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Comments on Deleuze and Vidor's The Crowd

by Critical Commons Manager

Deleuze says:

“Take, for example, the famous shot in King Vidor’s The Crowd, what Mitry called ‘one of the most beautiful tracking shots in the whole silent cinema’: the camera advances into the crowd, against the flow, makes its way towards a skyscraper, climbs up to the twentieth floor, frames one of the windows, discovers a hall full of desks, goes in to arrive at a desk where the hero is sitting.” (22)

The scene begins with a subtle divorce of perspective—a dissolve from the point of view of our character, John Sims, looking at the city from a steamship’s deck to a series of objective shots capturing the metropolis’s various movements. Contrary to Deleuze’s description, there is not one crowd, but many different shots of crowds hurriedly crisscrossing streets and sidewalks and filmed from various angels and lengths. The crowds are superimposed and dissolved into each other, overlapping into a pulsating singular entity Deleuze sees. Against and with the crowd, the city is captured from above and below through shots of the harbor, skyscrapers, and streets. Vidor’s camera then recognizes one building in an extreme low angle, tilting upwards and rotating slightly to give it an anonymous cast as it is ranged against a steely sky. It is then that the camera finally begins to move: it “climbs up” as Deleuze says, dissolves and enters through an open window, which reveals a cavernous office space, the rows of desks in perfect geometric—if oblique—rows and colums. Continuing the same shot, the camera miraculously traverses the rows and finds “our hero.”

In Cinema 1 Deleuze describes this as a single camera movement—traversing through space, moving through the lowly figures milling about in the streets, upwards into the office and forwards again; however, this sequence is composed of several individual images (most of which, showing the harbor or streets, Deleuze has curiously omitted). But rather than see this as a fault of his recollection or a deliberate elision, it instead an invitation to see the sequence as representative of the cinema’s unique visual perspective, one “works continuously, in a single movement, whose halts are an integral part of it and are only a vibration on to itself.” (22) The continuum of shifting perspective—from point of view to objective camera eye, from crowds upon crowds to high angle panoramas of the bustling city, from low-angle shots of the building to the desks traversed, and then back (again) to the protagonist—unites together these disparate views in a set whose intention is not apparent until the final moment of return to John Sims. Instead of seeing these images as individual shots juxtaposed and strung together (i.e., immobile sections to which movement is added), Deleuze implores us to see this as “as single movement” (22), a movement image whose components (shots) are “mobile section(s) of duration” (22). As the individual shot changes—dissolves, tracks, or pans— the set of images related to that single shot also changes, and so single images are not disparate and juxtaposed with one another, but reciprocally and actively inflecting one another throughout the duration of its movement. Rather than treat this duration as a set that is something nested and contained—for Deleuze, the set is never fully closed because it maintains a relationship, with the whole (16-17)—this set opens up onto other sets of images (scenes, sequences) in a system that is always in flux.

Similarly, elements of the shot go beyond simply expressing the duration and change of a set. Deleuze contends that pure movement is extracted from the mobile section of duration. Cinema wrests perception from physical bodies and refuses to be localized in matter, and so is able to capture the essence of pure movement: “extracting from vehicles or moving bodies the movement which is their common substance” (23). This not movement of bodies from one location to another, but movement qua movement, in and of itself without a frame of material reference. If the image=movement, the elements of the set are never stable themselves, but rather a multiplicity of movements. Thus, a reciprocal relationship is engendered between the set and the whole. An element’s continuing movement as an image “…also relates to a fundamentally open whole, whose essence is constantly to become or to change, to endure and vice-versa” (23). The set, captured as movement-images, relay the whole, yet both images continually shift, splinter, vary, and become. For Deleuze, this sequence from The Crowd illustrates the movement-image as such: an image is never stable because it is embedded in a continuum larger than itself, within itself; it moves closer to showing pure movement.

The Crowd and Deleuze

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The clip is from The Crowd that Gilles Deleuze mentioned in his writing.

from The Crowd (1928)
Creator: King Vidor
Posted by Chang Choi