click to buy 'Poetics of Cinema' at Amazon.comIntroduction: Deviating from Deleuze

While Deleuze’s works on cinema have proven to be extremely productive in the field of cinema studies, they nevertheless are something other than the perverse theory of cinema one might have expected from a reading of Deleuze’s previous work, and especially from some of his collaborative work with Felix Guattari. Gone are the direct and affirmative references to masochism and other perverse practices, and even desire itself, perhaps Deleuze’s key concept up to this point, is replaced by the apparently more traditional Bergsonian concepts of movement and temporality that constitute respectively the conceptual frameworks of the two volumes. Of course this is a superficial reading, and perversion continues to play a role in these works if a more subterranean one, firstly through the emphasis on processes of cinephiliac subjectivation, and secondly through a truly perverse proliferation of taxonomies of images and signs. In both instances Deleuze departs from any psychoanalytic or semiological science of cinema in favour of both a delirious and machinic proliferation of analytic tools and processes of subjectivation, which express the very cinematic perversion not discussed explicitly within the texts themselves.

Nevertheless, if one is still left unsatisfied by this burying of perversion under this proliferation of taxonomies of signs and art movie cinephilia, and longs for the kind of perverse engagement with the cinema hinted at by Deleuze and Guattari’s fine analysis of the B-movie Willard (Daniel Mann, 1972), in A Thousand Plateaus (233), Raúl Ruiz’s Poetics of Cinema – which could more appropriately be called “Perversions of Cinema” – occupies this space, in a highly resonant manner with the more perverse aspects of the work of Deleuze and Guattari.

Beyond Central Conflict Theory

Ruiz’s Poetics of Cinema must be one of the strangest and most interesting works on the cinema ever to be written. While addressing many contemporary issues around the politics of the entertainment industry, globalisation and the powers of audiovisual images, this work also draws on discourses as untimely as ancient treatises on Chinese painting and the 16th century occult theories of Ramon Lull. But perhaps what is most striking about Poetics of Cinema is its composition in which not only diverse theories and reflections are combined but that they are done so frequently in the form of theoretical fictions as delirious as Ruiz’s cinema itself, that completely blur the boundaries between the real and the imaginary, the true and the false. This has led several critics, notably, Christine Buci-Glucksman to make direct links between Ruiz’s aesthetics and the Baroque, rather than more contemporary aesthetic movements such as Surrealism (Buci-Glucksmann, 9-41). As Laleen Jayamanne has pointed out, Ruiz may use the “decorative and stereotypical aspects of Surrealism” but he rejects its underlying metaphysics in favour of a Baroque “allegorical system” (224). The crucial difference between the Baroque, as Ruiz understands and employs it and the ethos of cinematic Surrealism, is the replacement of the motto “everything is fundamentally simple” with its opposite “everything is fundamentally complex”. Jayamanne emphasises that cinema, for Ruiz, is an allegorical system inhabited by ghosts, zombies and the dead, which operates by a “perverse logic” (224) or a “baroque [...] multiplication of points of view, of an object, of a space, [of] a body” (225). Already this affinity between the complexity of the Baroque and perversion is apparent: for Ruiz, Surrealism is inferior to the Baroque because it remains too French, or in other words, fails to be complex or perverse enough.

Raúl Ruiz

That Ruiz’s style of composition in Poetics of Cinema owes something to the Baroque is made explicit by Ruiz in the preface to his text: “I have chosen a genre resembling what in Sixteenth Century Spain were called Miscelleneas, theoretical/narrative discourses where the author’s prowess is to turn verbal somersaults with sudden shifts of focus and unexpected interpolations” (Ruiz, 7-8). This style of composition, which is also evident throughout Ruiz’s cinema, perhaps reaching its apotheosis in Combat d’Amour en Songe (Ruiz, 2000) explicitly based on the kind of occult combinatorial systems described in the book, is also clearly an interstitial one, a wild montage or folding of incompossible theories and fabulations constructing a nomadic network rather than a closed monadic theory. This, of course renders the book almost impossible to explicate, without reducing it to theoretical formulations, which are more frequently played with rather than expounded as a fixed position. Again this expresses the proximity between the Baroque and perversion, as in the place of a hierarchical form of knowledge, there is instead a complex and productive assemblage of thought in which, distinctions between the true and the false, theory and fiction and the subjective and the objective are rendered indiscernible. If a Baroque method of construction inevitably results in multiple points of view, it is necessarily perverse, in that rather than resulting in a unified theory, it instead engages ludically with diverse theoretical formulations, which thereby lose their rigidity to become the mobile elements of shifting assemblage. However, it remains possible to follow certain strands within the text, in order to demonstrate its perverse and interstitial logic, without giving into any illusions of a mastery of its multiple dimensions and directions.

One of the most insistent engagements of Poetics of Cinema is a polemical critique of what Ruiz refers to as Central Conflict Theory. This theory, which is really no theory at all but rather a set of general practical rules, was first made apparent to Ruiz, through American scriptwriting manuals (Ruiz, 11) and corresponds to the system of continuity editing developed in Hollywood from the 1920s. Obscure script-writing manuals may seem a perverse object of critique, in comparison to theories of Classical Hollywood Cinema such as that of David Bordwell et al, but in fact it is a Foucauldian move that selects the pragmatic, even brutal, statements of scriptwriting manuals as being more essential to a genealogy of contemporary cinema than more elaborate film theoretical formulations. Film theory may describe the general structures of Central Conflict Theory, but it is in scriptwriting manuals that they are enacted in a no less disciplinary way than the regimens of discipline analysed by Foucault in Discipline and Punish.

In its essence, Central Conflict Theory refers to a type of dramatic construction, first developed by naturalist playwrights such as Ibsen, and later imposed as the model for Hollywood and international cinema. The crucial claim of this theory is, as Ruiz puts it, that “someone wants something and someone else doesn’t want them to have it. From this point on [...] all the elements of the story are arranged around this central conflict” (Ruiz, 11). What is immediately problematic about this method is that it is exclusive: whatever doesn’t serve to feed the central conflict should, in a good film be eliminated. For Ruiz, this is not just an aesthetic question but a directly political one: in fact he has gone so far as to suggest that the recent American invasion of Iraq is an expression of the way this logic has come to dominate not only cinema but contemporary politics itself. But to return to cinema, what exactly is excluded by an adherence to this doctrine, which is as much an economic one as an aesthetic one as it is used as a primary criterion for determining which films get funded? According to Ruiz it is all the “boring” moments, that is, those moments that contribute nothing to a central conflict and which are nevertheless the most interesting: “central conflict forces us to abandon all those events which require only indifference or detached curiosity, like a landscape, a distant storm, or dinner with friends” (Ruiz, 11). Now it is precisely these “boring” moments that constitute cinematic perversion, in a quite classical psychoanalytic sense in that they divert the aim of cinematic desire away from the conventional Oedipal objects of closed narrative constructs. More than this the distinction between Central Conflict Theory and the perverse, “boring” cinema that Ruiz is defending is precisely that between a restricted and general economy, in that the absence or suspension of any central conflict is at once a suspension of economic capitalisation and of the enclosure of Oedipal desires in favour of a truly open and “acephalic” economy that clearly resonates with the perverse theories and practices of Georges Bataille, as well as with those of Deleuze and Guattari. While the links to Bataille’s Acephalic period are clear in Ruiz’s project of “decapitating” cinema or distancing it from a simple equation between money and conflict, a general, perverse economy of cinema is particularly resonant with Bataille’s project in The Accursed Share. Just as for Bataille the restricted economy of capitalist accumulation dangerously neglects the necessity for waste and expenditure, for Ruiz, cinema based around central conflict violently eliminates the intrinsic polysemic excesses of cinematic images in order to enclose them in a restricted economy of capital accumulation.

For Ruiz, the basic presupposition of Central Conflict Theory, for which he finds analogies both in Frederick Engels’ dialectics of nature and American philosophies of action such as Davidson’s (15-16), is one of a fundamentally hostile world, in which even the most apparently tranquil scene is really a kind of battleground of opposing forces (1). The danger of this approach is that it becomes a normative predatory worldview, in which all elements of everyday life external to the central conflict can and must be eliminated:

The voracious appetite displayed by this predatory concept reaches far beyond theory. It has become a normative system. The products which comply with this norm have not only invaded the world but have also imposed their rules on most of the centers of audiovisual production across the planet. [...] And yet there is no strict equivalence between stories of conflict and everyday life (Ruiz, 15).

So if this critique of Central Conflict Theory gives the minimal negative definition of Ruiz’s perverse aesthetics, in that it will amount to so many strategies to problematise, evade and pervert this logic, the rest of the book seeks to elaborate this aesthetics positively, as much in its mode of composition as the ideas that are expressed. As Francois Zourabichvili claimed of Deleuze’s thought, it follows a logic that is “perversive” rather than subversive, or rather it subverts conventional forms of cinema through simulating them and thereby opening them up to all kinds of differences and variations. Among the myriad concepts through which these alternatives to central conflict theory are developed, and one that seems crucial to Ruiz’s thought and his cinema is his particular version of the “photographic” or “optical” unconscious, derived from the work of Walter Benjamin, but “played with” to such an extent as to become unrecognisable.

Hypothesis of the Stolen Painting

The Photographic Unconscious

Ruiz’s concept of the photographic unconscious is of a “corpus of signs capable of conspiring against visual conventions” (32). This is Ruiz’s particular interpretation of Benjamin’s “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction” essay (Benjamin, 217-254). In this essay, Benjamin analysed the power of cinema and other modern techniques of image reproduction to disturb the conventions of Western art and its modes of reception, famously through the destruction of the aura. The subversive corpus of signs that Ruiz refers to, however, only has a latent existence in Benjamin’s essay and is really an invention of Ruiz, even if it draws on the powers of cinema and reproduction identified by Benjamin. This corpus can take many forms and rather than being a strictly contemporary phenomenon for Ruiz, is no less evident in treatises on Chinese painting, for example, or the 19th century practice of tableaux vivants. What is central to the concept for Ruiz is the multiplicity of relations between images or between images and other signs that is always in excess of any simple notion of representation. For example, in viewing the photo of “some-one we love”, we are prey to a kind of double vision in which “in the first moment, we recognise what we know, and in the second we no longer know what we are recognising, in a mass of details which remain invisible to the naked eye and which the lens renders eloquent” (32). This may seem like the Lacanian misrecognition constitutive of subjectivity, except that as always Ruiz complicates misrecognition by making it only the starting point of a whole series of deviations that are ultimately desubjectifying and in which techniques of image reproduction play a vital role. For Ruiz, simple misrecognition opens up onto a whole field of interference between signs and images that refuses any enclosure in stable economies of signification.

In the chapter entitled “Images of Images” (43-55), Ruiz multiplies the possible variants of the relations between images not only through a theoretical discourse but also through theoretical fictions or thought experiments which greatly expand the range of the optical unconscious while at the same providing a kind of demonstration of its operations. For example, Ruiz discusses the perverse practice of constructing tableaux vivants, a practice so brilliantly re-created in his Pierre Klossowski-inspired film Hypothesis of the Stolen Painting (1978). This practice involves the impossible recreation with living bodies of the scene from a famous painting, in theory reproducing the original disposition of the models for the original work. This practice is a perverse, impossible suspension of the time between the original painting and its reproduction through living bodies that necessarily deviates from any faithful representation of the original scene in favour of an art of simulation or reincarnation: “This shared intensity is like a bridge between the two groups of models. The tiny movements of the first group are reproduced by the models in the tableau vivant. The first models are in a sense reincarnated” (51). According to Ruiz, Nietzsche and Klossowski understood this untimely reincarnation of gestures as “an illustration, or even a proof of the eternal return” (51). In Hypothesis of the Stolen Painting this practice is given its full, perverse resonance in a remarkable contamination of the normally rational genres of the detective film and the art documentary. In this film, the relations between the series of paintings of the fictitious painter Tonnerre and their recreation by means of tableaux vivants trace the contours of an occult ceremony centring on the sacrifice of an androgynous youth as a simulacrum for the Baphomet (2). Ruiz has explicitly described this film as a Baroque system, as opposed to the Gothic system of detective films, thereby underlining the links between tableau vivants, perversion and the Baroque.

Following this analysis, Ruiz constructs a highly perverse fable that can be summarised as follows. A few hundred years ago there was a blind painter who develops a system to paint by numbers, and who is then visited by two friends who happen to be depicted in the painting, however, only one of them is able to recognise himself in it. Several hundred years later a German painter/copyist acquires the painting and is astonished to recognise himself in it, precisely where the second friend failed to do so. This second painter then subjects the painting to a variety of modifications (centring it on himself, removing himself altogether) before abandoning it altogether for a career in politics, since Ruiz suggests this painter may be Austrian rather than German, and in fact none other than Adolf Hitler! The painting is found after the war and considered a fine example of modernist abstract art, but the collector who acquires it goes blind; the painting then becomes tactile and musical, communicating all sorts of strange and disturbing affective experiences, is translated into sound and light, then the laughter that this translation generates, provokes a crime, and so on. The point of this story, which could not perhaps be arrived at by any normative reasoning process is the following: “making it plausible that every image is but the image of an image, that is translatable through all possible codes, and that this process can only culminate in new codes generating new images, themselves generative and attractive” (53).

A few points need to be clarified at this stage; first of all it is clear that this idea of infinite relations between images and signs, that images are always resonating with other images, forms a kind of perverse general economy in relation to the restricted one of Central Conflict Theory. The logic of this general economy is clearly an interstitial one in that images are combined in a multiple manner that excludes any simple reduction to representation or signification; in the final analysis every image and every sequence of images, even the most classically constructed cannot be assigned a fixed meaning because it will always be in a relation to a multiplicity of other images, whether present or virtual, real or imagined. In other words image production necessarily arises out of a reservoir of virtual images, the photographic unconscious, for which it provides a provisional actualisation, but crucially never a completely stable form. This brings us back to the concepts of the virtual and the interstice, developed by Deleuze in his cinema books, in that the concept of the photographic unconscious ruins any seamless relations between successive images, through the implied presence of an infinite variety of potential images, and secondly, that it operates by a relational logic in that what counts is precisely how images are combined, a process that rather than excluding other images serves to multiply and generate them. In other words, it is precisely in the perverse opening to the virtual, that the closed, Oedipal logic of central conflict theory is exploded, even in films that apparently seek to adhere to it. As such it provides a clear example of the way Ruiz’s book brings out the latent perversion concealed within Deleuzian concepts such as the virtual, without once making any reference to Deleuze. As a humorous conclusion to this discussion of the photographic unconscious, it is worth citing the example given by Ruiz of “Greco-Roman Toga flicks”, which inadvertently depart from their avowed intentions of historical verisimilitude through a variety of anachronistic accidents:

For years I watched so-called Greco-Latin films (toga flicks, with early Christians devoured by lions, emperors in love and so on). My only interest in those films was to catch sight of planes and helicopters in the background, to discover the eternal DC6 crossing the sky during Ben Hur‘s final race, Cleopatra‘s naval battle or the Quo Vadis banquets (60).

Three Lives and Only One Death

It is precisely this Baroque multiplication of images and their combinations that appears in Ruiz’s own cinema, for example in the multiple co-existent narratives of Three Lives and Only One Death (1995), in which the same actor, Marcello Mastroanni, leads multiple lives, that then begin to cross over with each other producing unpredictable and non systematisable effects that problematise any stable forms of identity and subjectivity. More than this, as the Greco-Roman example indicates, Ruiz’s book also indicates so many perverse ways of watching films, for which the minimum condition is the conscious or unconscious decision not to follow the central conflict but instead plunge into the photographic unconscious in a perverse practice of cinematic subjectivation, for which Ruiz gives numerous other examples.

The above discussion only gives a small example of both the theoretical inventiveness and the perverse construction of Ruiz’s text. This text, along with Ruiz’s cinema, conforms to an aesthetic that goes beyond the Baroque in the direction of neo-Baroque aesthetics. In Deleuze’s work on the Leibniz and the Baroque, The Fold, the difference between Baroque and neo-Baroque aesthetics is presented as the aesthetic parallel to the difference between Leibniz’s harmonious monads existing in the best of all possible worlds and the contemporary world in which incompossible elements can no longer be captured in expressive units. As Deleuze puts it: “in the same chaotic world divergent series are endlessly tracing bifurcating paths. It is a chaosmos” (The Fold, 81). Deleuze makes a distinct allusion to cinema and more distinctly to the difference between two types of cinema analysed in his works on cinema in terms of the Orgnaic and Crystalline regimes of signs:

The monad is now unable to contain the entire world as if in a closed circle that can be modified by projection. [Nomadic constructions] do not allow the differences of inside and outside, of public and private, to survive. They identify variation with trajectory and overtake monadology with nomadology (137).

This citation, not only clearly resonates with cinema but specifically with Ruiz’s cinematic aesthetics that are equally apparent in Poetics of Cinema. If Classical, “Organic” cinema is monadic, in that it attempts to encompass the whole world by positing a universal subject through the operations of identification and suture, then modern “Crystalline” cinema is nomadic and neo-Baroque, giving rise to a drifting and deterritorialised subjectivation rather than a stable subject.

This is evident not only in the mutant multiple subjects that Ruiz presents such as the hero of Three Lives and Only One Death but also in the figures that populate his book, with their strange aesthetic experiments, memory lapses and indiscernability from the images that fascinate them. Furthermore this perverse, nomadic subjectivity can be just as much that of the viewer, who even in front of a conventional narrative film fails to understand its meanings or follow its central conflict and instead becomes a delinquent spectator: “Let us now imagine a spectator unable to follow a film’s storyline, some-one who could only follow the involuntary forms that have managed to creep in, that is, its mistakes. This spectator, a kind of experimental delinquent, follows a film of obsessional details” (60). From the perspective of the entertainment industry, this mutant spectator is a pervert, following a different film than the one intended in terms of the central conflict. From a Ruizian, neo-Baroque perspective, on the other hand, this delinquent spectator lacks nothing but instead bathes in the plenitude of a virtual film that combines the actual images from the present film with the virtuality of the optical unconscious composed of other films, memories, dreams and visions. This spectator may be bored and even fall asleep during the movie, a type of spectatorship explicitly valorised by Ruiz (119), but nevertheless s/he will be the creator of a virtual film beyond any possible containment in the restricted economy and narrative logic of central conflict theory. It is in favour of just such a delinquent spectator along with neo-Baroque forms of cinema, designed to maximise the potentials of this delinquency that Ruiz’s book is written. In conclusion, Ruiz’s Poetics of Cinema is an exemplary text that radically subverts or rather perverts the domination of the imposed norms of both audiovisual production and reception central conflict theory in favour of a perverse, neo-Baroque, general economy of cinematic desire.


Bataille, Georges, The Accursed Share: An Essay on General Economy, trans. Robert Hurley, Zone Books, New York, 1988-1991

Benjamin, Walter, “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction”, Illuminations, trans. Harry Zohn, Harcourt, Brace and World, New York, 1968, pp. 217-254

Bordwell, David, Janet Staiger and Kristin Thompson, The Classical Hollywood Cinema: Film Style and Mode of Production to 1960, Columbia University Press, New York, 1985

Buci-Glucksman, Christine and Fabrice Revault d’Allones, Raúl Ruiz, Dis Voir, Paris, 1987

Deleuze, Gilles, Cinema 2: The Time-Image, trans. Hugh Tomlinson and Robert Galeta, University of Minnesota Press, Minneapolis, 1989

Deleuze, Gilles and Félix Guattari, A Thousand Plateaus, trans. Brian Massumi, University of Minnesota Press, Minneapolis, 1987

Davidson, Donald, Essays on Actions and Events, Clarendon Press, Oxford; Oxford University Press, New York, 1980

Durham, Scott, Phantom Communities, Stanford University Press, Stanford, 1998

Engels, Frederick, Dialectics of Nature, trans. Clemens Dutt, International Publishers, New York, 1960

Foucault, Michel, Discipline and Punish, trans. Alan Sheridan, Vintage Books, New York, 1995

Goddard, Michael, “Hypothesis of the Stolen Aesthetics”, Contretemps (An Online Journal of Philosophy) 3, July 2002

Jayamanne, Laleen, “’Life is a Dream’ – Raúl Ruiz was a Surrealist in Sydney: A Capillary Memory of a Cultural Event”, Kiss Me Deadly: Feminism and Cinema for the Moment, ed. Laleen Jayamanne, Power Publications, Sydney, 1995

Raúl, Poetics of Cinema, Brian Holmes, trans. Dis Voir, Paris, 1995


  1. See Frederick Engels, Dialectics of Nature, trans. Clemens Dutt, (International Publishers, New York, 1960) and Donald Davidson, Essays on Actions and Events, (Clarendon Press, Oxford; Oxford University Press, New York, 1980).
  2. On this film in relation to Klossowski’s aesthetics see Scott Durham, Phantom Communities: The Simulacrum and the Limits of Postmodernism (Stanford University Press, Stanford, 1998), 81-83, as well as Michael Goddard, “Hypothesis of the Stolen Aesthetics”, Contretemps (An Online Journal of Philosophy) 3, July 2002