Tuesday, September 7, 2010

Dreams of Difference, Songs of the Same: The Musical Moment in Film. By Amy Herzog.

Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, January 2010. Paper: ISBN 978-0-8166-6088-9, $25. 296 pages.

Review by Albin Lohr-Jones, Independent Scholar

Given the growing volume of writings on Gilles Deleuze and film – now ubiquitous at Deleuze studies conferences and in interdisciplinary essay collections dedicated to his work – one might wonder whether or not his role as an innovator of film criticism is beginning to eclipse his legacy as a philosopher. At the heart of this emergent field, however, lies an inescapable contradiction. Reflecting on the impact of his Cinema I: The Movement-Image (1983), Deleuze acknowledged that his turn toward thinking about film was largely accidental, and then only as a means of addressing specific philosophical problems to which examination of linguistic signs prohibited access. In the nearly 27 years since the publication of this book, the distinction between “philosophical concept” – on which Deleuze’s writings constantly ruminate – and critical methodology has become increasing blurred. The philosophical is, in Deleuze’s view, incompatible with the creative (artistic) act. Yet, notwithstanding this purely accidental origin of what has emerged as a Deleuzian mode film analysis, the discipline has and continues to witness a precipitous growth.
Amy Herzog’s Dreams of Difference, Songs of the Same: The Musical Moment in Film may be one of the more daring of the newest additions to this growing literature. Taking as its focus cinematic examples which utilize film-musical devices – a diverse range of “camp” and other genre hybrids deploying what Herzog labels the “musical moment” – her book is markedly ambitious. Rather than restricting the Deleuzian framework from which she examines these films to the Bergsonian/Peircean concept-base outlined in the Cinema books, Herzog adopts a different strategy. Taking as its central concern the varying modalities of repetition which operate coextensively within the “musical moment” (“repetition” here understood in its range of qualifications defined in Deleuze’s Difference and Repetition ), Herzog effectively reorients (and recontextualizes) key concepts from the Cinema books and from Deleuze and Felix Guattari’s collaborative opus A Thousand Plateaus. In itself, synthesizing these texts and attempting to construe consistency between the concepts they invoke can be a problematic undertaking. Yet Herzog’s sound command of Deleuzian thought, coupled with a keen awareness of the difficulties inherent in trying to synthesize (or conflate) Deleuze’s various writings, sets the stage for the clear and well-delimited studies comprising the body of her book.
Herzog is quite accurate in the introduction to her book in advising her readers that this is not a “genre study” in the proper sense. The focus of her investigations, rather, is of a more philosophical nature: to interrogate and explore what she identifies as “a fluid and malleable expressive form” constituting the “musical moment.” Neither purely musical (in the proper sense) nor wholly-integral to the visual narrative of a film, the musical moment names a site of dislocation, of radical disparity between a filmic-work’s temporal flow (linear development) and the disruptive excesses of diegetic musical material. Thus the musical moment embodies an irresolvable tension: one born of complex and often partial negotiations of both conservative and radical ideologies. In her words, these “moments are marked by a tendency to restructure spatiotemporal coordinates, to reconfigure the boundaries and operations of the human body, and to forge new relations between organic and inorganic elements within the frame.” Herzog’s analyses, consequently, seek to elucidate various ways in which these parameters (and the hierarchical thought that informs our normative, “classical” expectations of them) are frustrated in these singular and temporally un-assimilable instances marking the disruption of narrative progress.
At just over 200 pages (plus its introduction and conclusion), perhaps the only ways in which this book’s ambitions are thwarted are in its brevity and in its choice of examples. One gets the sense that her line of development, the trajectory of her argument, is occasionally abbreviated; and that a longer treatment (even if only a few additional pages in each chapter) would afford her the opportunity to elaborate more upon her observations. An ideal reader of this book (someone at least casually familiar with Deleuze’s writings) will no doubt fill in the missing pieces, supplementing Herzog’s observations with knowledge of the conceptual background from which her reasoning emerges. Despite the eloquence of her introductory notes on Deleuze’s philosophy – one of the best that this reviewer has read – the uninitiated reader may be at a slight disadvantage. Her examples are, for the most part, extremely effective in their diversity and their relevance: Godard’s and Preminger’s Carmen films (Chapter 2); Jacques Demy (Chapter 3); and Esther Williams, Busby Berkeley and Tsai Ming-liang (Chapter 4). The first chapter – on the proto-music video formats of the 1940’s “Soundies” and 1960’s “Scopitones”– however, seems slightly out of place. By focusing on the technologies themselves rather than on individual works, Herzog’s objective here suggests a different type of study. And though her application of the Deleuzian notion of “fabulation,” fits nicely with her analysis, and – as is the case throughout the book – her research is first-rate; the musical moments discussed here are less concrete than those in the following chapters.
In summary, Dreams of Difference, Songs of the Same represents advances on two fronts. First (and most immediately), in its simplicity and unadorned style, and through a varied choice of examples, Herzog makes a convincing argument in favor looking anew at how the key mechanisms of the film-musical style operate. But her book makes an important contribution in a more significant and purely theoretical direction. In advancing the notion of the musical moment – as clear and as useful in its conceptual import as the Deleuzian perspectives from which it derives its saliency – Herzog demonstrates the viability of philosophizing about cinematic signs in a way consistent with and complimentary to Deleuze’s philosophical pursuits. And, if one looks closely enough at the musical moment, as Herzog shows, one finds not merely a cinematic device, but rich – if ultimately inchoate – formation whose varying modulations provide a means of scrutinizing the technical, social and ideological resonances which configure them.

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