Two of the primary impulses toward the sanctity of authorship are ownership and (pace Foucault) punishment, and in film culture we can see this not only in conservative and less-conservative celebrations of favorite "auteurs" but also in the highly moralizing (and not always exactly wrong) skepticism toward same when they make a film that is supposedly too indulgent (like with Malick's recent efforts), or even morally reprehensible (as with Mel Gibson). Even many of those who've moved on from the cult of the author when it comes to celebration nevertheless fall back onto these presumptions when we're left looking for someone, something to blame. In the end, the ideological operation of this type of critique - itself sometimes couched as an ideological critique - can be an astringent defense of the critic himself, a sort of puritanical consumerism which establishes clear borders around the holy temple of one's own taste.
"This film / this author is too modernist, too accessible, too lazy, too simplistic, too classical, too frenetic, too indulgent, too conventional, too puritanical (!) for my tastes. I can't have it; can't get behind it." The last defense of the person of taste is the elective ability to verbally demarcate what won't be consumed and enjoyed. And it is difficult not to be, not to house within our complex selves, "persons of taste." With the analysis of artistic objects, then, it is better to continue reminding oneself to attend to what it does (and can do) rather than what it is. Establishing an understanding of the former is not the same thing as - essentially - finessing a noun into a verb. Case in point: the common charge that in The Tree of Life Malick "universalizes." The implication being here that Malick's quasi-autobiographical film propels, even forces, the viewer to see the linkage between cosmology and lilywhite mid-century Waco as incontroveritble evidence of Malick's ingrained sexism, racism, religiosity, etc. This charge is often not fleshed out very much beyond innuendo, and is often hastily rushed over. (As in my earlier point that in The Tree of Life, critics swiftly associated the "simplistic" nature/grace binary with Malick rather than with a character in the film, though it's clearly the latter.) And it might behoove many of us to ask, first, what it would mean to universalize? That makes two questions in one: What does the verb mean, to universalize? and What is the significance of an instance of universalization in a cultural object?
Far be it from me to willingly shield Malick from due criticism, ideological or otherwise. His film is, I think, deeply metaphysical and romantic/Romantic in its concerns, and it does perpetuate some iconic visual tropes of Americana. These may register far more clearly than the sophisticated context in which he places them. So this is where certain fallacies in thinking bout authorship come to the fore: critics of the film want to shift discussion from what the film does and can mean, and conclusively place blame at Malick's misguided intentions. It's easy to just say "Malick universalizes white Americana, and that's bad."
Yet does The Tree of Life whitewash a multicultural reality for reasons of nostalgia (like, say, Amelie)? The film is specific, and its view of the world rooted in class as well. (This is the aspirant middle class, a distinctly American inflection, whose ambitious failings - associated heavily with Mr. O'Brien and his patriarchal legacy - the film explicitly lays out.) And The Tree of Life frequently provides glimpses of interactions with "others" - both within a community (e.g., the epileptic) and outside it (e.g., the black people selling barbecue). The experience of childhood also involves the inculcation of codes in dealing with these "others" - i.e. one learns to treat an epileptic seizure as a shameful, one understands in the 1950s South that poor black neighborhoods and lower middle-class white neighborhoods may be quite distinct but there are conditions under which one may cross over (commerce, namely). [In the segment where the O'Briens grieve over their son's death, there is a brief close-up of Chastain's hands clasped by a black woman's. A neighbor? More likely - given this historical specificity - a maid: another subtle example of the local cultural and economic ordering of hierarchies and the conditions in which these play out.] That Malick pictorializes and dramatizes these does not imply that he also endorses them, especially when his portrait of this family/social life is so profoundly inconclusive (bitter and sweet, traumatic and lovely, cruel and loving: a "wrestling" verbalized in Sean Penn's voice-overs). If one wants to criticize The Tree of Life further, one must build upon the recognition of this violent interplay, instead of lazily presuming only nostalgia. And sometimes of course, even retrograde or seemingly conventional forms and artworks can be reinhabited, repurposed, lived-through in unanticipated ways by audiences who would not have seemed to be an unintended audience. And we should not presume that the meaning of nostalgia itself could only ever mean one thing, across all histories, all places, and all situations, in all cultural objects.
In Patricio Guzmán's Nostalgia for the Light (2010), for example, a superb documentary which bears a few key resemblances to The Tree of Life (particularly a running link between cosmology and autobiography), the nostalgia is explicitly an injunction against political quietude. Guzmán's ethical model for film is more left-wing than Malick's. That is, though Nostalgia for the Light is no less subtle and layered than The Tree of Life, it would be difficult to imagine any viewer coming away from it not knowing precisely which side Guzmán is on within a very specific national and historical framework: Chile after Pinochet's coup. The Tree of Life is not divorced from politics, and though I would defend it from charges of blatant reaction or regressive nostalgia, it certainly exists in a tradition whose historical and material association is with Western imperialism and its sanctioned aesthetics. And it is a Hollywood film, made with Hollywood money: absolutely a product, among other things. Malick's work, though, is virtually alone these days in the particular register of these imperial-sanctioned traditions: this is why his films seem so strange, because it's Hollywood talent used for a number of decidedly non-Hollywood ends and purposes, a dense assortment of codes, gestures, links that seems to me to hearken back to the early modernism about which Guy Davenport always wrote so cogently. But it doesn't point outward, clearly, in the way that a film like Nostalgia for the Light does (or, say, the work of John Gianvito).
Below are some examples of writing I've read recently that point to what good discussion of art cinema, or "authored" cinema, might unfurl into ...
“So as to best grasp the amplitude of what Jacobs' film tackles and its formal initiatives, I will begin by laying out the various forms by which an image can work on another image – a taxonomy of recycling.
“But, before plunging into the film [Tom, Tom, the Piper's Son], a few more preliminary remarks. First, such enterprises, deliberately or not, actively contest, even completely destroy, the traditional division of labor between art and criticism.
“Second, we would obviously come up with different results and questions by considering other visual studies, for instance – and mentioning only a few key references – the pioneering films of Adrian Brunel (Crossing the Great Sagrada, 1924) and Joseph Cornell (Rose Hobart, 1936); Kirk Tougas' The Politics of Perception (1973) and Lemaȋtre's Erich von Stroheim (1979); certain fundamental works by Malcolm Le Grice, David Rimmer, or Raphael Monatñez Ortiz's decompositions … but also the entire work of Godard, Pasolini's La Ricotta (1963), Antonioni's Blowup (1966); certain films by Raúl Ruiz, or Jean-Marie Straub and Danièle Huillet's Cézanne (1989). And also the John Ford film that possibly invented this form in 1948 when, at the end of Fort Apache, we learn that the entire story we have witnessed exists in order to criticize a painting exhibited in Washington: an official, “true” image, against which the film itself can only register as false. This criticized painting is absent, but the film's argument, via a beautiful effect of substitution, reaches its conclusion in front of an official portrait that Ford has by now equipped us to judge: a picture of Henry Fonda as Colonel Thursday. It is not hard to see in this the (perhaps unconscious) origin of Godard and Jean-Pierre Gorin's Letter to Jane: An Investigation about a Still (1972), a major example of the visual study.
“Lastly, the visual study belongs to a far vaster field in which it figures as one type, and doubtless the most rigorous: all those exegetical visual forms, from the “making of” to poetic art, from the monograph to the historical essay – an enormous genre that can be rightfully confused with the entire existing body of film, since every image-based work can be considered a discussion of phenomena, of its own motifs, of conventional arrangements and linkages.”
(Nicole Brenez, from her essay “Recycling, Visual Study, Expanded Theory – Ken Jacobs, Theorist, or the Long Song of the Sons,” in Optic Antics: The Cinema of Ken Jacobs, eds. Michele Pierson, David E. James, and Paul Arthur)
“It is for this reason that the Marxist tradition of television studies has expended so much energy “demystifying” the medium's hegemonic illusions at the level of content; if the contents of Today [NBC] do not necessarily coincide with the contents of “today,” then the impulse to distinguish the ontological status of the two – one is presumably material and the other is not – makes a certain amount of sense. And yet, it is also for this reason that so many scholars working in this same tradition take it for granted that technological forms of mass media forge different scales of “imagined communities,” “technoscapes,” and/or “mediascapes,” all of which indeed constitute the existence of the social world in some important sense. Since the variously scaled industrial technologies of print capitalism, television, and the Internet help forge social connections in what can safely be described as material social space, there is never much need to question whether this “effect” is also part of material reality; the ontological status of television technology can simply be cleaved apart from that of the image it displays.”
(Meghan Sutherland, “Death, with Television,” in On Michael Haneke, eds. Brian Price and John David Rhodes)
“During the shooting of a Miklós Jancsó film it is, then, the actors who follow the elaborate tracking choreography performed by the camera, not the other way around. The camera does not simply "cover" the action; rather, the protagonists' actions provide the content that is fitted into the a priori patterned movements of the filming apparatus. The tracks along which the camera is moving outline, as if in a diagram, a non-determinate dynamic structure: Cinema as a relational Master Code. The "second degree" procedure of filming actual diegetic actions fleshes out this abstract matrix, giving it a variety of particular audio-visual forms. In films intent on exploring the history of class struggle (the fundamental theme of Jancsó's cinema, from The Round Up, to The Red and the White, to The Red Psalm, to Electra, My Love), this approach gives rise to a sense of History as inherently and unavoidably dialectical. The human subject's mandate is to accept it as such, and to participate in it. In other words, Jancsó does not use the camera to interpret history dialectically—to detect, in different epochs and socio-economic constellations, examples of an ongoing struggle between classes, between the oppressor and the oppressed. Instead, he creates filmed testimonies to his conviction that History, much like the Cinema, is an always already dialectical but, initially, also an empty Structure. The actual praxis of human history is, in turn, not unlike the practice of filmmaking: the particular manner in which the abstract cinematic Code is actualized in individual films (giving rise to distinct filmic enunciations), is analogous to the manner in which the dialectical Structure of History is brought to life by the human protagonists' concrete socio-political actions, undertaken amidst the specific circumstances of their existence. “
(Pavle Levi, "Toward a Meta-Reality of the Cinema")