There seems to be at least two ways in which to read this book: as an analysis of film from a Deleuzian perspective; as a philosophical text that extends, challenges, and expands Deleuze’s work through concrete examples from film; or perhaps it is both and more. There is no way that I can see this merely as an application of a philosophy in some sort of cookie-cutter way, instead Herzog’s text delves into the philosophy, going to great lengths to explicate, apply, and challenge the thoughts she finds in Deleuze’s works. The book is broken into four chapters; each explores a different aspect of Deleuze’s thinking and a different set of films.
The first chapter explores the way technologies shape our experience of film, and how through combinations of image and sound, films call on and create cultural representations that are at times highly problematic. Herzog examines early jukebox movies or Soundies and Scopitone films to confront an assumed hierarchy where sound plays second fiddle to the image in film, offering a history the Soundie and Scopitone machines where the image was the second consideration. The “Soundie” is a Juke box video player that appeared in the United States in the 1940s and the Scopitone was a French development of the 1960s, while both are similar in structure and are basically a juke box with video screen; when money was deposited in them would play a song and what might be thought of as an early version of the music video. Herzog highlights the differences to point to different strategies used to explore habitus or repeated representation in the filmic devices. While she is critical of the representations of class, race, and gender in the videos, she argues for their potential at demonstrating an anxiety about questions of representation, in this often overlooked phenomenon. Here she offers a Deleuzian reading of repetition is not simply repetition as the same thing occurring over and over, but that there is difference in each iteration of similar acts or occurrences. This challenge to repetition, as simplified reproduction that lacks uniqueness, challenges an easy reading of these films that fails to see possible nuances and places of potential social resistance. She argues that these juke box movies through their requirement for quick production call on tropes and repetitions, but also are doing interesting critical work and are at times moments on contestation and possible subversion of the representations that they may at first appear to support.
She then compares adaptations of Carmen on film as a way to explore Deleuze’s concept of the refrain. She writes, “on the most basic level, refrains are fragments of sounds, colors gestures or other expressive elements that circulate and repeat through individual articulations” (73). She compares the ways in which the refrains of Carmen appear in Godard’s Prénom Carmen to that of Premeniger’s Carmen Jones. Because Carmen is a piece that has been recreated so many times, she finds an opportunity to explore the differences as well as the repetitions in the filmic adaptations of Carmen that are so plentiful. Godard’s film, for Herzog, offers a critique of the gender politics of the original story and is far from a faithful adaptation. It leaves out the historical musical text opting to find the repetitions and refrains in staging to the historical other adaptation that have been offered, as it tells the tale of a radical left wing terrorist Carmen X who has brash love affairs and takes over a bank. She notes that Godard’s exaggeration of the gender roles and sexuality of the films lends itself to be read as a criticism of the portrayal of gender in the original story. In Carmen Jones she notes how the “Black English lyrics” of the musical and all black cast have hailed many a critique for its essentialist politics and use of dubbed singing voices for the black characters. However all is not lost for Carmen Jones, as Herzog points that the refrains that exist in Prénom Carmen are bound to the refrains of Carmen Jones that create discourses between the adaptations and the viewer that in the end are inseparable and necessary for the understanding of the phenomenon that is Carmen.
Herzog then explores the musical films of Jacques Demy, she calls on both Deleuze and Bergson heavily for a recuperation of the films that do not let Demy off of the critical hook for his depictions of women and racial others, but too finds recuperative space where the films do have the ability to challenge our conceptions of time and space. Here Deleuze’s work on “fabulation” is called upon to show how fictions of the musical moment “multiply and destabilize the past.” (18). Demy’s films are often thought to be overly romantic, escapist forms of crisis management. Herzog challenges this reading by offering was in which Demy’s films, through the Deleuzian lens, call us to reimagine the ways in which we view time, space, and memory. One place that Demy’s films are regularly criticized according to Herzog is in the doubling or multiplying of women or the female image, because removes the agency of the individuals who have now become but objects, however it is Herzog’s argument that this work more closely aligns it self with a Deleuzian understanding of identity, one that challenges the individual as singular entity, and is understood better as a series of continual processes.
Finally, Herzog looks to the compare the musical films of Ester Williams and Tsai Ming-liang’s The Hole. Here she sets Deleuze’s work beside that of Siegfried Kracauer’s description of the image at work in film to both note the similarities and the differences in the approach the two take at considering how the image has been commodified in the musical moment and the potentialities these moments offer for the rethinking history. She takes up the “dream-image” in Deleuze as a way to discuss the logic and fragmentation at work that puts it at odds with Kracauer’s reading of William’s films that attempts to lock William’s into a logic of stable subject hood that ultimately fails because of irrationality. In order to compare the films she takes up some of Deleuze’s most controversial concepts: “becoming-woman” and “becoming-animal.” In what she calls “becoming-fluid,” Herzog argues that becoming-woman is not an attack on women but instead is a way in which to understand the identity politics at work, those that have often created impossible images for humans to attain. She notes that in The Hole, where two apartments are separated by only a hole in the floor of one that leads to the ceiling of the other, film is about the boundaries between the man in the upper apartment and the woman in the lower. Everything in the film, from the bursting from speech into song because of a sneeze to the literal hole itself which causes immense suffering for the woman below, demonstrates these border considerations, these moments of impact allow her to cull from Deleuze the ways of pulling away from static ideal identities to moving to molecular or individualized ones, it is this process that Deleuze calls “becoming-woman.” In the comparison of these film Herzog finds that border considerations are key to the understanding the productivity that the films posess for critical inquiry.
In the end, Herzog’s book is one about contradictions, ruptures, challenges, opportunities, and failures. It is not an attempt to save the musical from its political missteps, quite to the contrary, Herzog reiterates challenges to the films she explores, and then offers ways in which the films are also doing other things that cannot be dismissed. Like many books about ruptures and challenges, she seems to write with a hope that these films do have the power to improve out lives or at least change the ways in we look at them, she concludes,
A variation in the refrain, this nascent step across the line from walking to dancing, from talking to singing, may be transitory and it may be ultimately recuperated. But if it is able to extract even the tiniest difference from the onslaught of the same, if it can introduce even the smallest stutter into the system, this variation may call forth profound, wholly new means of thinking differently, so long, that is, as we choose to listen (206).While Poplar Buff Senior High School Prom may never be like a movie, it is perhaps in the differences that I find some solace in knowing it was never going to be, and perhaps the failures of my memories and expectations are just as important as whatever similarities and attainments might have been.
— Benjamin Haas, Louisiana State University