Thursday, August 27, 2009

The Star-Pupil Syndrome

One of the things Ive done this summer is catch up on my reading, specifically the books that have been sitting around, waiting for time to read them. Some have been in boxes, packed away more years ago than I care to say. A few were sitting on the bookshelf and now that I have to make room I have finally taken them down and worked my way through them. I finished The Art Lover by Carole Masi, which was quite a slog, and Larry McMurtrys Film-Flam: Essays on Hollywood, which was also a slog, to my surprise. There was entirely too much of McMurtry decrying the state of Hollywood and drawing conclusions on the state of Americas youth from the behavior of characters in movies. There wasnt a whole lot of oomph in the writing, as if he decided too late that he wasnt all that interested in writing the columns for American Film but a promise is a promise. I realized, when I was almost done with it, that it would have gone down more easily if I’d read it with a Texas accent.

Still, Im a persistent cuss and I finished it, and so I came to the paragraphs Ive excerpted here. There was a shock of recognition as I read about the Star-Pupil Syndrome and saw myself in it. I wanted to defend myself to McMurtry, even as I saw that he was absolutely right. I wanted to add that rather than conferring respectability, in some circles **cough** Parterre Box **cough** status depends on having seen, heard, and read everything. More and more I realize that is impossible, an insight that now seems obvious but that I appear to have ignored for most of my life, as I made lists of records to buy and books to read. And so for your delectation and edification, heres Larry McMurtry.

My problem with great founts, apparently, is that the water which flows from them is sometimes so satisfying that having drunk deeply once, I feel no urge to drink again. I knew fourteen years ago, walking out of The Naked Night, that it would be a long time before I really needed to see another Ingmar Bergman film. I was simply filled by that film, where its author is concerned. I went on and checked out Wild Strawberries and The Seventh Seal and several others, and I admired a few lyric moments and few great austere images, but I had stopped being hungry for Bergman and they meant little to me. I felt the same way about Truffaut, after seeing Jules et Jim.

This is not, I should say, an attempt to propose a one-man, one-masterpiece theory. Artists are welcome to as many masterpieces as they can pull off, and a great artist might manage to pull off several. My point is that one’s need for masterpieces is not simple or uniform—one is not obliged to confront them every time one has the opportunity. For most of us, the opportunity comes too often; so much magisterial art is not easy to incorporate into one’s life.

The belief that one is obliged to read all the books of every author, hear all the music of every great composer, and see all the films of every great director is surely a kind of neurosis, and a neurosis whose origin can usually be traced to one’s university career. A compulsion toward over-informedness is most apt to occur in individuals who have been arrested at a graduate school level of development; it is an intellectual infirmity, rather than a sign of health, and is so common now that it perhaps deserves to be elevated to the status of a syndrome: the Star-Pupil Syndrome. If the desire to shine as a pupil is sustained too long it can cause even the most committed worker to work badly.
[I omit a digression on Joyce Carol Oates. Addison]
The weight of the academic experience is such, for most of us, that it sometimes takes about ten years to realize that we have, after all, graduated. There comes a time when one no longer has teachers to please; thus it is not really necessary to read everything, see everything, and hear everything in order to remain respectable. One eventually begins to notice that the cellars of all the arts are filled with the over-informed, and finally one is forced to admit that there is just too much art—far more, at least, than I can use, either as a writer or as a person. With that recognition the nature of the search changes, and instead of trying, perhaps unconsciously, to please one’s teachers one begins to seek out sources of response for oneself—people and books and films that one can hearken to, and perhaps be heartened by.

One of the reasons, I imagine, why I continue to go to silly films rather than serious films is that the vast majority of serious films, like the vast majority of serious books, are mediocre, and nothing can be more disheartening than mediocre, realistic art.
Movie-Tripping: My Own Rotten Film Festival (originally published in New York magazine)
from Film-Flam: Essays on Hollywood (1986) by Larry McMurtry.

1 comment:

docker said...

It's nice to read those quotes. Thank you. As I age I've discovered less and less need for other peoples art and music. (And more of a need for my own - but that's another story.) If I take the time to read a novel or watch a movie, it better be pretty darn frivolous. Escapist. The eternal verities won't change despite all the creativity in China and I don't need to move a muscle to find them right here, with me, now. If I look.

Also - in my experience the scars of graduate study towards a creative vocation never go away. In music, where so many composers end up teaching to compensate for the feeble economics of their works, those scars get passed down from generation to generation.