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, 

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