La Furia Umana
  • I’m not like evereybody else
    The Kinks
  • E che, sono forse al mondo per realizzare delle idee?
    Max Stirner
  • (No ideas but in things)
    W.C. Williams
GEORGE CROSTHWAIT / The Time Signatures of Adaptation: Self-Reflexivity, Commiseration and Cinematic Individuation

GEORGE CROSTHWAIT / The Time Signatures of Adaptation: Self-Reflexivity, Commiseration and Cinematic Individuation

What has Self-Reflection Ever Done for Us?

Cinema’s tendency to ruminate upon its own status and creation is almost as old as the medium itself, Louis Lumière having turned the camera to the site of production in La Sortie de l’usine Lumière à Lyon [Workers Leaving the Lumière Factory in Lyon] as early as 1895. Reflexive playfulness frequently features in silent comedies such as Sherlock Jr. (Buster Keaton, 1924) and animations like Duck Amuck (Chuck Jones, 1953). Direct address and fourth‑wall breaking in Federico Fellini’s and Jean‑Luc Godard’s films inspired Japanese post-war filmmakers like Nagisa Ōshima, Shūji Terayama, and Kōji Wakamatsu to experiment with highly reflexive formal devices.[1] More recently, global auteurs like Abbas Kiarostami, Michael Haneke, and Asghar Farhadi frequently disrupt the narrative flow and fictional world of their films in provocative and playful ways (constructed documentary, revelation of a camera crew, “rewinding” the film, etc.). 

Academic responses to cinematic self-reflexivity have, until now, tended to correspond with Robert Stam’s oft-referenced work on the subject: reflexive films “share a playful, parodic, and disruptive relation to established norms and conventions. They demystify fictions, and our naïve faith in fictions, and make of this demystification a source for new fictions” (xi). The problem with this definition, written over three decades ago during the height of the literary postmodern movement, is that today the structures of narrative fictions are so thoroughly deconstructed and “meme-ified” by online communities that it might feel that there is no need to “demystify” them further. Or, that self-reflexivity has become incorporated into mainstream Hollywood to the extent that the style itself has become an “established norm.”

Does reflexivity still offer unique possibilities for cultural critique and a particular connection between a film and its viewers? Or is it an exhausted and facilely ironic form of expression? While I believe that such films have the potential to generate complex aesthetic and thematic experiences, I am also wary that, at its worst, self-reflexivity can cast a solipsistic veil over any given work.[2] This warning provokes two further questions. First, as Christian Metz (1991) and Robert Stam discovered, cataloguing the tropes and tricks of self-reflexivity is an inexhaustible and occasionally exhausting venture; the term itself is slippery and its parameters are their own hall of mirrors. Secondly, I question whether many of the concerns of self-reflexivity did not run their course during the period of cinematic modernism that encompassed the various post‑war new wave movements. Particularly in the United States, self-reflexivity during the 1980s, 1990s and 2000s became a shorthand for a hip detachment from emotion—an arch, Frederic-Jamesonian form of empty postmodern irony deployed to prove how we all “get it.” These are, after all, films that flout reflexivity, so perhaps it is understandable that they reflect the creation of commercial art during a period that saw the rise of the Hollywood blockbuster, Reaganomics (and subsequent neoliberal political regimes), the beginning of the internet era, and the emergence of the first social media networks. That being said, I propose that there is indeed an affect generated by these films—one that aligns with what Enrique Dussel (1985) terms “commiseration.”

Dussel, commiseration, alienation, and Hollywood. 

Dussel presents commiseration as a kind of radical empathy—a willingness to align oneself with one who suffers, and to incorporate the other into one’s own self. In Dussel’s words,

placing oneself with (cum) someone in misery (miser). The ethos of liberation is other-directed pulsion or metaphysical justice; it is love of the other as other, as exteriority; love of the oppressed—not, however, as oppressed but as subject of exteriority. The traumatic condition of the human being endowed with freedom, the other, reduced to being an instrument in a system, is rightly called misery. To discover the other as other and place‑oneself‑together‑with that person’s misery, to experience as one’s own the contradiction between being free and having to endure slavery, being distinct and someone and at the same time only a different internal part; to hurt from the pain of this cleavage is the first attitude of the ethos of liberation. It is not friendship or fellowship (among equals) but love of the oppressed because of their real dignity as exteriority. (64-65)

The act of “cum miser”/commiseration does not simply ask the (potentially) privileged subject to sympathise with the less fortunate; it is not necessarily the objectionable conditions of their lives that should be embraced, but their very status as outsiders and others. Outside and other—that is, to the (for my purposes) viewer’s subjectivity—commiseration requires that we occupy seemingly conflicting positions simultaneously: agent/instrument, free/enslaved, and unique/communal. Through adoption of the other’s exteriority (and recognition of the dignity of exteriority), the commiserator weakens the carapace of their own shell of subjecthood. Under such conditions, a transference takes place wherein the classical subject-object dyad is fundamentally broken. The other is un-othered and un-objectified, and the subject is un-subjectified. Exteriority and interiority become indiscernible. This process then allows for Dussel’s radical empathy that allows one to place oneself alongside “someone in misery.”

Dussel proposes an emancipatory potential in this union: “From the commiseration shared by liberating heroes and the oppressed among themselves—for they have unlimited commiseration of their equals—the whole ethos of liberation is organized” (65). In this article, I mean to highlight moments where commiseration might be a positive process of re‑wiring subjectivity into a more productive form: “an ethos of liberation,” a form of engaged spectatorship that invites viewers to commiserate with cinematic characters experiencing alienation and anxiety. A progressive politics of alienation is somewhat aligned with the collective, “Laboria Cuboniks,” who published a manifesto entitled “Xenofeminism: A Politics for Alienation” online in 2015. The manifesto argues that Xenofeminism “seizes alienation as an impetus to generate new worlds. We are all alienated—but have we ever been otherwise? It is through, and not despite, our alienated condition that we can free ourselves from the muck of immediacy.”

In the early 2000s, in Hollywood, self-reflexive films of alienation such as Ivansxtc (Bernard Rose, 2000), Mulholland Drive (David Lynch, 2001), and Adaptation (Spike Jonze, 2002) questioned what subjectivity and individuality mean in contemporary cinema and, by extension, society. However, these films are no longer able to properly establish what this subjectivity is, nor are they capable of resolving this crisis. While they perform diagnoses, the films themselves are symptoms of alienated identities (figures made abhorrent, hopeless, or unbearable due to a loss of subjectivity), and of an industry that produces alienation. But these are not simply films of hopeless negation. They are perhaps not inherently political but are a new kind of self-reflexive film that requires a new form of spectatorship; they demand an attuned audience that can partake in the act of commiseration. The space of commiseration is the figurative distance in-between eye and screen where a film is experienced. The experience of watching a film is dependent on both viewers and the film/viewing apparatus and does not wholly belong to either transmitter or receiver. Instead, the in-between space of mediation is also a milieu where the distinction between sender and receiver is indiscernible—a network of interdependent relationships where subject and object definitions are slippery at best. Theoretically, this is a formal issue, but narrative and theme remain essential for guiding us into this purely stylistic encounter.   

The endgame of these formal and narrative strategies is the transference of alienation from screen to viewer in the subjectivity blender that is the in-between space of mediation. Through this experience, the viewer comes to sense the alienation that lies at the heart of a bloated neo-liberal system (represented metonymically by Hollywood) and as subjects within this system and within themselves. Again, these alienated awakenings are not hopeless; they are necessary deindividuations of a subjectivity that is no longer productive—or never was. Within the space of mediation, the encounter with the film assists the viewer’s coming‑to‑commiseration, and by then dismantling them into a liminal state of being, returns the audience to a state of potential where they might reindividuate into something less entropic. I term this encounter “cinematic individuation.”

A Brief History of Cinematic Individuation

This concept is inspired and informed by Gilbert Simondon’s (2007, 2017) writings on individuation. By individuation I refer to what Simondon described as the process through which the subjectivity of an individual is formed through a unique combination of potentials. This process is not a one-time-only event. My coming-to-consciousness as a young child was an obvious instance of individuation, but it is an ongoing process throughout my existence. In fact, at every instance of my life, I am newly coming into being. Thus, each moment is only achieved and experienced because of my individuation; each encounter with another being or object is achieved and is experienced through a mutual social individuation. Such metastable (constantly changing) conditions fall broadly under what Adrian Mackenzie divines from Simondon to mean “transduction”: “any process (physical, biological, social, psychic or technical) in which metastability emerges” (Transductions 16–17). It is through these social individuations that I am exposed to, and come away with, new potentials (as I have shared in the unique configuration of potentials contained within the other person or object—and vice versa). These social individuations will produce the conditions to reconnect us with our world, in the form of what Simondon describes as “technical individuation.”

Simondon tells us that technical individuation is a process whereby an individual, or a socially individuated assemblage, enters into social individuation with a technical object. An obvious example of this would be the various social networks that connect millions of users through a technical interface. According to Simondon, “the technical object is distinguishable from the natural being in the sense that it is not part of the world. It intervenes as mediator between man and the world” (“On the Mode” 417). Thus, the social network interface, while having no corporeal presence in our world, takes on the role of the mediator that connects us to its particular milieu. As Simondon writes, this is a separate milieu from our own preindividual state:

The individualisation of technical beings is the condition of technical progress. This individualisation is made possible by the recurrent causality in an environment that the technical being creates around itself. The environment conditions the technical beings, which in turn conditions it. One may call this environment, which is both technical and natural, an associated milieu. (“Technical Individuation” 207)

By proposing another associated milieu for technical being, Simondon is mapping out an ever-expanding web of potential preindividual combinations. For now, we not only have the myriad possibilities of mutations within the assemblages of organic beings, but also the potential to unite with the specific field of potential energy wherein technical beings are produced. It is not merely a question of humans forming collectives. With technical individuation we can become part of “networks”:

We must go beyond the cultural task of “raising philosophical and notional awareness of technical reality” through an existential ordeal in which all human beings ought to take part, that of “taking on a particular position in the technical network,” whereby each would have the experience, as a participant, of a series of processes in which humans and machines are inextricable. (Combes 70)

The question is not really whether or not we are willing to become part of a network as, like it or not, we already are. What is vital for Simondon’s philosophy to have an effect is an awareness of our position. 

Simondon uses the evocative metaphor of the impurity in a supercooled solution of water to demonstrate how the assemblage can affect and be affected. The metastable supercooled water can be easily transformed by a single change in its structure. Like Kurt Vonnegut’s Ice-9, which, in the 1963 novel Cat’s Cradle, causes the world’s oceans to freeze over, one impurity would start a chain reaction that would lead the entire solution to crystallise. Thomas LaMarre elaborates: “the seed or germ that makes the crystalline structure materialise out of the supersaturated solution is, in a sense, just a tiny little impurity” (85). This is traceable through the preindividual shares within social individuation. Practically unobservable thoughts and actions can have a ripple effect to the extent that the entire whole can be radically altered.[3]Mackenzie implicitly evokes Spinoza to describe this metaphor in more localised terms: “If a stone speeds up, if its flight time is reduced, what a body can do has changed; its limits have altered”[4](85). This chain reaction does not merely occur during wholesale change (the supercooled solution), but is in fact the basis of ontogenesis itself.   

What the crystalline metaphor demonstrates is that the conditions within any particular milieu are open to drastic alteration. And the altered beings that connect within these networks then migrate into other systems. For Simondon, individuated beings are never stuck in their milieu (social environment), and they are not fixed within their assemblage. They can exist in several milieux (as is facilitated by the technical objects) and can phase and dephase out of social individuations. It is even theoretically possible to return to the preindividual stage whence individuation arises, although I suspect this would involve some severe trauma akin to what Jacques Lacan calls the unexperiencable and unrepresentable Real—a collapse of the symbolic order and the annihilation of subjectivity. It is in this sense that Simondon calls all individuals “transindividuals.” Muriel Combes suggests that

with the notion of the transindividual, Simondon is above all proposing a new manner of conceiving what is very inadequately called the relation between individual and society. With that in mind, he is first of all intent on showing that in fact no immediate relation exists between them. (42)

I take Combes’s insistence that no immediate relation exists between the individual and society to mean two things. First, as the term “transindividual” infers that there is never any stable state of being, said relationship between individuals and society can never be fixed. Secondly, Simondon insists on the technical object as the means with which to connect us to the world; when the technical object is lacking, our relationship with the world is thus severed (a theoretical position as the technical object is never missing). 

Cinematic individuation is a socio-technical individuation between a film, as technical object, and its viewer, as organic being. The technical film-object contains within it a multitude of further individuations on a diegetic level (characters), and on a practical level (the filmmakers); likewise, the organic being-viewers are themselves the product of a multiplicity of social individuations. The key condition of cinematic individuation is a dual movement of attraction and rejection, in that it provokes an affective, emotional, and phenomenological response, as well as a simultaneous cerebral, distancing effect. What cinematic individuation allows is an embodied experience of being connected beyond oneself combined with a cognitive understanding of the structures of the world. These positions open a space of commiseration facilitated by the technical object that is the film—that is, the encounter between viewer and film (organic being and technical object) creates an aesthetic space in which identity is extended.

A Case Study of Adaptation

Cinematic individuation thus provides the basis by which we are switched on both intellectually (detached) and emotionally (engaged and embodied). Through this transference, in certain self-reflexive films, we can experience commiseration while remaining conscious of the process as it occurs. I will now suggest an example using a well-known self-reflexive film, Adaptation(2002), directed by Spike Jonze and written by Charlie Kaufman.

Adaptation involves the failing efforts of Charlie Kaufman (played by Nicholas Cage) to adapt Susan Orlean’s non-fiction book, The Orchid Thief (1998)—essentially the pre-production history of Adaptation. The self-critical and self-aware voiceover, a melange of cameo performances (Catherine Keener, Spike Jonze, John Malkovich, John Cusack), real people played by actors (Kaufman, Orlean, John Laroche, and Robert McKee), invented characters (Kaufman’s twin brother Donald, also played by Nicholas Cage, is entirely fictional yet is credited as co-writer of Adaptation), existing films and books, invented films, actual events, and wildly fictionalised events blur the line between fiction and reality. The film’s highly self-reflexive style imbues a sense of auto-poiesis (self-creation) and explicitly invokes the idea of ouroboros (the snake that eats its own tail). This fictional version of Kaufman is, like so many of his protagonists, a frustrated, depressed, and self-loathing artist utterly stuck in a creative torpor. Narratively speaking, the only way out of this malaise, is for Kaufman to write a horribly generic Hollywood/Robert McKee type film. The state of cinema, and the act of making films (or doing anything at all) is here degraded and pointless. Yet there are moments in the film that offer us something beyond this miserable state—or perhaps an opportunity for commiseration—two of which I analyse in this article: first, a date between Charlie and his love interest Amelia (Cara Seymour), and secondly a striking montage of time-lapse photography and upbeat pop music.

Charlie and Amelia’s Date

Charlie is driving at night with Amelia sitting in the passenger seat [16:55-19:16]. Beck’s “Dead Melodies” (1998) plays quietly on the car stereo. From their conversation it is deducible that they have been at a Sibelius concert. They disagree on the ending of the Violin Concerto in D Minor (1905), Amelia having found it “passionate” and Charlie having found it “weird.” They arrive at Amelia’s house. She does not leave the car but instead asks Charlie “what are you up to now then?” Charlie is framed in an over-the-shoulder medium close shot. He mumbles something about needing to get to bed as his eyes dart around the car. Amelia says goodnight and the camera cuts to a reverse angle. She gives a forced grin and then bites her lip whilst closing her eyes and inhaling deeply. Having composed herself, she gives a more natural smile as the camera slightly zooms in on her. The narration cuts back to the previous angle of Charlie. He stares, open mouthed in silence for a beat. He looks away and says that he would stay out were it not for his script struggles. He does not look at Amelia whilst he gives this excuse and, warming to this line of thought, starts to outline his issues with adapting The Orchid Thief. During these ramblings, the narration cuts back to a reverse shot of Amelia, staring directly at Charlie, listening intently. The narration cuts back to Charlie, who circles back to his need to go home and get a good night’s sleep so he can make a fresh start in the morning, and finally back to Amelia who smiles but looks disappointed. “Otherwise I’d stay out!” Charlie insists, finally looking at Amelia. Charlie now looks excited and happy, and makes eye contact. He invites Amelia to an orchid show in Santa Barbara the following weekend. The narration cuts to Amelia as she frowns and shakily tells him “I don’t think I can make it next weekend…” The narration cuts to Charlie, suddenly crestfallen. Amelia abruptly exits the vehicle. She says goodnight off-screen, and her footsteps can be heard rapidly walking away. The camera stays on Charlie, his expression frozen [Fig. 1]. His voiceover kicks in: “Why didn’t I go in? I’m such a chicken … I should have kissed her. I’ve blown it.” The camera cuts to an insert of Amelia going through her front door in long shot. There is a slight iris effect, presumably caused by the car window, out of focus in the foreground.

Figure 1 : Charlie stares open mouthed, his expression frozen whilst his internal monologue rages within.

Charlie’s internal monologue continues over this shot: “I should just go and knock on her door right now and kiss her. It would be romantic. Something we could someday tell our kids.” The narration cuts back to Charlie, still staring, mouth agape: “I’m gonna do that right now.” A medium close-up, rotated ninety-degrees from the previous shot, of Charlie follows his statement of intent. He releases the handbrake and pulls away from the side of the road. End of scene.

On a structural level, Amelia is a key character. Given that Charlie appears to be facing what Raymond Bellour (1975) termed “symbolic blockage” in the form of his very real writer’s block, classical narrative structure would dictate that he “gets the girl” once he has resolved the script. This expected order of resolutions is reversed at the end of the film. Charlie resolves his issues with Amelia and they remain friends but crucially nothing more, which allows him to complete the script. This suggests that Amelia is the neurotic blockage that must be cleared, and that the script is Charlie’s ultimate object of desire. There is a certain solipsism to this structure, and it is telling that Charlie’s only sexual encounters are onanistic.[5]

This is reflected in the scene through Charlie’s nervous attempts to excuse himself from a potentially erotic encounter with Amelia. His eyes are downcast, and they dart around. When he stumbles upon a plausible excuse (he blames the script), and a suitable deferral (a flower show next week), he suddenly seems energised and looks directly at Amelia. Charlie appears to gain satisfaction from these acts of deferral. He enjoys this relationship so long that it remains ever on the cusp of becoming actualised. This is why the script supersedes Amelia as the object of his desire (and why he would rather “sleep on” the script than sleep with Amelia). It allows for endless new frustrations and withholds its climax ad infinitum. Hence when Amelia does not conform to Charlie’s requirements of perpetual delay, he is frozen in shock [fig. 1]. The only way he can unlock himself physically at this point is to conjure up an internal romantic fantasy (and narration for a screenplay) so that he might frustrate it by simply driving away.

Whilst this may sound childishly Œdipal, there is potential within this scene for cinematic individuation. When individuated beings enter into social individuation with each other, they subsequently and constantly move on to other social individuations or into wider assemblages of social individuation. You have a conversation with me at dinner, we briefly ask the waiter some questions, another member of our party turns up late, you leave the table to use the bathroom and call your partner, you say goodbye and order a taxi, you chat to your driver on the way home, and once home, you rant about your disappointing meal with me on social media. All of these encounters mark your movement in and out of individuations with friends, strangers, electronic devices, media platforms, and online avatars over the space of a few hours. On his own disappointing date, Charlie is unconsciously attempting to endlessly stretch out his and Amelia’s social individuation. If he can successfully defer the completion of the process, then this individuation can always remain imminent. The effect of this, in this scene, is the inadvertent creation of a Deleuzian crystal-image (1985). Charlie carries with him throughout the film several doubles: his fictional identical twin Donald, and the real-life Kaufman. This is coupled in the scene by the collapse of past, present, and future. The camera watches as Amelia leaves the car and enters her house (the past receding) and Charlie reflects on this past with his shocked expression (the present frozen). Meanwhile, his internal thoughts map out a myriad of potential future actions (the future is imminent and in flux). Thus, past, present, and future are all indiscernible within the image of Charlie watching Amelia walk away. We see Charlie’s present, we hear his future, and we remember (from the previous shot), his past.  

This collapse of time, virtuality, and actuality allows the viewer to experience (commiserate with) transference of Charlie and Amelia’s state of deferred social individuation. The crystal-image is inherently disarming and makes the viewer vulnerable to this cinematic affect. Yet at the same time, the viewer becomes aware that the potential futures that Charlie attends to are equivalent to the potential narrative directions of the film (not to mention the metafictions contained within the film), and therefore correspond to the viewer’s potential experiences of watching the film. In this moment, the viewer realises that their immediate destiny is indiscernible from that of the narratives. To be aware of this status is to experience an anxiety of being—Martin Heidegger (1927) describes our experience of the present as being measured by our evaluation of future outcomes or causalities (310). Awareness of a narrative’s operations is a self‑awareness of one’s own fluctuating self, and the uncertainty of causality. If we cannot see the steps leading from the present to the (imaginary) future, then the future is uncertain, and we cannot clearly see the present. Like a climber whose foot slips on a wet rock, the viewer momentarily feels a sense of panicked instability, an alienating effect of realising that you are not whole and are simultaneously multitudinal (Dussel’s paradox of commiseration). Moving through this little crisis leads to cinematic individuation of sorts. I find this is a genuinely touching scene. It provokes an emotional reaction that momentarily overrides rationality and welcomes commiseration. It is the first time we manage to feel something for Kaufman (or any other character for that matter).          

The Flowers and the Traffic

Charlie has again driven off from an encounter with Amelia, but this time he is filled with hope, and believes he can finish the script [1:49:40-1:50:21]. The camera pans to follow his car as it joins the LA traffic [Fig. 2.1]. The Turtles’ “Happy Together” (1967) starts playing on the score as Charlie’s car disappears into the horizon. The slow shift from deep to shallow focus reveals dancing flowers that have emerged in the foreground (an effect permitted by time-lapse photography). The time-lapse increases in speed as the traffic also slips into fast motion [Fig. 2.2]. Night falls, and the shallow focus causes the street lights to become abstract floating orbs [Fig. 2.3]. Some of the flowers open as day breaks and sunshine floods the screen. The pace increases so that night and day are passing by the second, and the flowers open and close accordingly, in a rhythmic clapping motion. As the song ends, the time-lapse slows enough for it to be consistently day-time, and for the flowers to lie open to the light. The screen cuts to black and the credits roll.

Figure 2.1. Charlie drives away as the film ends with this view of a busy LA street.

Figure 2.2. The focal length changes as time-lapse filmed daisies fill the foreground.

Figure 2.3. As the traffic also becomes time-lapsed, so does day turn to night. The shallow depth of field turns the street lights into floating orbs of colour.

Adaptation may be clever with its intricate reflexive demonstrations, but it is also relatively easy to untangle, and necessarily holds the hand of its audience as it morphs into the trite Hollywood product that Kaufman abhors. Beyond certain sequences between Charlie and his never-to-be love interest Amelia (such as the previously analysed scene), the film’s coda emerges as a break from the primary narrative action which precedes it.[6] John MacDowell describes this ending as “an extraordinarily balanced rhetorical combination of an ironic detachment from, and a sincere engagement with, its ‘happy ending.’ In other words, we are never allowed to forget the potential for ironic appreciation yet are encouraged to be genuinely moved nonetheless”; the dichotomy here of “ironic detachment” and “sincere engagement” primes the viewer for cinematic individuation (MacDowell 12). As MacDowell infers, such an operation exists as a potentiality, rather than an inevitable effect. 

I propose that this scene works in spite of the narrative events it punctuates (although there are key thematic resonances). In MacDowell’s words, “the song, flowers and ‘time-lapse’ presentation are allowed to seem as if they have to some extent escaped Charlie’s film within a film” (12). “Happy Together” can be heard several times throughout the film. Charlie’s twin brother Donald proposes it for his terrible thriller, The 3,as an ironic counterpoint to his story of a serial killer with split personality disorder, and Charlie sings it with Donald as the latter dies in his arms. I assume that most readers would recognise the song. It is a seemingly good-natured and simple piece of pop music, both lyrically and musically. It does, however, end on a Picardy third (when a piece of music ends on a major chord instead of an expected minor chord), which could be considered as an undermining of a natural resolution. I propose that within its profilmic context this has a predominantly ironic and distancing effect upon the viewer. Whatever “happiness” is here, Adaptation’s (staged) capitulation into generic and structural cliché renders claims of contentment suspect. The song becomes an insincere performance that might trouble experiences of empathy connected with the death of Donald, or catharsis generated by Charlie’s reconciliation with Amelia (and his script).    

Time-lapse photography allows for two distinct visual rhythms: the daisies and the traffic [Fig. 2.2]. When the rhythm of “Happy Together”is also included, there are three separate time signatures, two visual and one audial. As night falls, and the focus length creates impressionistic orbs out of street lights, our faculties of interpretation are stimulated [Fig. 2.3]. No longer does the picture objectively resemble the identifiable street scene from figure 2.1. The viewers (should they wish to do so) must work to create meaning out of this new image. There is an individuation between spectator and film, at least on this visual level. As the shot continues, the rhythm of the traffic, the flowers, and the song all cohere. It is at this point that cinematic individuation might occur. The viewer is alienated by the music, critically stimulated by the provocative image, and affectively embraced by the convergence of rhythms (so long as they tune into that rhythm, too). 

The sequence contains within it the eventual individuation between organic beings (flowers), and technical objects (cars and lights), orchestrated by an assemblage of technical and organic beings (the song performed by The Turtles). This sequence is, as a whole, a technical assemblage that individuates with the organic being that is the viewer. Yet what is the wider scope of this cinematic individuation? Geoff King believes that Adaptation’s potential political value is muted: 

Itis a much less politically radical film, in any explicit sense, than Tout va bien [Jean-Luc Godard and Jean-Pierre Gorin, 1972]. It might be argued that this is a function of its location in the Indiewood zone, close to the studio system, rather than fully independent. That such allocation might set limits on what is recognized as “political” content seems highly likely. […] The deconstruction, challenging or highly ambiguous employment of dominant conventions can be understood as ‘political’ in a broader sense, however, if such conventions are understood—as they often are—as significant components of the dominant ideological formulations of the cultures in which they are found. (62)

The historical context and production style of the Dziga Vertov Group’s films makes the comparison to “Indiewood” unworkably complex and, this notwithstanding, it seems impossibly demanding to expect films by Jonze and Kaufman to provoke wholesale changes in Hollywood. Peter Marks raises a notion that “if innovation is crushed routinely in Hollywood then films such as Kaufman’s would never be made there” (39). The “innovations” of Kaufman might exist precisely due to the “limits” set by hegemonic groups that are needed in order to have something to push against. When these limits are drawn, they create zones of exclusion. These zones are conducive to commiseration and their deterritorialised nature allows for positive reindividuations—of identity, subjectivity, and forms of representation. I fundamentally agree with King’s (still hesitant) proposal that challenging ideological formations is a political act. If Adaptation achieves this, then it is through an exploitation of its self-reflexive conditions to explicitly demonstrate how mainstream film narratives are constructed by institutions such as Hollywood (inclusive of Adaptation), and how cultural narratives are generated by the human cognitive need to build narratives in order to understand politics and life. Thus, any political impact is not a radical change in culture or the film industry. Rather, it occurs on an individual level, effecting or training the spectator’s viewing habits and intellectual engagement with cinema.

The sociopolitical potential of this final scene can best be approached by thinking about time. Joshua Landy diagnoses two distinct experiences of time; he suggests that “one cannot tell the story of the flower because stories belong to human time, and flowers have their being outside of that time” (500). It must be said that we would not be able to understand the concept of “flower” if we were not able to make it legible as a sign by placing it into our narrative understanding of our surroundings—by putting it into time. The final sequence displays four distinct representations of time: the song, the traffic, the day-night cycle of the earth, and the opening and closing of the flowers. Of these, the third has a direct effect on the second and fourth: the working day and the photosynthetic process. Only the song is arguably a purely human construction of time. It is wrong to say that the traffic, the flower, and the sun are outside of narrative time; objectively they may be, but they cannot be experienced without setting them to narrative time. There is the story of the flowers opening for the sun yet closing for the moon, and there is the story of the breaking of the day and the falling of the night. Any invocation of time is also an invocation of narrative.

While these four time signatures may relate to each other and are compatible to human time, they are inconsistent in speed and rhythm. What the final sequence achieves is to show this clash in one instant, and then to resolve it in another. The coherence of the four temporal orders is admittedly achieved through special effects and image manipulation. What this demonstrates, however, is film’s ability as a technical object to reconcile seemingly disparate elements to each other. Adaptation has previously held competing narrative styles to be immiscible throughout the “writer’s block” diegesis. In fact, this initial overload—or prolonged focus on the act of narration—might temporarily push the viewer away from narrative. The invitation to interact with that, as Landy remarks, is “outside” of human time; narrative now becomes desirable. Thus, the film performs as a conductor of relationships within this particular techno-organic assemblage in order to close the gap left by the core narrative and any impressions of distance experienced by the audience. The viewer is ultimately the one to complete the jigsaw of temporalities, but cannot do so without the assistance of the “tool” (the film and the technical elements that it comprises), and the mediated space (between viewer and screen) offered by the viewing experience. In this sense, the end of Adaptation reconnects us to the world, or at least a particular image of the world. The audience comes to understand how our relationship with biological phenomena such as plant life and the solar-lunar cycle is mediated through our experience of the city and technologies such as cars. Thus, our social-political and socio-biopolitical relationship with the world is framed through individuations with cultural-temporal artefacts. These artefacts (or technologies, in a Heideggerian sense) provide a mediated space for us to participate in a world—in this case, through cinema via cinematic individuation.  

William Brown proposes that all matter has both a life and a tempo. He writes that “each temporality, tempo, or Chronos, is entangled with the other tempos in the universe, and it is from this entanglement that […] consciousness emerges” (81). In the encounter between the viewer and a film, this “consciousness” takes the form of a third temporality. Brown adds that “the temporality of the film is always producing a new, emergent ‘temporality’ when put into conjunction with (the temporality of) the spectator” (100). This new hybrid temporality is the experience of time within the mediational field wherein the film is experienced; it is a technologically-assisted tempo that brings the spectator away from machinic rhythm (clockwork), and towards biological and aesthetic tempos (arrhythmic and polyrhythmic). Daniel Yacavone proposes that the rhythms produced in cinema provide a space wherein the audience might “join with the affective rhythms of human actions and naturally occurring events, our sensory awareness of which opens up other cognitive, imaginative, and emotional spaces than those we may regularly inhabit” (207). Indeed, for Yacavone, it is precisely this experience of contrasting and complementary temporalities that accounts for sensorial engagement between a film and its viewers.[7]The diegetic self-reflexivity of Adaptation might best be thought of as a setup for its conclusion—the “human” rhythm that allows the technological and natural rhythms of the flowers and the traffic to be felt.    

When outlining his proposed “theatre of cruelty”—a disruptive and provocative style of theatrical representation—Antonin Artaud described a show that would be “unafraid of exploring the limits of our nervous sensibility, use rhythm, sound, words, resounding with song, whose nature and startling combinations are part of an unrevealed technique” (66-67). The closing sequence of Adaptation attempts a sensory gestaltwith its multi-temporal display. We might call this a kind of “cinema of cruelty”—not that which is sadistic, but that which seeks to provoke an original sensation by losing traditional forms of representation whilst honouring new, or neglected, ones.

George Crosthwait

Works Cited

Agamben, Giorgio. The Man without Content.Trans. Georgia Albert. Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1999.

Artaud, Antonin. The Theatre and its Double. Trans. Victor Corti. London: John Calder, 1977.

Bellour, Raymond. “Symbolic Blockage (On North by Northwest).” In The Analysis of Film. 1975. Translated by Constance Penley, University of Indiana Press, 2000, pp. 77-192.  

Brown, William. Supercinema: Film-Philosophy for the Digital Age. Berghahn Books, 2013.

Combes, Muriel. Gilbert Simondon and the Philosophy of the Transindividual. Translated by Thomas LaMarre, The MIT Press, 2013. 

Deleuze, Gilles. Cinema II: The Time-Image. 1985. Translated by Hugh Tomlinson and Robert Galeta, Bloomsbury, 2014.

Dussel, Enrique. Philosophy of Liberation. Translated by Aquilana Martinez and Christine Morkovsky, Orbis Books, 1985. 

Heidegger, Martin. Being and Time. 1927. Translated by John Macquarrie and Edward Robinson, Basil Blackwell, 1973.

Hilderbrand, Lucas. “Adaptation.” Film Quarterly, vol.58, no. 1, 2004, pp. 36-43.

King, Geoff. Indiewood, USA: Where Hollywood meets Independent Cinema. I. B. Tauris, 2009.

Laboria Cuboniks. “Xenofeminism: A Politics for Alienation.” Accessed on 6/10/2021.

Landy, Joshua. “Still Life in a Narrative Age: Charlie Kaufman’s Adaptation.” Critical Inquiry, vol. 37, no. 3, 2011, pp. 497-514.

LaMarre, Thomas. “Afterword: Humans and Machines.” In Gilbert Simondon and the Philosophy of the Transindividual, edited by Muriel Combes, The MIT Press, 2013. 79–108.

MacDowell, John. “Notes on Quirky.” Movie, vol.1, August 2010, pp. 1-16.

Mackenzie, Adrian. Transductions: Bodies and Machines at Speed. Continuum, 2002.

Marks, Peter. “Adaptation from Charles Darwin to Charlie Kaufman.” Sydney Studies, vol. 35, 2008, pp. 19-40.

Metz, Christian. Impersonal Enunciation, or the Place of Film. 1991. Translated by Cormac Deane, Columbia University Press, 2016.

Simondon, Gilbert. “Technical Individuation.” Translated by Karen Ocana. In Interact or Die!, edited by Joke Brouwer and Arjen Mulder, V2_Publishing, 2007, pp. 206-15.

Simondon, Gilbert. On the Mode of Existence of Technical Objects. Translated by Cécile Malaspina and John Rogove, Univocal, 2017.

de Spinoza, Benedict. Ethics. 1677. Translated by Edwin Curley, Penguin, 1996.

Stam, Robert. Reflexivity in Film and Literature: From Don Quixote to Jean-Luc Godard. Columbia University Press, 1992.

Yacavone, Daniel. Film Worlds: A Philosophical Aesthetics of Cinema. Columbia University Press, 2015.


Adaptation. Directed by Spike Jonze, Sony Pictures Releasing, 2002.

Duck Amuck. Directed by Chuck Jones, Warner Bros., 1953.

Ivansxtc. Directed by Bernard Rose, Metro-Tartan Distribution, 2000.

Mulholland Drive. Directed by David Lynch, Universal Pictures, 2001.

Sherlock Jr. Directed by Buster Keaton, MGM, 1924.

Workers Leaving the Lumière Factory in Lyon. Directed by Louis Lumière, Lumière, 1895.

[1] See Ōshima’s Kōshikei [Death by Hanging] (1968), Terayama’s Sho o Suteyo Machi e Deyō [Throw Away Your Books, Rally in the Streets] (1971), and Wakamatsu’s Yuke Yuke Nidome no Shojo [Go, Go, Second Time Virgin] (1969). 

[2] Linda Hutcheon frames metafiction, contra the figure of Narcissus, as an investigation into the creative process (86). I see this as an occasionally achieved ideal, but one that exists in tension with those narratives which remain obsessed with their own reflections.

[3] To follow the metaphor to the letter invokes a potentially troubling image of homogeneity. 

[4] I refer to a Spinozan lemma which states that ‘A body which moves or is at rest must be determined to motion or rest by another body, which has also been determined to motion or rest by another, and that again by another, and so on, to infinity’ (41). 

[5] Lucas Hilderbrand (2004) writes about masturbation as the primary expression of desire in Adaptation.  

[6] One scene set during Charlie and Amelia’s drive back from a concert encapsulates Kaufman’s neurosis whilst offering a more sincere and empathetic framing of their relationship. This is a setup that Kaufman returns to several times in his third directorial feature I’m Thinking of Ending Things (2020).   

[7] In The Man without Content, Giorgio Agamben proposes that art becomes accessible to a person only once they have accessed “authentic temporality” and thus gained “poetic status” (101).