The Morph-Image: Five Theses on Post-Cinema

Thinking about our culture in terms of its dominant image was established by Gilles Deleuze in his two books on cinema.1 Deleuze finished his study of cinema by pointing out that a third image is emerging, but never defined it. Proposals for this new image have been plentiful, including the neuro-image, the desiring-image, the life-image, the non-time-image, the space-image, and the rhythm-image.2 While all these different image proposals are insightful, none of them successfully integrate or explain the new spatiotemporal world we live in and that new image technologies are part of. We urgently need an image-form that encapsulates all aspects of contemporary culture, and to do so, we need a new vocabulary for how soundimages work.

In Detention we find an intense example of a new image of time, when a continuous shot circles the characters while simulating moving back in time. This shot is emblematic of a change in cinema that views time as a resource, something to be outright manipulated and distorted.

Our current spatiotemporal world is one of flow, flux, acceleration, and above all a demand for flexibility. The image for our time, and of our time, is what I will call the morph-image; an image of quick-change, metamorphoses, and performativity (as in doing), rather than a stable identity. We find the morph-image in what is currently called post-cinema. Post-cinema names how new audiovisual media technologies enhance, reverse, retrieve, and obsolesce cinema, all at the same time, as part of the same process (McLuhan). As such, it is imperative to understand how new audiovisual forms connect, disrupt, invert, and perpetuate contemporary life (Angerer). We cannot separate sounds and images from our lives; audiovisual media participate in, produce, and organize everyday life, rather than simply reflect or represent it. We can argue that this participation, production, and organization amount to a form of thinking of and about the world.
That images think is axiomatic for film-philosophy. Images think through forms and so new forms are new thoughts; these new thoughts are necessarily thoughts about and of this new spatiotemporal world. Here, I will outline four forms: animacies, capture, acceleration, and flow, before concluding on the powers of futurity and the consequences for a film-philosophy of post-cinema.

Animacies: Deja Vu

Post-cinematic works are increasingly animated moving images rather than recorded images. There is a long-standing debate on how film and cinema has become a subset of animation, instead of the reverse. Lev Manovich is the strongest voice from the digital cinema camp (Language of New Media), while Alan Cholodenko has made the same argument for much longer in animation studies (Illusion of Life). In either case, post-cinema no longer relies solely on cameras to produce images but other imaging technologies are used as well.

In Tony Scott’s time-travel action-thriller Deja Vu, part of the plot hinges on a machine that can see the past unfold. This time window, as the technology is called, has a surreal, dreamlike quality to its images. Part of that comes from the fact that scenes were shot with a LIDAR device — a digital device that records distance rather than image through the use of laser light. These distances are then converted into images but this process is an animation process, since there is no inherent connection between the distances recorded and the resulting images. While Deja Vu aims for resemblance, the LIDAR process of acquiring images allows for a much greater flexibility in how the images are finally rendered.

These digital animations innervate our nervous systems by integrating new image and media technologies into their forms of expression. These new technologies are animating technologies, themselves forms of movement and force. Innervation suggests integration with these new technologies to make us more lively, but it should also indicate a lack of distinction between human and nonhuman bodies (Angerer). Such innervating animacies suggest that post-cinematic soundimages are generative (Diana Coole in New Materialisms) and produce what we might call thing-power (Bennett), a vitalist understanding of soundimages. Images have force that animates and engages viewers in new ways, and this force depends in part on the materialities that went into producing the image; images are assemblages, in other words.

This force is an animating force — an animacy — that gives life not just to the images on screen but also to viewers. The animacies of new audiovisual technologies is a folding together of nonhuman and human bodies. We find a lack of distinction between the agencies of bodies, instead existing in a new environment where interiority and exteriority are less demarcated, and where soundimages have agency because of their innervating pulses. New soundimages are attractions in both Gunning and Ndalianis’ senses (“Cinema of Attractions” and “Special Effects”) but they are also attractors that generate agencies (Transforming Images).

Capture: Requiem for a Dream

The flip side of animacies is that we are captured by soundimages; whether this is a matter of entrainment, corporealization, or modulation, post-cinematic works sometimes articulate our capacities through their intensities. Audiovisual capture occurs through the technologies of control that Deleuze outlines in his “Postscript to Control Societies” and essentially happens when soundimages think for us. They do so by capturing our attention.

The idea of images as attractors bring us to the next two forms of corporealization and modulation. The animacies of post-cinematic images entrain us (“Entrainment and Musicality”); they render our bodies and sensations in ways that are not our own, which is to say they are biopolitical. While I argued that post-cinematic images generate agencies, that does not mean they generate any kind of agency. In fact, many post-cinematic works render sensible means and modes of control in the way suggested by Foucault’s notion of governmentally and Deleuze’s “Postscript to Control Societies.” Post-cinematic images function as technologies of power (Powers of Freedom) by the way they animate new experiences in us.

Requiem for a Dream stands as one of the clearest examples of cinematic biopolitics. The movie uses a full range of different cinematic techniques and technologies to produce its intense sequences, including sequences shot on video cameras, rapid editing, Snorri-cam shots, time-lapse sequences, split screen, as well as the juxtaposition of extreme close-up and extreme long shots. All the characters are caught in nightmarish scenarios of addiction and control, something that the movie’s aesthetic intensity also generates.

While the movie might immediately suggest the technologies of healthism, the link between the social body and individual well being (Powers of Freedom 74), as well as responsibilisation, turning unemployment, illness, and poverty into an individual issue of self-care, or lack of it (Biopolitics 92). I think that Requiem for a Dream actually disrupts these notions by its empathy for the characters and the estranging and shocking drug sequences. Instead, we would do better to think of the entwined notions of “cruel optimism” and “slow death” put forth by Lauren Berlant (Cruel Optimism). The only option that the characters in Requiem for a Dream have is to survive in a time of “struggling, drowning, holding on to the ledge, treading water, not-stopping.” (“Nearly Utopian, Nearly Normal”) The stark, delirious images produce the same sensation of corporealization: forced into conditions beyond one’s control, constantly spiralling out of control. There is agency here but only the lateral agency of choosing how to die.

Acceleration: Hardcore Henry

Post-cinema’s animating capture works as accelerators, bent on speeding up experience to a state of pure now. Acceleration is evidenced everywhere and is one of the most definitive and distinctive organizations of our current spatiotemporal world.
One of the ways acceleration manifests in the post-cinematic mode of image production is in the production of speed as vicarious pleasure. Rapid editing, camera movement, and movement within the frame are all utilized as ways of inducing speed in the viewer. These three different forms of movement are often combined, which is one reason why post-cinematic works so often feel disjunctive and exhausting.

Hardcore Henry is a subjective point-of-view single-shot action movie that propels our bodily engagement by borrowing from the first-person shooter videogame genre. The use of new image technologies — predominantly the GoPro camera but also the Blender software — produces an innervating image that instates a different form of vision: an animated vision. No longer can movies be regarded as a scopic technology that places the viewer in a position of mastery. Hardcore Henry instead hurls the viewer into a frenetic jumble of images, a sensation of being out of control although this post-cinematic chaos remains engaging.

The morphing together of shots into a coherent whole that replaces our body with a post-cinematic body is a new mode of immersion that desires to obliterate the distinction between movie and viewer, inside and outside, accelerating to a point of sheer sensation. Pushed to its logical extreme, we are even dealing with a cinematic stun mode, where the image speed reaches a terminal velocity that essentially drones away our cognitive processing of these images.
This development is an example of the logic of intensity. In itself, Hardcore Henry does not develop any new image forms or aesthetic devices, but by intensifying familiar forms new sensations can be developed. In this way, post-cinema expands its colonization of our senses through intensification, much like finance capital has intensified existing markets (Post-Postmodernism 32).

Acceleration works in cinema because we recognize it in our everyday life, whether or not we enjoy it. At its most radical, extreme acceleration can function as a sensory shielding by pushing everything into a motion blur. At the same time, there is a dullness to this acceleration, this extreme overconsumption of ever more of the same. Most accelerationist movies seem to think that giving us excess of speed, surfeiting, our appetite may die. This does not appear to be the case and most of these movies often end in a state of inertia; despite rapid change, everything stays the same.

Flow: Gravity and Dredd

Animated acceleration can push us into a state of flow that feels exhilarating but is also that moment when our attention is fully captured. This capture of attention is often done through sublime audiovisual sequences that propels our experience into new territories. Again, morphing techniques are crucial for such attention capture so that images can reach the proper flow of intensity.

A very literal version of this flow is played out in Gravity, where Dr. Ryan Stone (Sandra Bullock) is stranded in space and has to get back to Earth or die. Here, animation technologies allow for sublime sequences — most famously the opening thirteen minutes — of floating, the camera seemingly moving uninhibited by gravity itself. In fact these shots are not continuous or weightless. Instead, several shots are morphed together into one apparently continuous shot.
This sensation of flow is produced in two primary ways: elastic shots and morph cuts. An elastic shot is Yvonne Spielmann’s term for shots that create alternative understandings of space other than perspectival space, through special effects (“Elastic Cinema”). Spielmann notes that most special effects in cinema could legitimately be called “spatial effects” because they almost always depend on bending space in new ways. In Gravity these spatials are produced by having the camera move in highly unconventional ways that sever us from a stable point of view. Instead, our point of view changes unexpectedly as objects that leave frame right flow back in frame left. This spatial unmooring is spectacular because we are so unused to this kind of cinematography that it produces a renewal of perception.

Part of this unmooring comes from the morph cuts, an animation technique where shots that end and begin with almost the same composition can be morphed invisibly together to present a continuous shot. Morph cuts are distinctive in that they are invisible if done well and so produce a literal version of Bordwell’s concept of “intensified continuity” (The Way Hollywood Tells It). In Gravity the continuity of shots is intensified through morphing and so produces space and time as a continuous unfolding relation. This unfolding is another example of the logic of intensity, where new articulations of space help generate and grab attention.
Another aspect of flow and elastic images comes in the form of temporal elasticity, what I will call temporals. Temporals are instances of time moving at different speeds, whether faster or slower. The icon example of a temporal effect is the bullet-time effect in The Matrix. While the Wachowski sisters‘ movie innovated a new image of time, showing how Neo is able to beat the Matrix, the bullet-time effect has since become standard issue for action movies and has even been intensified.

So far, they have culminated in Dredd (Pete Travis 2012), where the experience of time is slowed down by a drug called “Slo-Mo.” People under the influence of Slo-Mo provide the spectacular superslow-motion temporals. As the results of a drug, the slowing down of time no longer solely expresses power but instead becomes control. When Judge Dredd attacks criminals under the influence of Slo-Mo, he is able to act much faster than the criminals. We are placed in a position of awe as Dredd doles out justice.

The superslowing down of time and the future as actual but changeable is an example of a new kind of image that presents time as an awe-inspiring resource: time becomes a mode of control. Master villain Ma-Ma is punished by falling to her death under the influence of Slo-Mo, an act of justice in itself.

Expanding on Manuel Castells we can call spatials and temporals flows (The Rise of the Network Society). The new spacetime produced by the network society is characterized by a loosening of space and a simultaneity of time that is evident in the flow of Gravity and Dredd‘s images. We must keep in mind that space and time are always articulated together, they are part of the same process of experience. These flows therefore instate a particular rhythm, understood in Lefebvre’s sense as an interaction of time, space, and energy (Rhythmanalysis 15).

Plastic Time

Time has special traction in post-cinema and in our current spatiotemporal world, predominantly in the role of the future or even futurity. The morph-image is constantly engaged in the temporal extension of the future. Animacy, capture, , acceleration, flow, — are all attempts at preempting the future; shaping the future before it takes place.
What we come up against is the question of how cinema expresses duration. David Rodowick laments the shift to digital video because digital video cannot express lived duration, sliced, as it is, into ones and zeros.3 Rodowick seems to me to be hung up on the spatialization of the image, which he rightly identifies as continuous due to the lack of cuts that we find in analog cinema. However, time takes on another, far more interesting characteristic: time becomes plastic, rather than continuous.

We can state this positively: time becomes emancipated; or we can state it negatively: time becomes a resource. As I’ve tried to show, neither is more correct than the other but are two modalities that individual movies articulate and make sensible. Cinema, or rather post-cinema, thus modulates our reception of the future, I suspect what John Mullarkey would call a refraction of the becoming-of-future. As digital processes do run below the threshold of human perception but still impact our sensibilities, as Mark Hansen has argued, post-cinema works as a kind of preemption.

Yet we can never know the future, so preemption describes how future potentials are made actual in the present. Which is to say preemption is a form of modulation of the present by means of an unactualized future, in order to prevent that future from happening, benefit from that as-yet-unactualized future, or otherwise act on the not-yet. In the end, that is the power of the morph-image and what distinguishes it from the movement-image and time-image: not the passing of the present or the impact of the past on the present, but the modulation of the not-yet.

Film-philosophy needs to pay more attention to how the future is preempted by cinema. The unfolding of the present is what matters for the movement-image, the presence of the past is what matters for the time-image, and the modulation of the future is what matters for the morph-image. This is not to suggest that the future is a closed system; modulation works through flexible adaptation, not pregiven forms.

  1. Cinema 1: The Movement-Image and Cinema 2: The Time-Image both London: Bloomsbury Academic 2013. 
  2. Respectively: Pisters, Patricia. The Neuro-Image: : A Deleuzian Film-Philosophy of Digital Screen Culture. Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2012; Davis, Nick. The Desiring-Image: Gilles Deleuze and Contemporary Queer Cinema. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2013; Casarino, Cesare. “Three Theses on the Life-Image (Deleuze, Cinema, Bio-politics)” in Khalip, Jacques and Robert Mitchell (eds.). Releasing the Image: From Literature to New Media. Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2011; Sánchez, Sergi. “Towards a Non-Time Image: Notes on Deleuze in the Digital Era” in Denson, Shane and Julia Leyda (eds.). Post-Cinema: Theorizing 21st-Century Film. Falmer: REFRAME Books, 2016; Galloway, Alexander R. Gaming: Essays On Algorithmic Culture. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2006; Manovich, Lev. The Language of New Media. Cambridge: The MIT Press, 2002; Shaviro, Steven. “The Rhythm-Image”. Unpublished paper presented at The Society for Cinema and Media Studies Conference 2015. Video available here: 
  3. The Virtual Life of Film, 171.