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Deleuze’s Cinema 2 and De Sica’s Umberto D

by Jih-Fei Cheng

By Jih-Fei Cheng

For Deleuze, the shift from realism to neo-realism in Italian film entails a fundamental challenge to the way we apprehend truth.  The problem is not what is “real,” but rather the terms in which it is thought.  The habituation of perception to apprehend reality through the movement-image in traditional realism is interrupted by the pure-optical image of neo-realism.  Whereas the action of the image, as in montage sequence, is a guiding force that directs perception vis-à-vis the sensory-motor schema, encounters with neo-realism conjure instead a space that is purely optical and sonic to engage thought at the level of apprehension.  Rather than (re)produce a representation commonplace to cinema in order to narrativize reality, neo-realism proffers a viewing frame that is curious—often using the sequence shot to dwell upon the mundane details of everyday life—forcing an engagement with thought outside the realm of the narrative.  De-linked from the sensory-motor schema, banality becomes stark; reality is gestured at and held open as ambiguous.  As mentioned in the post by Bowyer and Anderson, thinking becomes orthogonal: the relations between banal and extreme, and subjective and objective, matter insofar as they stretch the limits of understanding.  The new image that comes into being through Italian neo-realism passes through these quotidian markers of thought to “release accumulated ‘dead forces’ equal to the life force of a limit-situation (thus, in De Sica’s Umberto D, the sequence where the old man examines himself and thinks he has a fever).” (7)  Death subtends life in all its animated forms.  According to Deleuze, the orthogonal point of view enabled by the pure-optical image of Italian neo-realism makes unstable the distinction between subject and object in the visual field.  This irruption in the viewing frame establishes a centrifuge around which notions of the real and the imagined whirl, where subject and object resist one another as much as they enmesh, where mental and physical space overlay one another rather than merely correspond.  The discernable is no longer of import.  We have been invited into a realm of unknowing.

Deleuze and Umberto D: Any-space-whatevers in the fact-image

by Amber Bowyer

     In Cinema Two, Delueze positions the action-image alongside the sensory-motor responses that keep cliché intact.  This transition marks the emergence of time as “primary matter” (115), and the subjugation of the rational causality of the movement-image that marked classical cinema. When a character, such as the little pregnant maid in Umberto D, ceases to be engaged in an action, she becomes a viewer herself, “able to see and hear what is no longer subject to the rules of a response or an action.” (Cinema 2, 3)  The moment Deleuze refers to in De Sica’s film is one where Umberto D and his maid are in his meager apartment, having a simple conversation, and the maid pauses for a moment at the sink, washes ants away with the spigot, and touches her belly, revealing that she is pregnant.  Although not laden with intense emotion or particular import, for Deleuze the moment reveals a character passing from an action-image to the pure optical-sound image.  “If everyday banality is so important, it is because, being subject to sensory-motor schemata which are automatic and pre-established, it is all the more liable, on the least disturbance of equilibrium between stimulus and response, suddenly to free itself from the laws of this schema and reveal itself in a visual and sound nakedness, crudeness and brutality which make it unbearable, giving it the pace of a dream or a nightmare.” (3)  This “encounter”, “new image,” “pure optical” instance marks the post WWII landscape of terror and uncertainty.  Delueze states in the introduction to Cinema Two, “…the post-war period has greatly increased the situations which we longer know how to react to, in spaces which we longer know how to describe.”  He calls these spaces “any-spaces-whatever,” spaces we no longer ascribe any certainty to, spaces inhabited by a “new race of characters,” who see rather than act.  The cessation of logical cause and effect action, of the “already deciphered real” (1) marks the faltering sensory motor sensations  that give rise to the pure affect of the “seer” (2); the internal being, no longer the agent.

     Deleuze venerates Bazin’s insightful reading of Italian Neo-realism’s innovative contribution to cinema and cinema as social construction, citing his “infinitely rich” thesis of Italian Neo-realism as marked by a particular aesthetic which used sequences, blocs of time, rather than metonymic montaged comparisons to create meaning by framing special moments of unexpected consideration and encounter with pure thought. These usually “missed” encounters matter in De Sica’s film and I all of Italian Neo-realism at its best, Deleuze and Bazin would have it, and Deleuze uses this film style’s elevation of the embedded, the overshadowed and the specific amid the mundane to hypothesize cinema’s potential to reveal even more typically transparent truths about the nature of time and experience. This type of image occupies a transitional space between action-image and time image, and Deleuze avers Bazin’s name for it, the fact-image. The shared simple encounter with a fact, shared by the characters and viewer define it. This is a moment which, theretofore, had resisted the cliché of action-based cinema, and Deleuze seems to suggest that it may allow the viewer to take a temporally orthogonal posture, inhabiting a typically occluded plane of perception. This emergent perception resists ossification, as it is not bounded by beginning and end, as is an action.


by Amber Bowyer and Genevieve Anderson

Umberto D and Deleuze

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a clip from Umberto D that Deleuze mentioned in his writing

from Umberto D (1952)
Creator: Vittorio De Sica
Posted by Chang Choi
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