In the December 2012 issue of the online film journal The Cine-Files, I published an essay closely analyzing three of Jessica Chastain's film performances (in The Tree of Life, Take Shelter, and The Debt). Through a close look at her acting style, I argued she achieved something like a vision of the world. "Vision" is probably too lofty a word to ascribe to an actor's style, but in my essay, I tried to connect it to meaningful acts of vision in the performances themselves: for example, I claimed that the "glances away" this actor used in her performance as the mother in The Tree of Life suggested the character's resistance to her husband's authority. I wrote that her glances "quietly suggest a sensitive alternative or counterpoint to more forceful characters and can serve as an indication that things in this world might be otherwise." I argued that these glances (in contrast to the more powerful gazes in Take Shelter analyzed later in the essay) had not yet become part of any narrative or social discourse, and instead achieved a subtle poetic inflection that was suitable to Malick's larger vision.
In the most recent issue of the journal, Warwick Mules, in a reading of mise-en-scene in The Tree of Life, has thoughtfully responded to my essay's section on the Malick film with an engaging and philosophically sophisticated exploration of the film as a whole. His essay is interested not in the vision of any single actor but the "ontological vision" of the film. Mules has extended my argument, asserting that the mother's glances in fact are a part of the film's "more comprehensive vision," which results in a "revelatory appearance of 'otherness' repeatedly shown throughout the film." He pays due attention to my idea that Mrs. O'Brien's glances suggest another way of being; but he finds that this is not merely the property of her subjectivity, but something that belongs to what one might call the larger philosophical sensitivity of the film. As Mules writes of "the possibilities" of living otherwise toward which this character's actions gesture:
These possibilities are resistive in the sense that they lead otherwise than the way of being enacted; that is, the mother's resistive glances are a consequence of having to 'live out' a way of being defined by male authority in the nuclear family as the only way of being for humans at that time. The film as a whole enacts this will over others as the affirmation of human being in its present stage of evolution; the stage defined by social-industrialized capitalism and the nuclear family in mid-twentieth century America. The mother's resistive gestures are thus part of this will to power, and not separate from it.
I find Mules's essay very valuable for his rigorous exploration of how Malick's film style opens up "possible worlds" that go beyond the subjective vision of any single character in his films. As an analysis of the film as a whole, Mules's is an approach I am sympathetic towards (as his generous quoting of my earlier book on Malick perhaps attests).
Obviously, these are two different essays, with different aims: Mules is concerned with the vision of the film as a whole, and I am interested in the unfolding of a single actor's career (of which The Tree of Life is only a part). However, the contrasts between our two approaches highlight a fascinating and possibly productive tension between the terms actor and figure. My essay was working in a tradition of performance analysis carved out by scholars such as Andrew Klevan, Charles Affron, and James Naremore; Mules, by contrast, follows the tradition of figural analysis as mapped by Nicole Brenez, William Routt, Adrian Martin, and others. The words actor and figure are related, of course, but they seem to perform different critical work in different critical contexts. In most conversations about "figures" in North America, figures are the product of directorial work. According to Bordwell and Thompson's Film Art, for example: "In such ways, the director controls a major component of mise-en-scene: the figures we see onscreen ... Mise en scene allows all these entities to express feelings and thoughts; it can also dynamize them to create kinetic patterns" (131). Bordwell and Thompson do offer many thoughtful pages on acting techniques, but these are all contextualized within their chapter on mise-en-scene, and the idea that acting is ultimately something controlled and contextualized by the unfolding patterns of the film is present throughout. Intriguingly, a similar notion of actor-as-figure is also at play in one of the major challenges to Bordwell/Thompson's way of seeing mise-en-scene, Christian Keathley's Cinephilia and History, or the Wind in the Trees. The word "figure" (used in this sense) appears only once in Keathley's book (in reference to actors), in a Jacques Rivette quote that refers to actress Jean Simmons in the context of Otto Preminger's mise-en-scene (96). This is apropos, for Keathley's book considers mise-en-scene, following Rivette and the other Cahiers directors, to be not only what is put in front of the camera (the Film Art definition) but also a director's "way of looking." Despite the distinct difference between the approaches, the actor is still quite close to Bordwell/Thompson's sense of figure in this conception, in that the director and the unfolding film still hold agency over our sense of what a figure is. Keathley writes, for example, that "mise-en-scene was both a way of looking and a way of disposing people and objects" (102). (The verb choice disposing and passive placement of "people" as object rather than acting subject of this sentence is telling.)
The word "figure," in a larger philosophical sense, also brings up ideas of fulfillment and meaning that are not necessarily present in the word "actor." Mules's essay perceptively shows how the ontological vision of The Tree of Life seems to gesture toward a future, in which "another way of being" (not yet possible within the diegetic world of the 1950s that Malick's film is mostly set in) is always yet ahead. Thus, while I wanted to attribute this desire for "another way of being" to a character, as conveyed by one actor, Mules finds that this gesture toward a possible future belongs to the film. In this context, Chastain's/Mrs. O'Brien's glances are qualified as a "feminine vision" that for Mules is a not yet -- not yet able to be articulated in the narrative-driven mise-en-scene of the film, it finds itself in an "otherness" that ultimately will only be fulfilled as part of the film's unfolding figuration. Such a notion reminds me of William Routt's brilliant two-part essay-review "For Criticism" (which Mules cites) for Screening the Past (from March 2000) on Nicole Brenez's figural work. Routt, dialoguing with Brenez, places the word "figure" in a larger historical context, one in which the figure - in texts ranging from the Bible to Dante's Inferno to a 1930s Hollywood movie starring Wallace Beery - always seems to gesture toward a perpetually still-to-come interpretive fulfillment that goes beyond well beyond the figure's singular presence. This is an idea that is dazzlingly extended in Adrian Martin's recent Last Day Every Day (available for free online) which understands the word figure (via Brenez) as "a notion of drawing or tracing, as in figural or plastic art, a creative shaping rather than a simple mechanical reproduction; an idea of the body, but not only of the human body, because there are unhuman figures, object-figures, abstract figures, many kinds of figures; and there is a figuring out, a continual essaying or experimentation" (6-7).
That is not the sort of discourse that is going to work in Film Art or any other introductory textbook. But also, I contend, not the sort of discourse you would want to use to think about actors: although Robert Stack and Dorothy Malone appear on the cover of Martin's brilliant book, scholars of their careers will probably not find this sort of figural analysis immediately useful. Indeed, I am not sure it always works for me. When I'm thinking about Robert Stack and Dorothy Malone, when I'm living in the moment of experiencing the acted reality they create in a film, I don't want to - I can't - think about things such as how (to take a not entirely random Martin quote from Last Day) "Archaeology draws the subject backward - to origins, to drives, to primal myths - while teleology draws that subject forward" (2). I want to think about Robert Stack and Dorothy Malone.
Admittedly, it's impossible to think of Stack and Malone now without some archaeological sense; they are now figures of the past. Nevertheless, the word "actor" seems to perform different work than "figure," and work that cannot be entirely subsumed under the latter. "Actor" keeps its eye on the various collaborative subjectivities whose creative energies generated the pro-filmic events (the acting in front of the camera) which enable figures to be, and which enable the film's larger comprehensive vision (even if that vision troubles the very notion of subjectivity itself, as The Tree of Life does). While a broader figural analysis can show us the comprehensive vision that transcends a single subjectivity, an analysis of film acting has to pin down character -- at least temporarily -- in order to study the actor's purposeful movement in a scene. When we are engaged with films that urge us to imagine something more comprehensive than individual subjectivity -- or even with films that urge us to imagine something other than individual subjectivity -- how do we remain appreciative of the creative subjectivities (i.e., actors) without whom such cinematic philosophizing (or figural analysis) could not exist? As deeply appreciative as I am of the deep philosophical vision The Tree of Life offers to us, I find that I cannot easily extricate the specific achievements of Malick's actors from the poetic visions his films achieve. I agree with Mules -- the actor is part of something greater than her single performance, and what ensues when the actor's work is done is a figure that lives on. I would argue, however, that the film, and the figure, is also greater by virtue of this actor's performance. For me, this actor is a chief agent in the film's creation, without whom the film would not be able to create its comprehensive vision as it is - it would cease to be as it is. Would I respond to the film in the same way if, say, Rooney Mara or Jennifer Lawrence were Mrs. O'Brien? I wouldn't; not because they are not also fine actors, but because an actor is not an interchangeable piece of mise-en-scene, and is not only a figure, or is not a figure first. Indeed, an actor is, I would contend, not mise-en-scene, and is not really a figure, but rather creates and engages with mise-en-scene and introduces the possibility of figuration in that space.
Of course, because Malick's cinema is itself very much about locating subjectivity in something bigger than ourselves, figural analysis seems very productive indeed. Watching a Malick film is in part about discovering and carving out a poetic subjectivity while you watch the film, and being open to your own creative evolution beyond the film, in every moment. Yet since much figural analysis (as well as much cinephilic discourse in general) ends up being quite auteurist/ontological in nature, I wonder if we can't also find a place for a cinephilia of the actor that might do different, but importantly related, work. After all, I find that watching performances involves something very much like what some critics claim is the work of figures: opening your subjectivity to moment-by-moment flow to the flow of the actor's gestures, expressions, and movements (as Andrew Klevan's brilliant writing on acting, for example, has shown). No character precedes these gestures; character, and the comprehensive vision of a character, is the result of this accumulation, not its cause. And this is not simply figuration: Biography, persona, and intention inflect our sense of what these on-screen achievements mean. Likewise, I find that when a viewer really does surrender the moment of viewing to the actor, we are as equally open to the creative evolution of our own subjectivity as we are when we look at an auteur's more comprehensive work of art. Murray Pomerance writes insightfully of in regards to Janet Leigh's work in a film by classical cinema's supreme auteur, Alfred Hitchcock: "Leigh's work is one of the elements of Psycho that raises it beyond the macabre thriller and makes us feel touched. How is the special mode of relationship established that permits intimacy without commitment, revelation without implication? What surrender of the viewer's self is implicit in every acceptance of acted reality?" (128). Pomerance has to figure out why and how Leigh affects him before he can jump to larger issues (if they are really "larger" after all). Malick's actors might participate in the The Tree of Life becoming a larger-scale cinematic rumination on philosophy, theology, or the cosmos. But an actor is also what makes it more than this. An actor is part of what makes it human; she makes the philosophy matter, not the other way around.
This is why I find it difficult to extricate an actor's ever-evolving, never-static creative subjectivity, and its evolution, from this discussion, no matter how much subjectivity as a concept is itself troubled by the work The Tree of Life (and figural analysis) perform. Of course, as I've already suggested, and as the implicit dialogue between Mules's essay and my own shows, terms like "actor," "figure," and even "character" do different work, and provoke different kinds of thinking about the various meanings that attach to these terms.
For further reading on the tensions between the terms actor and figure, I encourage a reading of Adrian Martin's 2008 review of Andrew Klevan's book on film performance, and Klevan's subsequent response.