Different Every Time

Who has not watched the shifting, changing panorama of the streets? 
The hurrying to and from, the bustling crowd? And who has not said, 
“I would like to see this scene again, I would like to study its many interesting phases?”
—1896 advertisement for the Jenkins Phantoscope (1)

Repetition changes nothing in the object repeated, but does change something in the mind which contemplates it. 
—Gilles Deleuze (2)

Ken Jacobs, still from Soft Rain, 1968, 16mm, color, silent, 12 minutes, courtesy of the artist
In 1968, Gilles Deleuze published Difference and Repetition, a truly remarkable work with a cascade of ideas issuing from the confluence of two concepts: a pure difference and a complex repetition.

In 1968, Ken Jacobs loaded a roll of motion picture film into his camera, mounted it on a tripod, and in one uninterrupted shot, photographed the scene outside his window. The resulting composition is stark—much of the frame is taken up by buildings and at times, though we know it isn’t possible, it appears that the buildings may be projecting the small patch of New York City street they frame out towards the audience. At the top of the frame, there is a black rectangle that appears to hang between two buildings and over the street, further complicating the impossibility of the space created. This piece of paper—we know it is paper because at one point it moves, ever so gently—completes the framing of the street and introduces another perceptual conundrum: the black rectangle is at once foremost in the foreground, in the middleground between the buildings but above the street, in the background behind the buildings (and the street?), and nowhere: a black hole. And then there is the street itself: the decentered center of our attention, with its colorful personae slowly moving on a tiny proscenium. (3) Everything in the frame is just what it is, as well as something else. 

Though beautiful and perplexing, this image alone may not have been all that remarkable, but for some reason, Jacobs decided to print the film three times and splice these together end to end, producing a perfectly repetitive film, Soft Rain (1968).

The effect—augmented by slowing the film down in the projector from 24 frames per second to 16—is of a gray day extending indefinitely, its chance occurrences eternally returning, its everyday movements becoming slow-motion dance. One can relate this to concurrent developments in post-modern choreography or experimental music composition (Yvonne Rainer and Terry Riley, for instance), but one can also see Jacobs’ investigations in another light: as a return some of cinema’s earliest concerns—to investigate the world visually in the medium of moving pictures, to wonder in the repetition of a scene, and to reveal what was secret, hidden, or unknown. (4) In short, to see and see again, and in seeing, learn. “Cinema is a form of thinking,” he has said. (5) In perceiving, we understand.

Soft Rain. An image that returns three times, returning to the beginning of cinema. Why? To change the past? To return us to another way of looking? Or to make a moment repeat itself, affecting and flattening and deepening time? In the Preface toDifference and Repetition, Deleuze writes, “The task of modern philosophy is to overcome the alternatives temporal/non-temporal, historical/eternal and particular/universal.” (6) Cinema is philosophy by other means.

The converse is also true: “Commentaries in the history of philosophy should represent a kind of slow motion,” writes Deleuze, 
“a congelation or immobilization of the text: not only of the text which they relate, but also of the text in which they are inserted – so much so that they have a double existence and a corresponding ideal: the pure repetition of the former text and the present text in one another.” 
Although Deleuze and Jacobs would not know of each other’s work until much later, this could nearly double as a description of Jacobs’ most famous film, Tom, Tom the Piper’s Son (1969)—a protean work that lovingly, obsessively investigates nearly every aspect of the cinematic experience by performatively rephotographing a 1905 comedy of the same name.  At the beginning of Jacobs’ film and near its conclusion, the eponymous 1905 film runs in its entirety, literally achieving “the pure repetition” of the two films “in one another.” 

Compared to Tom, Tom…Soft Rain is a Lumière-like actuality, but one that actualizes cinema’s inherent qualities of repetition. (7) Soft Rain may not be the first or only film to use repetition, yet it differs in kind from the others. Unlike the repeated sequences in Fernand Léger’s Ballet Mécanique (1925), for instance, Soft Rain’s returns are distinctly non-mechanical. Neither montage nor mere reproduction (“repetition of the Same” or “representation of a concept” in Deleuze’s terms), they are something else entirely. Pure difference in a complex repetition. (8) 

Three times we see the same scene again, the same hurrying to and from, the same gentle trembling of the black void between buildings. The first time through is not different from the third, it contains the third within it, “an 'other' repetition at the heart of the first.” (9) Three times through the same material, but together they “do not add a second and a third time to the first, but carry the first time to the 'nth' power.” (10)

Three times that do not feel like three times; together they are as one. As Jacobs said, “Once you see a film, it collects in your mind into a single image. It’s all there at once, which is what a painting is, it’s all there at once. … in a similar way for me, a film that you’ve seen and really taken into mind does become an image, a single shape and form and that separates from clock time.” (11)

Threes times the same image gathers into a single image of time. It separates from clock time and at the same time extends indefinitely. It repeats but is not the same; it returns and is not identical; it returns eternally, in order to become. There is no redundancy for there is no concept, just difference, pure difference in repetition. (12)

Soft Rain screens on Thursday, May 14, as part of Different Every Time, a program of experimental films presented by Los Angeles Filmforum at MOCA. Tickets are available at moca.org. Also on the program: Hollis Frampton, Works and Days (1969);Cauleen Smith, Chronicles of a Lying Spirit (by Kelly Gabron) (1992); Jill Godmilow, What Farocki Taught (1997); and Mariah Garnett, Encounters I May Or May Not Have Had With Peter Berlin (2012).

(1) 1896 advertising prospectus for the Jenkins Phantoscope, as quoted in Gunning, Tom. "TOM GUNNING on WHAT FAROCKI TAUGHT." The Films of Jill Godmilow. April 8, 1999. Accessed April 16, 2015. https://www3.nd.edu/~jgodmilo/gunning.html.
(2) Gilles Deleuze, Difference and Repetition, trans. Paul Patton, p. 70. New York: Columbia University Press, 1994. Here, Deleuze is paraphrasing David Hume.
(3) “I make, remake and unmake my concepts along a moving horizon, from an always decentred centre, from an always displaced periphery which repeats and differentiates them.” Ibid., xxi.
(4) See Tom Gunning, "The Cinema of Attractions: Early Film, Its Spectator and the Avant-Garde", Wide Angle, Vol. 8, nos. 3 & 4 Fall, 1986. “What precisely is the cinema of attraction? First it is a cinema that bases itself on the quality that Léger celebrated: its ability to show something. … a cinema that displays its visibility, willing to rupture a self-enclosed fictional world for a chance to solicit the attention of the spectator.”
(5) Ken Jacobs. “Film and the Creation of the Mind,” Conversations with History, University of California Television, 2001. https://youtu.be/CEVss-csGF8
(6) Deleuze, Op. Cit., xxi. The aim of the present writing is not to prove any direct connection between Deleuze and Jacobs, rather it is to show how thinking these works together can be productive of a double existence, a pure repetition of the two—one visual and one verbal—within one another, and thereby to demonstrate that cinema is thought.
(7) It is interesting to note, however, that Soft Rain comes at the precipice of what would become an entire career dedicated to the repetition of sequences, shots, or even just two frames in order to dig into the image for the difference(s) between one thing and the next and the revelations—optical, aesthetic, political, moral—to be found there.
(8) Is not difference in Soft Rain not only in the literal repetition of the Same, but also in the original image as the doubling of each thing and its other that takes place as a result of the alienation we experience from the picture? A strangeness or distancing in/of the image produced, in part, by the picture being organized by a sensibility highly attuned to the ambiguities of pictorial space. Jacobs studied painting with Hans Hofmann while becoming a filmmaker, and Hofmann’s idea of push and pull on the picture plane, transferred to cinema—and here, stripped of its expressionism—changes, flattens, and intensifies the time. 
(9) Ibid., p.25
(10) Ibid., 1
(11) Jacobs, Op. cit.
(12) “Repetition is difference without a concept.” Deleuze, Op. Cit., 23. Soft Rain illustrates eternal return, not as philosophy, but as attraction—an avant-garde, optical poem. “The eternal return does not bring back 'the same', but returning constitutes the only Same of that which becomes.” Ibid., 41.