Anyone who is multi-skilled can forget posterity. History only records what is distinct and if it’s not, time will eventually erode nuance and ‘the facts’ end up being clear-cut, anyway. So if you’ve had a career which is varied, zig-zag or portfolio, it’s unlikely to be posthumously celebrated. Who cares if you can juggle and fire-eat and jump through hoops when that person who does nothing but fall over very well offers a more simple spectacle? Their achievements are easily abstracted for obituary.
I’ve just watched two films and two documentaries about people whose extreme, singular focus elevated their skill to extraordinary levels, and I’m feeling rather kaleidoscopic. By centering their energies within a single field and saturating their everyday lives with its minutiae, the people in these narratives achieved the very best of themselves. Or at least one part of themselves, because obsession does not allow for breadth.
All of them were artists of some sort, consumed by the development of their talent and granted a place in history (in the case of A Star Is Born, fictional history), giving 20th and 21st century media outlets an easy sell. Both male and female leads in the Star remake spent their lives eating music for breakfast, as did the very real Freddie Mercury in Bohemian Rhapsody. Overbite or not, Mercury’s single-minded need to express himself gave him the tenacity to channel the potency of his remarkable gift, regardless of any obstacles.
So too did the painter Egon Schiele, whose work was discussed in the documentary Dangerous Desires as being far more audacious than the stylised, coy work of his peers. Schiele didn’t paint bared figures simply to be controversial, but because he was driven to translate the beauty and sadness of erotica into pictures, leading to imprisonment and societal scorn along the way. (I get to sound a bit academic about this because my first dissertation was on Egon Schiele, and I consequently spent a summer in Vienna studying his work and experiencing at first hand the primness of his mother country.)
And then there were the painful comparisons between David Cassidy’s flawless singing voice in the 1970s and his 2017 failure to hit almost any note at all in The Last Session. Battling liver disease and alcoholism, the sixty-seven year-old Cassidy - once the most famous pop star in the world - was attempting to cut a cover album, but even the studio's production tricks could not obscure his complete loss of pitch. After a lifetime spent as a virtuoso balladeer, this was not so much a vanity project as an impulse to end it in the only way he knew how.
Striving for excellence requires intense narcissism. Not the rapacious, selfish kind common to those with wealth and power in government and industry, but one distilled from many hours of analysing, training, studying, adapting and growing a personal skill. It requires the constant honing of that skill and a perpetual thirst for self-evaluation. The genius of a particular surgeon reaches its zenith only by stripping away all extraneous skills and avenues - she cannot turn an eye towards architecture or interior design, even for a minute, if she wants to achieve something significant. I know this from watching fifteen series of Grey’s Anatomy.
After each of my Masters degrees, I chewed over possible subjects for a doctorate, if only because a PhD qualification would make me ‘Dr Martin’ like the shoes (OK, different spelling). I never came up with something of sufficient pulling power, a topic guaranteed to keep me entranced for several years because to me, it’s all interesting. My educational and working background is in art, design, media, literature and medicine. I couldn’t keep my own eyes off associate subjects and wanted to try out as many as possible. The result is that I’ve developed a reasonable level of knowledge and craft prowess in each area, but no expertise.
I am the viewer wondering which character ironed the pristine white shirt worn by Bradley Cooper’s rock star after a night of binge drinking in A Star Is Born, rather than the viewer wondering how an artist keeps his soul in check during times of emotional overdrive, as the director probably intended. I can’t concentrate on just the one subject for long. But this leaves me at the bottom of the scale. For excellence to exist, there must be a hierarchy and without any absolute expertise of my own, my role is to service those above me. This is a depressing thought. Only certain skills are rewarded by eminence and the ability to decant anything into exactly the right size container is not one of them. Yes, this is my party trick. If I went to parties.
I can also spot someone's unique muscular imbalance at a distance (pattern-recognition plus myopia, not magic), and know by smell alone precisely when a cake is ready to leave the oven. So if I’m lucky, I might get an Owen Meany moment. This requires a lifetime of perfecting one small, repetitive action followed by a single, portentous opportunity to put it to good use. In John Irving's novel, Meany is a boy who never grows to full height. For years, he practices a basketball shot attained with a friend who lifts him up to reach the goal: in later life, the two use the manouevre to throw a grenade out of a building and save some children. Meany is fatally wounded but he has justified his existence. Since we all want our lives to have meant something - particularly those of us with no progeny - this may suffice. Doesn’t everyone have a potentially sublime bit of know-how in their toolkit?