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,

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