker on the screen, and yet a material force and presence to the film image that makes any claims to cinema as a purely ephemeral art form seem insufficient. As such, Deleuze would argue that there needs to be a conception of the image in cinema that hovers somewhere in between these two states, and that conception is what he terms the “crystal-image” (69). The crystal image is the intertwining of virtual and actual, the confusion of the real and imaginary. Deleuze arrived upon the mirror as a particularly lucid demonstration of this formulation. The mirror is both actual and virtual because “the mirror-image is virtual in relation to the actual character that the mirror catches, but it is actual in the mirror which now leaves the character with only a virtuality and pushes him back out-of-field.” (70) The virtual image contained in the mirror has an actuality when framed from within that mirror space—a space against which the previously “actual” image only exists as a virtual because it has been excluded from the elusive materiality of the mirror space. It is in this context that we can understand the messy actual-virtual circuit that Deleuze uses to describe the cinema. In Orson Welles’ The Lady from Shanghai Delezue felt this mirror image came to its pure state. In the noir film’s climax a shoot out takes place within a fun houses’ hall of mirrors. This scene achieves the “smallest circuit” as the virtual and actual image are so tightly intertwined that they reach a point of indiscerniblity. Deleuze writes “the principle of indiscernibility reaches its peak: a perfect crystal-image where the multiple mirrors have assumed the actuality of the two characters who will only be able to win it back by smashing them all, finding themselves side by side and killing each other.” (70) This indiscernibility is enacted within both composition and narrative. As Elsa and her husband Bannister attempt to kill each other they are caught in a network of infinite reflections. The actual mirrors within the fun house are layered upon the reflection of the cinematic apparatus. The purity of Welles’ crystal image lies in this diegetic reiteration of broader cinematic tendencies. The mirrors optically reflect the characters and extend from the confusion and deceit that permeates the film’s plot. The actual becomes the virtual as the character’s bodies are refracted into endless reflections but the virtual also returns to the actual as both mirror and body are destroyed.

The Lady from Shanghai and Deleuze

a clip from The Lady from Shanghai that Deleuze mentioned in his writing

from The Lady from Shanghai (1947)
Creator: Orson Welles
Posted by Chang Choi