Friday, July 15, 2011

Cases Closed / Problems Opened

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. “


Brian H. said...

Ideological critique is difficult to sustain without setting up a sort of authorial straw man to which the critic can ascribe intention.

This is related to the ideas that the ideological critique of something as complex and internally self-contradictory as a film must be somewhat reductive, and that the purpose of the author function is basically to reduce and simplify a polysemous mass of meaning into a coherent unity.

JeanRZEJ said...

You make a lot of great points, and Brian H. as well, but when you say that The Tree of Life is a 'product' I don't really understand. If it were a product it would have been taken out of theaters as 'defective' due to the pain it is causing theaters due to ridiculous amounts of walkouts and people demanding refunds. If it were really a product then there would have been some quality control steering it back toward commercial mediocrity. The guy was handed a bunch of money to make a film that would never sell without any strings attached - if that is a 'product' to any degree then all communist films are propaganda, to the same degree, even when the majority of the great ones are explicitly opposed to its tenets. Too much noun in that description, not enough verb describing what it is that the film does. Generate money, sure, just as Le quattro volte and stolen paintings do, but that's how people relate to the film rights, not the content of the film. Just seems an odd way to cap a discussion focusing on the way that a viewer interacts with the content of a piece of art, by ignoring the art.

Zach Campbell said...

Brian - yes, it often seems so (which is why authorship is a good punitive structure even for those who might otherwise say they're uninterested in authorship as a way of thinking about film).

Jean, the film is a product in the sense that it is part of a culture industry. Hollywood funds go into this film, which in turn is exhibited in places of business, and the press assign it reviews, devote interviews, etc. It will come out on DVD/Blu-Ray with a standard price tag and you or I will be able to buy it from or Best Buy or wherever. The fact that it is a prestige film, and the fact that Malick's financiers showed a certain amount of liberality in funding a project that was sure to fail at the box office, still does not mean the movie is not a product like any other. It may be a bad product, but it nevertheless also exists in the same world as, say, the new Kevin James zoo movie. (For all the giant gulf of difference between them.) The history of art, as we think of it as such, is absolutely inextricable from the movement of products, from commerce. Virtually all the great Renaissance masterpices: products, commissioned by specific people for specific reasons (not always aesthetic), and in turn re-purposed as valuable "goods" which is how we know of them at all in the first place ...

JeanRZEJ said...

'It may be a bad product, but it nevertheless also exists in the same world as, say, the new Kevin James zoo movie.'

- or Le quattro volte (I can see all three in the same theater TODAY).

Somehow you take this complete disconnect between the two to imply that there is some meaningful connection between them, whereas I take it to mean that all of their statuses as a 'product' is entirely incidental to the actual experience of these works, and to even speak of it as a 'product' seems to me to be a matter of ideological critique. Following your lead - I find it irrelevant to the actual experience of the film, which is what film criticism is supposedly about. Another punitive structure. Maybe you disagree, but as I saw it the way you brought it up seemed entirely incongruous with the rest of the piece, and I was befuddled.

Brian H. said...


...though to speak of The Tree of Life as product is more an ideological critique of the broader circulation of art and the related institutions than an ideological critique of the text itself, if we can make that distinction. And that critique doesn't have to be a punitive one--opposition to capitalism does not necessarily entail a full rejection of all of capitalism's fruits, of course. And so we can call The Tree of Life a product, placing it within that particular analytic framework, without damning it as such. I like Zach's juxtaposition of TToL and Zookeeper because it demonstrates the incredible variability of "product." I have to disagree with you and suggest that their respective statuses as product are not, as you say, incidental to the experience of the works, but neither does that common status tie the two texts together at the ankle.

(Damn, I want to erase "ankle" and write "tibia" for the alliteration, but that would be just too ridiculous.)

JeanRZEJ said...

@Brian:'...though to speak of The Tree of Life as product is more an ideological critique of the broader circulation of art and the related institutions than an ideological critique of the text itself, if we can make that distinction.'

I agree with your distinction, and wouldn't mean to imply otherwise, but Zach's statement below seems to imply that the distinction you make is in fact impossible, unless the history of art is in this context necessarily opposed to the experience of that art, which seems to me to be an odd way to approach matters. Furthermore, since the entirety of the post was in favor of a more direct engagement with the film and the avoidance of muddling these things which can be distinguished then it seems contradictory.

'The history of art, as we think of it as such, is absolutely inextricable from the movement of products, from commerce.'

But, then, when you say, 'I have to disagree with you and suggest that their respective statuses as product are not, as you say, incidental to the experience of the works, but neither does that common status tie the two texts together at the ankle.' - I have to disagree entirely. So perhaps there's no crossing that divide. Could you expand on this a bit more? Perhaps it's merely semantics, but perhaps it will be a more interesting divide.

Anonymous said...

Uh, not that it matters, but it's actually NOT clear that TOL is really any kind of financial disaster -- its already made its (quoted) production cost back almost exactly @ $32M global, and it has passed The New World -- it's doing just fine for a wack-ass trippy art film that just happens to star Jolie's husband. To compare somewhat cruelly, the latest masterwork from Gaspar Noe: Cost 16M, global BO: 754K

Just saying...

Zach Campbell said...

Jean, my point is that our "actual experience" of a film is never ethereally, or possible to disarticulate from the conditions in which we see (consume?) an art object. There is not experience of art that is not embodied, and furthermore, embedded in history. Though Tree of Life may make for "bad Hollywood product" (though thank you, anonymous commenter, for pointing out that it's not an utter box-office failure) because of its romantic-modernist sensibility.

But. The romantic-modernist sensibility, the very proposition that a work of art should be approached and judged on the basis of its minute "textual" or formal patterns in order to arrive at a fuller understanding of what it is even trying to do, with the full privileges that Tree of Life demands (and which 99.99% of Hollywood can't and won't demand so fully) … this is itself an aesthetic with real, historical, political roots. For instance, Hollywood has long deliberately aimed for a 'layering' of addresses that would cross various demographics: from relative sophisticates to "slow Joe in the back row" or whatever. The Tree of Life does not really operate on this multi-register mode of address. (Which is not the same thing, of course, of saying it doesn't work on multiple levels.) But it presumes a certain amount of interest, patience, diligent attention, broad curiosity, willingness not to teehee because it uses classical music pieces (since these are almost only ever used parodically in multiplex fare, anyway) ... and this requires a lot of a viewer. It “buries” references; there is a lot of factual content, a lot of evocation, that can be drawn from the film. (Contra those who say it's poorly managed, I call shenanigans. I've seen it three times: it's well-structured, well-organized, and highly economical. It's just that its “economy” is not predicated upon maintaining a space or a set of actions within a single shot. I digress.) But it is asking for a different structure of attention, a different posture from the viewer, to which most multiplex and even arthouse viewers are not accustomed. This is particularly true for viewers who are fixated upon plot as a necessary condition for any and every movie ever made (The Tree of Life has content, feelings, acting, structure, meaning … but not really a “plot” … Ruiz might be proud!).

(And it's not just that Tree of Life is like an “art film.” I suspect that the gulf in implied spectatorial practices between most art films and commercial films is significantly smaller than the gulf between recent Malick and either of those groups.)

Zach Campbell said...

This is not to say that the film is evil or reactionary for existing within this particular modernist-romantic paradigm. I'm saying that the very sense that a film can, and should, do this is predicated upon an aesthetic history which - if antithetical to "Hollywood" - is nevertheless still contained within the Eurocentric, imperialist biases of reading practices and taste hierarchies. (And this is where the comparison with Nostalgia for the Light might be, err, illuminating.) So what I'm saying is that it's not a "pure" film, there's no "pure" art even - but that we should approach this question politically, as materialists even, and no as the parish priests of our own personal Temples of Taste. This is why I've argued against the laziness of the unfleshed-out implication that "Malick universalizes." (And, relatedly, why I think those who dismiss Malick for "failing" in a classical storytelling idiom have simply missed the boat, period.) This tendency to weigh Terrence Malick, Auteur (TM) on the scales and find him lacking - or not - is, for me, quite unimportant when the questions of politics or aesthetics come up. If we want to discuss how the film works, we should recognize its register for what it is. If we want to bring up the material question of politics (and we should), the question is not, “Is Malick Good/Bad?” but “What roles are played by the insertion of this somewhat older, more 'serious,' perhaps more complex model of art & aesthetics into a multiplex today? What results, if any at all, can come of it? Or will it function mainly as just another art movie?” (Probably.)

Brian H. said...

Zach, I eagerly await seeing your name someday on the spine of a brilliant book!

Jean, what I meant was that I don't see the recognition of a film text as product as "another punitive structure," in the sense that setting up the author as a straw (wo)man for the sake of moralizing ideological critique is a punitive structure. This is the distinction to me--it lies in the act of criticism. I do not believe that a work of art can be considered apart from its circulation as timeless aesthetic object; I mean to contrast criticism that views it as such versus criticism that accounts for, as Zach brings up, its material/embodied existence in history.

As to the statement on which you wish me to expand: I say that we cannot separate out the idea of art from the reality of art's circulation as commodity, but this is not as strict as it might sound. Commodities have varying social functions, varying use-values, varying revolutionary potentiality. Consider that Benjamin looked to the world of commodities for the revolutionary spark that would "awaken" the proletariat. This analogy is not perfect, as Benjamin's commodities were not made to fuel social revolution whereas Nostalgia for the Light (which may not be a commercial film but was something I paid to see in Cleveland despite its Chilean/European origins and thus must be considered in the framework of the global economy) has political intent behind it. But my point is that to call The Tree of Life or any other complex or even explicitly political film a "product" does not reduce it to the low level of social utility that a film like Zookeeper has.

Lastly, Zach--a small point. What sets apart The Tree of Life apart from "just another art movie" is the sheer number of people seeing it who haven't built up the art-movie viewing habits enough to enjoy it. To compare two consecutive Palme d'or winners, Uncle Boonmee and The Tree of Life are more or less categorized together by audiences today--as "art cinema," though one is foreign and one domestic--but Uncle Boonmee isn't confronting too many viewers outside the art cinema-going populace here (I would think) whereas TToL (probably thanks to Pitt and Penn) is. I wonder how often this happens, where a film as anti-multiplex as TToL sneaks into multiplexes and theaters have to put up signs saying "This is a very philosophical film. No refunds will be given." (That happened, though I paraphrased.)

JeanRZEJ said...

'But my point is that to call The Tree of Life or any other complex or even explicitly political film a "product" does not reduce it to the low level of social utility that a film like Zookeeper has.'

It just seems an odd word to use to me in this context since the word refers to its manufacture rather than experience, and thus has a closer implicit relationship to a marxist/capitalist ideological frame of reference than an impressionistic, experiential frame of reference. The latter is not ideological but aesthetic, whereas the term is anything but aesthetic. I still don't understand why either of you are using such a term for an aesthetic context - does it even matter that it is 'a product' to the discussion? All films are, in this context, products, so it really doesn't distinguish them, and since their existence as a product isn't relevant to the aesthetic experience I can't see how such a term could be anything other than a reference to an ideological frame of reference. Now, when Zach says that 'we should approach this question politically' - twice - and that is a point I have never agreed with or understood the argument for. I see it often in blockbuster circles, of how the profits will drive the kinds of movies that get made in the near future, and that seems to be the same line of reasoning you're taking, but I don't watch many films in the multiplex, so it doesn't really matter to me. In fact, I tend to prefer watching films that were banned in their home countries and never shown, films whose status as products existed longer in rumor than in proven fact, and not with reference to this but merely because those things that push the boundaries past the breaking point tend to be interesting for the very reasons that a discussion of potential ripoffs of The Tree of Life doing well in the multiplex is not (originality, singularity, opacity - the things that a Ruizian conversation is made of).

Zach Campbell said...

Thanks for the kind words, Brian - and I agree with you on that final point.

Jean - I think questions of manufacture can and often do influence experience, and more importantly, if we're interested in talking about the role that Tree of Life might actually play in terms of politics, in terms of culture industry (which is not the only thing to talk about, but it's not taboo either), then that is why I think it's not only useful but crucial to discuss its manufacture. And the reason I bring up the question of its sociopolitical significance is largely in response to those critics who suggest, usually through innuendo, that the film is somehow badly and baldly "universalist" (which means, in this context, patriarchal, milquetoast, etc.). That's why I keep mentioning it.

Anonymous said...

Regarding the "universalism" of Malick: Isn't the whole philosophical point of Job that to universalize a theodicy from experience is folly - in the story, you have a bunch of guys doing irreconcilable literary criticism from different schools on God's actions and smashing up against the intentional fallacy every time. I'd suggest, with Zach, that a film that starts off with that particular quote is doing some sort of critique of universalism rather than engaging in it.

JeanRZEJ said...

'I think questions of manufacture can and often do influence experience, and more importantly, if we're interested in talking about the role that Tree of Life might actually play in terms of politics, in terms of culture industry (which is not the only thing to talk about, but it's not taboo either), then that is why I think it's not only useful but crucial to discuss its manufacture.'

Ahh, well, it has always been my goal to never worry about art's relationship to politics, so this is probably why I am so averse to using such terms. From a sociological standpoint it is intriguing but brings mostly despair at the senselessness and fear of the influence of the masses. Thus, for me anyway, culture industry is the greatest taboo!

Anonymous said...


Forget politics... Can't you see that the TRANSMISSION, and success over generations of cultural material depends on factors completely unrelated to the Text? It's never just you having some platonic experience with some mathematical object. Culture is made of stuff, some stuff travels well and has depth and resonance, some never goes anywhere and vanishes over time. If, for example, The Tree of Life had had Woody Allen playing Mr. O'Brien, I think that we can safely say that we would be dealing with a completely different object, no? How the word becomes flesh, that is, the study of mediations, is a crucial part of any sort of non-naive engagement with culture. Otherwise you are in the uncomfortable position of saying that culture is a sort of magical activity where magic objects come down from geniuses/mediums/witches like Malick or Goethe and we can only dance around them in sublime adoration.

JeanRZEJ said...

There's quite a difference between acknowledging these facts and finding them personally interesting. In fact, I find them to be quite impersonal and distancing. I have any interest in which aspects of my friends' personalities travels well to others or how their legacy will live on after they die, I care about friendship, that direct relationship between myself and those I care about. The same is true of art. These other subjects mentioned are merely sociological, and I find the sociological aspects of both of these subjects to be quite banal and quite distanced from questions of human happiness. You imply that this relationship I am speaking of with art is 'mathematical', but, then, of course, this is pretentious, by definition, since you are speaking on the pretense of knowing how I feel. As it stands - you have described only the way I relate to that which I have professed a deep disinterest. This is not to say that I have no interest in sociology or politics, but these seem to me quite trivial questions. Your 'study of mediations' is to me a study of conjecture, which is not at all a study of actual art. Let me just address your final point to point out how absolutely ridiculous it is to ascribe such a position to me, and if the rest doesn't follow to you then both a.) I probably haven't made a full statement of the foundation of my beliefs (and don't feel like it is necessary) and b.) you certainly won't do much but display a great arrogance at attempting to fill in these gaps in your understanding with such nonsensical conjecture.

'Otherwise you are in the uncomfortable position of saying that culture is a sort of magical activity where magic objects come down from geniuses/mediums/witches like Malick or Goethe and we can only dance around them in sublime adoration.'

I am aware that people made this film, and that this film could have been otherwise (in fact every film could have been every other film, and every other possible film), and what I can know of these circumstances is so far removed from the film and so minimal, ineffectually comprised, and, in my opinion, irrelevant that I fail to see the supposed great loss. The issue is not one of ignorance but of interest, and your silly straw man displays evidence of a preponderance of the former and an utter lack of the latter, otherwise you may have actually displayed some knowledge and inquisitiveness. Apparently neither of these interested you, so all you have is ignorance.

Anonymous said...


Ok. Cool, I just wanted to see if we were living on the same world, aka Jean's solipsistic pleasure machine. We are.

JeanRZEJ said...

You came to provoke a response, provoked a response, and succeeded? Congratulations. I hope you found it fulfilling.

Will S said...

Most of the sophisticated approaches to criticizing Tree of Life (sophisticated here meaning analysis beyond 'dull' or 'pretentious') have seemed especially tendentious or oddly desperate somehow. I'm genuinely fascinated by the Peter Tonguette / Dave Kehr tack, largely because the underlying logic is so bewildering and foreign to my own perspective. It strikes me as so self-apparently, anachronistically reactionary that I have to wonder if I'm missing some crucial component to the argument, given the respect I have for its proponents. Unfortunately re-readings haven't yielded much..

The brand of cinephile with this type of essentialist commitment to specific (usually CHC) formal paradigms, a given set of continuity editing norms, etc. reminds me of the musicians and record collectors I've met that fetishize analogue technology or listen exclusively to genres like 60s garage rock and its off-shoots. Seems sad and unnecessarily parochial.

Will S said...

Meanwhile, the Stuart Klawans / Jonathan Rosenbaum 'universalized Americana' program reads like a culture studies parody. I follow and admire both critics, but this line of reasoning is totally unconvincing, like a rote exercise in implementing conservative America's caricatured notions of Political Correctness. It seems lazy, like a "way out" of unpacking or engaging with the film's challenging aspects.

David Auerbach said...

Thanks for posting that excerpt from that Jancso essay; I think he's a genius who needs far more attention.

The point about universalization in Jancso's films is intriguing. It clearly comes from a Hegelian standpoint (duh), but Jancso is very much like Godard in resisting the urge to particularize through *literary* means; at least from Red Psalm onward, all the human particularities come from the fact that it's human beings on the screen and not words on a page. Sometimes this leads Jancso into disaster: Hungarian Rhapsody does not work at all. But on the other hand, something like God Walks Backwards is extremely unsettling precisely because the actions of the people on screen are *not* wholly concrete. I think Levi's critique applies best to Red Psalm, which is an absolute masterpiece, and *perhaps* to Electra My Love, but I think it's putting Jancso into a box to extend it to his other films.

On the other hand, I find Malick unbearably pompous, from Badlands to Tree of Life; as with Cassavetes, my problem is not with what he's doing but with my sense that he's not all that good at it. I watch the Color of Pomegranates, and then I cringe at a Malick film. So I think I'm in agreement with your basic point but just happen to have a different taste. The contemporary director working in this vein who does the most for me is probably Tsai Ming-Liang, who is very strange indeed. Possibly Breillat as well. Maybe Claire Denis, though I am very hot and cold on her work.

Zach said...

David, sorry I'm responding to this comment so late - I just saw it. I find it easy enough to understand departures of taste, regarding Malick, which at least respect what the films in question are doing or attempting to do. My experience with The New World gave me some insight into what I suspect might be your point of view here, so I can understand the frustration. Or deflation. Still, I can't shake this sense Malick is usually on to something.

As for Denis and Tsai - these are two filmmakers I love, both of whom made films in the middle of the past decade that made me wonder if they'd given up the ghost, only to happily reunite with them (e.g., The Wayward Cloud is great I think, and 35 Shots of Rum is up there with Denis' best). But L'Intrus and Goodbye Dragon Inn are disappointing in execution if not on paper - to me anyway.

And duly noted on Jancso. Hopefully I can devote a little more attention to him and write it up on EL. I like his work but have seen very little of it. (Even more drastically than is the case with Raul Ruiz, he seems like a great filmmaker whose body of work is limited to a tiny, tiny fraction for most of us.)

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