Friday, December 30, 2011

On Obsession: Hedgehogs, Foxes, Terrence Malick, and our need for Reinvention

Isaiah Berlin, an eminent literary scholar and historian, wrote a famous essay entitled the Hedgehog and the Fox. In it, he elaborates Tolstoy’s view of history, and its place in Tolstoy’s works. Though a brilliant essay, the works received its fame from his opening page, which is a gift to the world of writing (It is a long quote, but well worth the read):
There is a line among the fragments of the Greek poet Archilochus which says:' The fox knows many things, but the hedgehog knows one big thing.’ Scholars have differed about the correct interpretation of these dark words, which may mean no more than that the fox, for all his cunning, is defeated by the hedgehog's one defense. But, taken figuratively, the words can be made to yield a sense in which they mark one of the deepest differences which divide writers and thinkers, and, it may be, human beings in general. For there exists a great chasm between those, on one side, who relate everything to a single central vision, one system less or more coherent or articulate, in terms of which they understand, think and feel--a single, universal, organizing principle in terms of which alone all that they are and say has significance--and, on the other side, those who pursue many ends, often unrelated and even contradictory, connected, if at all, only in some de facto way, for some psychological or physiological cause, related by no moral or aesthetic principle; these last lead lives, perform acts, and entertain ideas that are centrifugal rather than centripetal, their thought is scattered or diffused, moving on many levels, seizing upon the essence of a vast variety of experiences and objects for what they are in themselves, without, consciously or unconsciously, seeking to fit them into, or exclude them from, any one unchanging, all-embracing, sometimes self-contradictory and incomplete, at times fanatical, unitary inner vision.
We can all think of many statements which divide people into two large, simplistic groups. I don’t remember where I heard it, but someone insightfully stated that there are only two types of people in the world, those that break the complexity of the human experience down into two meager categories, and those that don’t. Point taken, but in defense of Berlin, not only does his divide make room for nuance and subtlety, but it serves as helpful analytical tool, a way to categorize information. (As Nietzsche, a hedgehog, loves to explain, all language inherently limits ideas and personality. Language is a cage we accept in order to communicate, but a cage nonetheless.)
I often think of this divide when engorging myself on a new artist or thinker. Are they Hedgehogs or Foxes? Kanye West – Hedgehog in content, but not in style? David Foster Wallace – perhaps somewhere in between? Terrence Malick – well, let’s find out. After finishing all of Malick’s movies, now seeing some of them numerous times, I tend to think of him as a Hedgehog, but I can’t say this with certainty.  
The thing about watching Malick straight is that it begins to feel like watching too much Seinfeld, Arrested Development, or the Office. Watch one show, and you think to yourself, genius, watch three in a row, and you think, ok, they basically followed a code, a pattern, almost an algorithm and applied it to a different subject, for Malick: to violence, criminals, love, war, death, creation, and God, but all throughout he follows the same techniques, uses the same methods to reveal and question similar truths. I don’t know how to gauge if this realization takes away from my esteem of these artists i.e. Larry David, Mitchell Hurwitz and Terrence Malick. Does the discovery of a distinct pattern albeit one tinkered and toyed with, molded for the specific content, but essentially the same, degrade the experience or our estimation of these people as artists? How do we gauge this question? Here, Berlin’s analysis provides a helpful conceptual tool.
Malick, though he tackles many different topics, approaches each topic with the same lenses, the same techniques. We can choose from many examples of the repetitive techniques, but characterization, imagery, narration, and ultimate themes, comes easily to mind.
His characters, in a style contrary to the expected style of characterization, receive little to no background or context. Their motivations remain shrouded in the mist of their own minds. In a sense, this ambiguity is almost biblical in effect, except, here, the characters turn into the emotions, experience, and ideas they represent, purposefully. They retain their humanity, but also retain their slipperiness, because the details of their personality points towards the universality of their desires, delusions, their motivations and malice. Like Dostoyevsky’s characters, though they remain deeply human, they also become defined by their existential struggles.
Malick’s imagery, often relying on natural light, always tends to capture both the majestic and the mundane. It slows down life in the way poetry slows down language so as to tell us appreciate the beauty of one word, or a single drop of rain hanging off the tip of a leaf. The narrative style, now famous, and used in varying degrees of success by imitators or fans, uses a voiceover, whether one person or numerous people, and steadily moved towards a narration that is less a commentary on the actual plot, and more the internal musings of lost souls. As for the themes, Malick turns everything into a question of cosmic proportions. His movies, no matter how grounded in the earthly always reach, almost desperately, for the transcendent.
In this sense, Malick seems like a Hedgehog, and even though Berlin does not use this distinction as a way to gauge an artist’s worth, it seems that in our culture, we value foxes over hedgehogs. We like, the Modernists, follow Ezra Pound’s statement of make it new.  We tend to like artists that transform their methods and goals as they mature. We believe that true artistry entails the ability to reinvent ones self, to grow past the limits of your initial visions; to master different genres, different styles, different stories. These, I thought, are the true signs of a master. Why tell the same story over again and again? Why wrote the same song over and over again?
Even if true artistry need not reinvent itself at each stage, I thought, there is something to be said for subtlety. Perhaps, all artists use codes and patterns, unconsciously or not, but maybe the highest artists don’t use patterns that sticks out too brightly. The viewer can easily say, ever see the Seinfeld where all of the zany plots fit together at the end in a clever bow, or every Arrested starts out with Michael attempting to better the position of his family only to turn spoil due to his naivete and the narcissism of his family? So to here, with Malick, ever see the Terrence Malick movie in which he uses images as words in a tone poem? Where a pastiche of images evokes an endless stream of associations till the point that the beauty, the depth of the emotion overwhelms the viewer leaving a wordless kiss on his heart.
   Certainly some great writers did not change their technique or accentuate different strengths in different novels. Many important artists did, but they need not set the only standard. It appears fair to say that Dostoevsky did not veer far from his style, even with his shorter works. Shakespeare, conquered and mastered the range of styles, as did Henry James, or think of Picasso’s different periods, or more contemporary the different styles of Radiohead, but many of Berlin's Hedgehogs are some of greatest artist and thinkers of all time.  
In terms of Malick, it grows clear that he doesn't change his style; he just perfects it. You can sense the subtle, but important shifts from movie to movie. Even if Malick doesn't change his game every time, and I cannot think of a director who does that besides Scorsese (maybe), he grows with each movie, more talented, more pure in his vision, more consistent. The Tree of Life stands out as Malick’s best, at least in the sense of the purest manifestation of his unique talents, not because of the updated technology, but because of the balances between parts. Malick, finally, brings together content to match the beauty and elusiveness of his cosmic imagery and poetry. In that sense, I cannot knock Malick for perfecting a style of movies, even though he hews close to what he knows.
More to say soon. Thanks for reading,

Thursday, December 29, 2011

On Obession: The Big Lebowski, Steve Jobs, and the lies of Self-Awareness

In the last post, I grazed the idea of a need for projects, or what I like to call immersive obsessional experiences. I believe this experience, at one point, touches upon all of us, but we rarely flesh out the complete implications of this idea. Our society has created categories for the two extremes on this spectrum: the workaholic and the bum.

We tend to assume that both of these archetypes contain both negatives and positives. Yes, even the “bum” life contains much merit. Think of the appeal of the Big Lebowski, especially the appeal of the Dude, or el Dudereeno, if you’re not into the whole brevity thing. The dude clearly doesn't work, his last gig coming as a roadie for Metallica or something stupid like that. He smokes a lot weed, listens to whale sounds while vegging out on the floor, drinks a lot of white Russians, possesses mostly sub-par detective skills, and bowls more in a month than most people bowl in a lifetime. He is not a genius of any sort, though clearly not stupid, he’s sharp, witty, and overall just relaxed about life(It’s not clear that he changes his clothing much, and for the most of the movie he appears to wear the same jellies that we wore, with embarrassment as children.) He displays good taste in music, hating the Eagles, while enjoying CCR. He makes out a check worth 69 cents to Ralph’s and faces a bunch of thugs with the aplomb of a seasoned spy. (“Obviously, you’re not a golfer.”) Though I imagine most of us couldn’t actually live that life, we respect it, cherish it, protect the movie with ferocity of a family member because the Dude represents something so heroic, so different. He represents a style of life we all, it seems, on some level wish we could achieve. A peace towards life, a contentment with ridiculous friends, with attending absurd plays put on by our landlords, and the simple joys of relaxing baths. The dude is everything our society secretly wants to be, mainly relaxed, open to adventures, and not neurotic and obsessive about work, achievement, and status anxiety. Though, imagine the epitaph on his tombstone: "Herein Lies Jeffrey Lebowski - Cool Dude."

Yet, on the opposite end of the spectrum we lionize those who give their life to their craft, to their field. Steve Jobs understood his shortcomings as a parent, but we, in this individualistic, achievement oriented society focus on his output, his contribution, his genius more than his inability to act as a responsible father. We forgive so much of our celebrities, intellects, artists, and visionaries because their work redeems their personal shortcomings. (By now it’s a truism that devotion to public life most often comes at the price of private life. We see this in the bible, throughout history and literature, and everyday in the headlines.) Their personalities transcend their actual personas so we end up not caring that, perhaps, our artists are assholes, or bad parents, or terrible people, or racists etc.

In a simplistic nutshell, this is our situation, a situation perhaps unique to our Western world. It constantly raises the question of how to navigate accomplishment with contentment, serious pursuits with relaxed wisps of nothingness. However, these two forces most often clash as oppose to compliment each other. Another truism that deserves mention is that we all, in some way partake of this culture of addiction. Yes, in many ways this exaggerates our situation, but try to think of a day in which you quell the boredom in your life with some sort of external pursuit, whether tv, movies, music, or the internet. It’s a strange realization that we are forever moving, forever thinking a head to what’s next, checking our phone too much, or our computer too much. Which isn’t to say that it’s bad, just incommensurate to our actual needs.

Consequently, At the same time that we all “know” the value of vacations we send mixed messages when those who make it in our society are those that can completely give of themselves, and their time. We, as Americans, live in this strange tension between work and play, between making money and knowing how to spend it, between sacrificing most of our life to a job while balancing family, social, and even religious needs. It’s almost a clusterfuck to think about, but it defines so much of our life, it’s hard to get around. Just think about retirement. I don't know when this idea entered history, but I imagine it as revolutionary, as somehow both a pinnacle to reach for, but also, an odd sense of defeat, because “It’s a very American illness, the idea of giving yourself away entirely to the idea of working in order to achieve some sort of brass ring that usually involves people feeling some way about you – I mean, people wonder why we walk around feeling alienated and lonely and stressed out.” (DFW, of course.) Even in retirement, we respect those who don’t truly retire, but change speeds, move their energy to other pursuits.

On a more normalized level, this tension comes out in the careers we choose, in how we allot our time, in the lifestyle we devote ourselves too, in how we choose to spend our vacation; what’s important in our lives: family, personal expression, making money, helping people, or a balance of all of these that include relaxation. We all try to find a balance that works for us, but I don’t know many who can speak of success in this area. Ironically, when we work, we desire vacation, and when we vacate, we desire something to do, whether that something be TV, or to sit and read on a beach. It’s infinitely hard to actually do nothing. Doing nothing is not an American idea or ideal, for the most part, and hence, we get to a situation in which we need projects. TV stands in as a passive project for many people, or drugs can fill this whole, but it seems, perhaps, that hardwired into our personalities is a need for forward movement. This sounds almost preachy, and perhaps even religious, but it doesn't have to. If you ever stop and observe your thoughts, most of the time we think about the the future, i.e. worrying about it, or thinking what we can accomplish, or what’s next, or we think about the past, how great it was, or regrets come up to our consciousness. True existence in the present, ironically, requires a lifetime of work. Either way, we perpetuate this false idea of rest. Give a sane person six months of nothing to do, no obligations, no responsibilities, nothing expected from them, and either they will gravitate towards projects, or gravitate towards insanity, consequently seeking out the rigid structure of a 9-5, or something to devote themselves too.

Many lament this fact. Easterners complain of our discomfort with silence. Psychologists asks us to try, even for ten minutes, to be alone with ourselves, our thoughts. They tell use that this frenetic culture, this need for constant movement is an evasive maneuver to confront the true horrors we harbor within: the terror of confronting our selves, our mortality, our mediocrity. David Foster Wallace explains, “Like most North Americans of his generation, Hal tends to know way less about why he feels certain ways about the objects and pursuits he's devoted to than he does about the objects and pursuits themselves. It's hard to say for sure whether this is even exceptionally bad, this tendency.”

I understand the ambivalence about this point. What do we expect to find when we explore the silence? How far can our culture of therapeutic self-awareness take us before we become obsessed with the whys of our life, and never engage in action? Certain psychologists, eschewing this more thought based life find that we thrive, we work at our highest potential in flow, a term that simply means losing oneself in the activity - a complete lack of self-consciousness. We forget that I am doing this action, and we wholly think about this action. Flow is the opposite of meditation, it is the opposite of mindfulness, it is mindlessness. It is the body, the brain, the mind on creative autopilot. So here we are - silence vs. total noise, flow vs. mindfulness, contentment vs. restlessness. Of course, these binary constructions paint too broad of a static picture, but these tensions exist. Are these questions of how to find a balance, or inherent tensions in life? Does the answer matter?

In a sense, at least at a certain point, I found the examined life less worth living. I envy those who can do without thinking, because ultimately, it’s not clear what the whys in life bestow. To the extent that self-awareness allows for better functioning great, but sometimes, understanding for the sake of understanding provides rationalizations, excuses to not challenge yourself, to not push yourself. We don’t stop to realize that the intellectual life, the life of self-awareness are choices, methods towards happiness just as the frenetic life is a chosen, or not chosen, but intuited path towards happiness, no? So, yes, indeed, we do seem to need projects, and perhaps they serve as a distraction from some truth desperate to be told, but why must that truth enslave the choices we make? Why must a deep conversation about the meaning of life be more important than playing an engrossing video game, or bungee jumping. We all chase something in life, some sort of fullness or contentment. Even the mystics who can embrace the nothingness, the silence, chase something: an effacement of the ego, or a unity. This all feels quite circular and hard to pin down, but maybe we need to accept this fact of life, our restlessness, and instead of trying to calm it down, learn how to control its directionality.
Thanks for reading,

Wednesday, December 28, 2011

On Artistic Obsession: Or finding a new Genius in Terrence Malick

For my staycation, I hoped to find a new obsession, or follow a budding obsession to see where it would guide me. I chafe at saying this out loud, but I need projects. I need something in my life that completely engulfs my desires, anchors me, provides meaning, as that cliched sentence would have it. It’s a slightly unnerving realization that I don’t fully understand vacation. I find the idea of doing nothing hard to actually achieve. Some part of me feels a need to infuse meaning into everything, and the idea of vacation, of not doing anything for relaxation's sake exceeds my grasp. Perhaps this stems from my religious background, or perhaps it rises from something more endemic to the American experience.

For a while, religion provided enough of these facets of life that I overlooked the tension it stirred within me. Then, in my religious devolvement, the snarl of rebellion provided the spark. I learned to grow obsessed with the rift, with the leftovers of my battle, or the traces of past hopes. All the while, without a conscious decision, literature overtook my life. It provided glimpses of something transcendent, perhaps the relationship between author and reader, or the magical properties of language, or the inherent and deep power of creativity, which can serve as a drug just like anything else, it seems. Either way, needing a break from reading, I turned to a new genius in a new medium to fawn over, to analyze, to take apart and find new secrets of the world. For a while, I looked for a new voice to the take the place of the late David Foster Wallace, but I found none. Then I saw Terrence Malick’s The Tree of Life, and immediately, I felt that stirring again. That knowledge that here lies true genius with unparalleled vision.
I never followed through on a director, writer, or really any artist (Besides DFW). I know full catalogues, but I never decided to sit down and move, chronologically, through the full oeuvre of an artist, from their first attempts to their more mature statements. I never personally documented the changes, the consistencies, the themes, the possibility of a body of work speaking to each other. The academic/book nerd/ex-Talmudic student finds the prospect of this project exciting, not simply for the creative inspiration I hope to receive, but because, in some odd way, I feel that such a intellectual choice represents a certain standard of devotion. It provides the forum for a true subjugation to the consistent vision of the artist. You trust the artist, watch every movie, or read every book, even the less successful pieces, the mistakes, and the experiments, simply to create your own larger picture, to the extent that you can. It’s never clear what I expect to find in excursions like this, perhaps some key, some mystery that the artist reveals through repeated patterns, as if art could be unlocked, coaxed or caress to give up its secrets. Life outside academia rarely affords a true attempt at this immersion. In the normal routine of life we find an artist at a random stage in their development, or we feel lucky to find ourselves on their bandwagon early on, but mostly, we receive exposure after their first attempt, which precludes the chance at a cleaner slate, because here, you already no the end, either how it ends, or their most mature attempt to date.
This method, almost academic in manner, both provide opportunities, but also drawbacks. I can map Malick’s development, his tinkering with his vision, with his experimental techniques, the early flaws and obvious successes, the obsessiveness. His movies, because they represent such a consistent manifestation of a personal vision, despite the different plots, signify a whole, a unity. The early movies prefigure the later ones, and the later one comment on the earlier films. He rewards a study of intertextuality. None of this, necessarily, takes away from the genius of each individual film, or even further, each individual frame and image. This method though, as academia often does, demystifies much of the experience. Malick, depends much on the mystifying effects of images, and here, analysis corrodes the experiential factor of his films. I begin to see patterns, to see holes, to see techniques repeated. Once you take a part a watch, you divest it of its magical properties. I know analytics need not divest something of its magic, but once you know the mechanics of ice, you can never utter the words of Garcia Marquez’s Aureliano Beundia as he discovered ice. Analysis provides a new beauty, but often stomps on childlike wonder to attain this more mature experience. 
  I just finished the last of the five movies Malick wrote and directed, and have much to say, but in this post, I just wanted to focus upon what this represents to me. The idea of an artist, a consummate artist, holds unique power in our culture. Think of Kanye West. Part of his attraction is that despite his antics, he is a true and obsessive artist who cares about every little detail of his craft. For some reason, we view this religious devotion to art as praiseworthy, almost heroic in the amount of attention we heap upon these people. We live as a culture that worships genius (see the recent death of St. Steve Jobs and the current argument if he was actually a genius...) I don't fully know what this says about us as a generation, but I imagine the point deserves consideration.
    Charles Taylor, a prominent religious historian, traces this need back to the decline of religious influence on civilization. We needed new guides, new saints, new inspirations, and we found it in our artists and intellects. Moreover, as philosophy shifted from the external world, a world of metaphysics destroyed by the currents of rational thought, our artists turned inwards towards personal experience. This amalgam has created a bias towards the artists who stay true to their personal vision, who plumb the depths of their souls, regardless where it takes them. (See Lars Von Triers self-indulgent new Movie Melancholia in which he equates his personal depression with the end of the world.) I digress. Hopefully, in the next posts, I can flesh out some of these points as well as begin to talk about Malick's movies in a substantive way. 
Thanks for reading, 

Thursday, December 15, 2011

Movie Review: The Descendants - A Subtle Exploration of the Beauty of Grief

The Descendants, like the sweet breeze caressing the beautiful lush landscapes of Hawaii, lightly touches you, swaying your heart to an odd sense of calm about life, of finding a way to live in the eye of the storm, without a denial of the storm. I realize the oddity of saying this about a movie that deals mainly with death and infidelity, but the movie works off a strange truth of life, that often, despite the circumstances, you find peace at the height of expected pain. Somehow, when everything crumbles, when the ground beneath melts, a sense of purpose, or contentment, infuses your life. It’s strange and counter-intuitive, to a certain extent. We’ve come to expect something very different from tragedy, especially in our art. We expect something on the scale of Melancholia where our personal pain translates into the literal end of the world. Interestingly, though I would never categorize Melacholia and The Descendants together, they both partake of a recent obsession in certain movies.
I can’t particularly explain the recent obsession with the divergence between the world of nature and the world of humanity, but many movies explore the complex relationship between beauty, specifically natural beauty, and the idea of tragedy, or evil. (Perhaps this new need to investigate such an old question stems from the advent and access to new technology that allows filmmakers to capture and play with beauty in countless different ways...) Think of The Tree of Life, Melancholia, and now the Descendants. They all ask similar vexing, almost unanswerable questions: How can we find beauty in a world of death? Does natural beauty hold any answers to the existential questions of life? What does it mean to live in a world of beauty with so much pain. Melancholia enlightens us to the beauty of catastrophe while asking, what does it mean when we can find transcendent beauty in the apocalypse? Tree of Life, from a more religious viewpoint, asks the perennial question of God’s role in Nature, while the Descendants, a drastically different type of movie, raises the more subtle question of what can the calm and beauty of nature teach us as to how to cope with life.
Payne, the director and screenwriter, attempts to throw us off the scent of this question in the opening voice over narrative. Clooney, Matt King, a rich lawyer, who uses his money sparingly, tells us that he finds it ridiculous that his friends believe he lives in the paradise of hawaii when in truth, he lives, now, in the paradise of IVs, hospital beds, and the spectre of death. Yet, despite this assertion, Payne suffuses the movie with “gratuitous” shots of Hawaii’s landscape, green mountains, paradisaical beaches, and an idyllic blue ocean. He can’t help himself, it seems. Despite the impending death, Payne spends so much time introducing us, and allowing the viewers to get lost in the scenery, which takes on the tone of another character in the movie. Despite his assertion otherwise, King/Clooney, does live in paradise. For a quick vacation, they hop over to another one of Hawaii’s island, spend most of their times on beaches, without their shoes, that we can’t help but feel that somehow, nature affects the people of Hawaii in a certain manner.
The story itself, based off a book by Kaui Hart Hemmings, follows a simple linear narrative. For the most part, I assume, we know the route and outcome of the story. The movie relies not on suspense, but on the characters internal growth and performances. Matt King, played by a perfect Clooney (I cant remember the last movie that uses a face to express so much of an inner turmoil. Clooney’s face, the face of an aging once sexiest man alive, finds new nuances in his wrinkles, his frowns, his small smiles and even in a small wince), finds his life torn asunder when his wife, due to a water-skiing accident, falls into a coma. Her will demands that she die, and the onus falls upon Clooney to tell all her family and friends about her impending death. All the while, Clooney, heir to a gorgeous tract of Hawaiian Land, must navigate his family and the sale of the land, while learning how to overcome his role as the “back-up parent.” The added twist, that, unexpectedly adds much of the humour, lies in the fact that Clooney’s dying wife has been cheating on him with a realtor who stands to benefit off the sale of the land. (Played, by a shockingly enjoyable Matthew Lillard. Who knew?)
There’s a delightful quasi-insouciance that permeates the whole movie. Each scene contains the potential to devastate, to fall into the maudlin or melodramatic, but Payne, the actors, the writers, really everyone involved, evinces such a rare, and perhaps healthy, understanding of the minuteness of their lives, their issues, and their problems. Somehow, in this movie, it’s the outbursts of pain that strike the viewer as strange, almost comical.
This insight need not preclude a struggle with the issues, but a perspective on them. At many points, you wonder at Clooney’s aplomb even with the anguish etched into his aging skin. Many would describe him as cold, unloving, perhaps, but that’s our bias on how a person should deal with tragedy. One moment he lashes out at a comatose wife, the next he signs a paper, calmly, and then rationally thinks through a business deal.  At first, it’s hard to accept the performance, but somehow, you begin to believe in the possibility of acceptance, even in the face of death. He’s not hiding, he’s just living.
Even the “angry daughter” transcends her stereotype. She stops raging at the same point that Clooney stops wallowing in his own pain: the moment they realize that others need them, that another human being relies on them for emotional health and well-adjustment. The movie, simply doesn't have time to focus on the debilitating pain of life, there’s simply too much to do, too much beauty to experience, too many relationships to repair. (Suffice to say that these are very American sentiments...)
It’s an odd perspective on the grieving process, a calm one, almost stoic except for a few outbursts. But these seem less like repressions or suppression  than choices of attention, awareness and focus. The movie, puts forth the crazy contention that we can overcome our emotions, no matter how compelling, the alternative is. It asserts that we can, when we need to actually be there for other people, we can be there, fully. It’s a movie of a family surviving tragedy, growing together, creating an intimacy that only tragedy creates, but without any sense of bitterness. The story uses few innovative narrative maneuvers and partakes of similarly simple storytelling. It almost follows a pre-existing map of this well worn movie terrain, but it embraces thisy because its power lies not in its innovation, but in its ability to present a certain type of well-adjustment, of health, unabashedly. We often applaud actors and writers who can truly push the line of shocking, but we valorize this type at our our risk. Because. need it be our gauge of true art? Is it less art if instead of shocking, the characters do what we hope happens, what we want to happen, i.e. they overcome? It sounds like a cliche, but maybe that’s what make it so compelling: its sincerity.  
In terms of the acting, of course, Clooney shines, but not too brightly to overshadow the brilliant cast of actors for this movie. Lillard and Greer, both comic actors, give great performances as a weak, but genuine loving couple. King’s children, a bullying, cussing, angry ten year old, gives the best child performance this year since the young Sean Penn in the Tree of life, and the teenager, a stunning young beauty who plays a budding alcoholic, who relishes any chance to wear a bikini, gives the angry performance that we expect from Clooney. Together, they play off each other, forcing the other to mature faster than they could. However, perhaps the best performance, besides Clooney, comes from Clooney/King’s father in the law, the always great, Robert Foster. His anger is distinctly raw in a movie of such control. It’s stunning in its visceral inability to accept the death of his daughter.
The movie moves at a perfect, calm pace, leading up to some of the most subtly moving scenes I’ve seen on screen in a while. The movie lives in Hawaii, in its beauty, its air, its music, and each scene reminds you of the oddity of living in paradise while simultaneously living through hell, but it never feels like a contradiction. And what an ending. The ending is a silent knockout that will stay with you, and oddly turn into your own warm memory, days after.
Thanks for reading,

I’m attaching a contextually strange article, but it’s a watershed piece on the skewed concept of resiliency and grief by a great and readable psychologist, George Bonnano. I think it fits perfectly with the movie. It’s a nice amalgam of art and science. Let me know what you think.

Wednesday, December 14, 2011

David Lipsky on David Foster Wallace: A Slow Descent into Idolatry

Hi fellow DFW fans (obsessives?) I went to the Lipsky event last night. I thought about cleaning up my notes of the event, but as you will see there wasn't much to actually report, sadly. Essentially, Lipsky, in a disconcerting nervous manner, regurgitated many facts he collected for his book(He spent a considerable amount of time just quoting other people, of which he includes in his book,) and actually just read quotes from his book for at least an hour. I left after an hour so I cannot attest to the end of the program, or to the intelligence of the question and answer part, but I can attest to the fact that Lipsky seriously phoned this one in.
For the most part, I didn’t understand the actual need for this event. He wrote the book many months ago, and it was safe to assume that most people read the book, and yet, he still just read from the book, and told anecdotes that he uses in the book, or, if you are any sort of DFW fan you already knew. I could understand that perhaps he wanted to discuss the aftermath of the book, or DFW’s legacy today, but for him to just get up there and not safely assume that we read the book, or that we did, but still go on to just read from it, well it felt a little patronizing. I hope someone else at the event disagrees with me. Lipsky seemed like a nice enough guy, but the event seemed truly pathetic, and wasteful, though the free wine was a nice touch, and because of the Wallace list serve, I bought Parallel Stories, and so far, it has been quite enjoyable. Anyway, instead of a synopsis of the event, which I can’t actually do, I thought it would be fun to give you a slightly edited stream of consciousness of the event. Enjoy, I hope.

Um, ok, not sure where to start one this one. At least there is a great deal of variance, I think, if you count every type of white person as variance. Mostly women, it seems, which is different from other DFW events, but it’s still a fucking hipster fest, which makes me kind of feel like shit. Am I this desperate? Feels like the substantiation of the book Stuff White People Like, and the website Look at these Fucking Hipsters. Cool shoes, where did you get them Urban Outfitters, or a vintage shop in Williamsburg, let me guess are you getting a master or doctorate in something pointless? The ironic point, because we all know DFW loved irony, is that he railed against this over-intellectualization.I KNOW
The place, The Center for Fiction, which is a pretty ballsy name, seems like a white person haven, full of indie books,  a baby grand piano; as if its the last place where slavery is allowed, OK, just kidding, but not really, you know…busts of famous authors, wearing Christmas hats, how fucking quaint. A first generation air conditioning, lights hanging from the ceiling that ooze elegance. OK, maybe too much self-hatred here, perhaps, perhaps.
Also, what makes Lipsky any sort of authority on anything? An opportunistic book? I can't fully imagine the demographics here, a Pale King members group, cool, a bunch of old people that are perhaps Lipsky family or more likely members of the Center for Fiction. So much corduroy. ugh, I think i hate myself, what does this to people. The room feels like a mirror to what I must look like to other people. I basically can see what I will look like and be doing at every stage of my life. Old with circular glasses, chintzy sweaters, wiry hair. Oh man, I can feel the loneliness in the group. stop, it hurts, please, stop. Somehow, I've never seen more red heads in a room. It's odd. I don't really know what Lipsky looks like, so he could pretty much be anyone in this room, I think.
There's a strange assumption about a roomful of DFW obsessives. You assume some sort of kinship, not only because you've read pretty much everything, even those pdf of the archives and his first poem (oy vey), but because somehow, you think, that someone who gets DFW will get you, which, well, I can't tell if that's a bad assumption, elitist, desperate, or correct, or a nice mix of everything. I don't know why the ambiance makes me feel uncomfortable. Perhaps it highlights how elitist I truly am: I am that guy, sitting next in front of me, sloppy hair that he think looks cool, hipster clothing that is purposefully disheveled, interested in esoteric movie, nay, film theory. It's funny, this gap between who DFW chooses to write about, and the people who read him. What passes, often, as challenging fiction, sometimes just mimics elitist fiction, fiction that cannot be fully enjoyed without the leisure of substantial time, a deep vocabulary, the skill to sit and read etc etc etc.
Overhead conversations: “this is my grandson, he's on the editorial staff of New York magazine. Shepping some serious nachas.”
“I read like 20 manuscripts today, I described one as a masturbatory exercise of intellectual showoffery,” Sheesh.
The women sitting next to me looks desperately sad, like she clings to books the way someone in the water clings to a life-vest.
I feel comfort from the dude wearing a harley davidson sweatshirt.
Hasty made up statistics of the event:
1. skinny jeans and cool shoes - 87%
2. amalgam comfort with sexuality - negative 27%
3. prescriptions of anti-depressants - 90%
4. logged therapy hours - ugh
5. existential angst - see previous question.
6. iphones- 98%

Lipsky sits down in the front: Handsome in a sort of politician manner. Tall, wearing a well fit suit, blue shirt, and red tie, a young republican in the making.

The introduction is given by some nice guy named Bill who teaches at the center for fiction. He described his class as “plunging deeply into DFW.” too easy, I know. Stop, please. He described teaching Infinite Jest as “stimulating and exciting adventure as their ever was.” Dude needs to get out more.
I think we can agree that no one actually gives a shit about Lipsky, and that it's getting stranger and stranger to hold these vigils. Lipsky feels like a relic, a bone of a saint, a clothe the saint touched.
Bill actually makes the comparison that Lipsky is the equivalent of Boswell to Johnson. Nope. Incorrect. Lipsky knew DFW for six days.

Lipsky now speaks. Tells us how he came to write the book - (forget me if I'm wrong, but you knew him for like six days, at most?) Tells the basic story - why he chose to write this book, (It’s starting to feel more and more that he wrote the book to capitalized on a situation and he didnt actually know DFW at all.)  Quotes Costello, a lot. Quotes more Costello.
He keeps on referring to DFW as “Dave.” He needs to stop doing this. He really likes laughing at his own jokes, oh man. Lipsky is seriously nervous. Sweating, a nervous tic of scratching at the back of his neck, drinking a lot of water. What’s Lipsky actually thinking right now? Maybe he really just doesn't realize that people read his book? because he just says the same thing from his book over and over again. Lipsky can’t emphasize enough how jealous he was of “Dave.” He keeps asking us really patronizing questions - “do you know how book tours work?”  Well, probably not from our own experiences, but we do know how they work because we read your book, that came out a while ago. “Are any of you graduate students?”
Best part of the night: Lipsky’s gf wanted to sexy-time DFW.
Lipsky tries to make it seem that his book was meant to show how electric of a person DFW was, how awake, and alive, despite the fact that in the book, DFW, comes off as seriously neurotic and anxious, obsessed with image. So, at the end of an hour, we end up were we started, still saddened by the loss of a mythic character, obsessively holding on to him anyway we can, looking for answers, for clues both to his death, and to his power, ever more leaning towards some form of worship.
That truly was an hour of our time. Not sure what happened afterwards. But I hope it redeemed the hour that came beforehand. I think we need to stop talking so much about DFW the person and considerably more about his work. Which seems obvious, but apparently not? 

Monday, November 14, 2011

The Persistence of Awe

I wrote this poem while bored in class. Let me know what you think

I often mishear sentences.
I steal these mistakes:
“Give the sun your heat.”
“Step on those leaves of fallen beauties.”
Why must science destroy awe?
Who commanded this?
Who demanded this?
Who makes these decisions?
Shadows surprise me.
Love implodes me.
Small diamond rings
On women’s hands
Arouse my curiosity
My guilty empathy.
If you look,
People rarely smile
Or look up.
The default setting of adulthood.
If we can find beauty everywhere
Does that make the world beautiful,
Or simply attest to the power
Of our pink mush encased in bone?

Thanks for reading, 

Friday, November 11, 2011

The Borders of Empathy: Struggling With David Foster Wallace's Good Old Neon

When I first read the last short story collection from David Foster Wallace, Oblivion, I immediately gravitated towards the sheer power and urgency of the story Good Old Neon.  It presented itself as a serious riddle, almost a paradox of life in which the only answer was suicide. I spent countless hours in the laboratory of my mind trying to find a way out for this character, to find a hole in his logic. But I couldn’t. His narrative felt inexorable, driven to the destruction of self by tight reasoning. I felt beaten by someone I respected almost too much, and of course, regardless of my desires, the story took on new poignancy in the wake of Foster Wallace’s suicide. In the immediate aftermath, how could I not read the story without thinking of it as the author’s self-prophecy? You try not to, you remind yourself of authorial distance, intentionally fallacy, but then you remind yourself that Foster Wallace shunned this notion in embracing a communicative literature, a constant dialog between author and reader, (or here, between the author and himself, more as a play, a performance than a dialogue) a dialogue that allowed for a transcendence of loneliness if only for a short time. You begin to think that perhaps these were cry for helps, or that literature ceased to provide respite from his loneliness. I, of course, knew that these thoughts evinced a crudity of thinking, but giving the intense relationship Foster Wallace engendered in his readers, I imagine many of us felt this way.

Given the actual content of the story, it’s hard not to make some sort of connection between fiction and the world of our reality. There’s just an eeriness about the circularity of this story, of its connection to our reality. David Foster Wallace writes a story in which Dave Wallace, the character, attempts to empathize with an elder classmate from his high school who committed suicide. DFW does this in layers. The narrator, throughout, written by DFW, seems to stay as Neal, though towards the end the voice gets dicey, all in an attempt to understand the frustratingly compelling logic of the suicide, for the sake of reaching out to this aspect in many people’s live as well as reaching out to that aspect in his life, it would seem. How then with his consequent suicide can we not feel compelled to make a similar attempt? Intellectually, we know we shouldn’t, but emotionally, I think we need it,  we almost deserve to try. So we scour his oeuvre for clues and we find mountains of them. We see Kate Gompert and think of him. We read his released early short story and see the beginnings of the pain. We hear his explanation of suicide as appearing to the person as the lesser of two evils, the jump instead of the conflagration.  Try as we might, I imagine most people found it hard to not read it in this manner, at least in the earlier days when his death still broiled our hearts.

However, with the emotional distance afforded by time, the story takes on new dimensions. You begin to first realize that the narrator does not rank amongst the most reliable narrator in the history of protagonists. You notice holes, discrepancies between his account of the story, and its actualization. The character kills himself by driving off a bridge, but earlier he hopes for a painless and inconspicuous death. (I can think of countless less painful and less conspicuous deaths…) Furthermore, the protagonist recounts the story of his demise into self-consciousness and insecurity that ruined his genuine enjoyment of the sport of baseball. But that same protagonist spends 15 sentences of poetic language describing his experience as a child; why the change in tone? How can a fraud, speaking to a reader, express his certainty of his fraudulence, of his inability to feel a genuine emotion outside of a crippling self consciousness and the desire to create an image in the minds of other people, and then go on to speak poetically on the beauty of baseball?
     The narrator often does this. At numerous junctures in the story the narrator, says he will spare us the details because of their boring or clichéd nature, but then goes on to discuss them anyway. It either feels like a cheap parlor trick in which he feels insecure genuinely emoting so he must qualify them by a hip statement, or the stream of consciousness goes back and forth within himself, fighting for genuine expression. How else do we explain his statement not to bore us with the prosaic thoughts everyone must have before suicide, and then, spend almost two pages describing in lyrical language the beauty of life he knows he must leave behind.
   In this vein, I find the character almost impossible to pin down, almost like an oil-slicked person. Ironically, instead of creating a persona, as his claims of constant fraudulence would lead us to believe, I see someone terrified to live, to give, to love other people despite the ambiguities of it all. In the end, the whole self-fraudulence paradox appears as a veil, similar to Joelle’s that creates a “logical” separation from the vulnerability of real relationships, of real giving. In the end, the character opts for the importance of his motivations over the importance of his acts. Like many of Foster Wallace’s characters, he’s fascinated, or here disgusted, but nevertheless, obsessed by the power of his thoughts, their beauty, instead of the power of action. 

In the end, the piece presents less of a riddle, a paradox and more of a balm for that loneliness, for that gnawing doubt of self-fraudulence. The act of our reading, along with the act of the character Dave Wallace’s attempt to achieve full empathy with a high school classmate, creates a dynamic of empathy, regardless how untrustworthy the characters appears. Perhaps he can never outrun his narcissistic life, and perhaps this long suicide note belies his claim to the type of suicide he desires, perhaps this whole letter serves in his mind to persuade us of the type of person who wants us to see him as: too intelligent for his own good, too brilliant for this world, the type of person who lives such a tragic life that he serves as an inspiration for all of us. Either way, despite his possible attempts to manipulate us, we respond with empathy. And one get’s the sense that the character knew this. (At one brilliant point he just throws away the line, "This is the sort of shit we waste our lives thinking about.)

In a different sense, the story seeks to explore the question how can we achieve true empathy, how can we cross that chasm of distinct identities to truly and deeply connect to another human being? Dave Wallace attempts to go to the ends of empathy through creating a long and convoluted explanation that might have possibly run through the head of his deceased classmate. In this case when empathy through experience doesn’t really present itself as a particular smart option, we must, it seems resort to our imagination. As Doris Lessing points out, imagination lies at the heart of empathy. And the end of this story signifies one of DFW's most imaginative moment, bordering on magical realism, or quasi-mysticism, his response to his own creation of his classmate's motivation to commit suicide is that despite our fraudulence, despite the inherent fraudulence in language, in speech, in our personalities, we all contain mountains and multitudes of depth beneath our surfaces. At the end though, I couldn't completely tell who this sermon-like answer was for, the deceased Neal, the Reader, Dave Wallace, or for David Foster Wallace. In an odd sense, Neal, or Dave Wallace, or whomever, in the story, learns this through suicide, which adds a tragic layer to this sort of epiphany.

But we cannot overlook the darker aspects of the story. The narrator, an embodiment of the character Dave Wallace, written by the real life DFW also tries to test the limits of language in its ability to truly convey the speed and feeling of our thoughts. Even with stream of conscious, or hyperrealism, the characters announces that we still fail to communicate, fully, and yet, again, despite or in accordance with his manipulative wishes the attempt creates true connection, not the hoped for success, but the attempt itself conveys so much singularity of personality that we feel fully understood on some super basic lizard level that despite the topic makes our bodies tingle with warmth. 

        One also gets the sense of some ambivalence towards writing itself in this work. The character is a true narcissist, not because he worries all the time as to how to create a certain positive impression on other people, but because he spends all his time discussing this worry. He lets his mind trap him in that DFW abyss of a recessive/regressive circle in which the mind slowly chews a way at itself. The characters speak at such great length of his plight, but nowhere in the story does he attempt to reason that if he did something for someone else, or tried to understand someone else, he might have felt less alone. That even if his paradox has no obvious intellectual answer, the experiential act of doing something, or thinking about someone else, the act of Dave Wallace in this story stops the recursive loop by focusing on others, not himself. In a manner, it’s an evasion tactic, but an apparently necessary one. The more time we indulge in our narcissism, and yes, a person can indulge in their own pain the more we descend into deeper narcissism. You cannot fight fire with fire in this battle.  You want to tell him that despite the logic of his arguments, life still matters because you get to help other people, which itself engenders empathy. This creates a tension in which true empathy in this situation should lead towards action, but Dave Wallace opts for a more internalized process of empathy through creativity. A process that requires distance from a person for analysis, which hopefully results in a personal connection. But all of this takes place in the realm of our minds, not in the realm of practical help, or change.  
         In general, Foster Wallace leaned towards the importance of mind over actions. Even in his antidotes to the problems he describes in our society: the prevalence of irony, cynicism, apathy etc. he offers as an antidote not action, but awareness. In a sense, he tries to fight fire with fire. He stops that endless loop of mind obsessed with itself by using that mind to notice others, to choose what to think about, but rarely to make a choice Sooner or later, this story feels claustrophobic, until the end, when the door opens, when the story elicits within ourselves that burst of everything we feel in a moment. The moment of release from jail through the struggle of others. Lately, though, the release provides less of a release than it used to. It still reeks of the jail cell of someone who still doesn't realize the type of jail they're in. Who doesn't realize that the traps of the mind cannot necessarily be solved by the strengths of that same mind, but often necessitates action. 

I'm left feeling magical, but cold, connected, but alone.