The EliteJanuary 31, 2011
I got caught up on quite a lot this weekend, but one thing I didn’t get to was the blog. I had tagged a piece from Aaron Sorkin’s acceptance speech at the Golden Globes a few weeks ago. In the final seconds, he thanked the female nominees “for helping to demonstrate to my young daughter that ‘Elite’ is not a bad word, it is an aspirational one.”
I hadn’t decided where to go from that starting point, until this morning when the first news I saw was the death of Hollywood composer John Barry. Barry produced some of the most transcendent film scores: Somewhere in Time to Dances With Wolves, Body Heat to Chaplin. Making any music that can transport the listener is an extraordinary gift, but to do it in movies where it’s not all about you, using your talents to contribute to this larger thing and taking it to a higher level, that goes beyond mere excellence into the realm of the extraordinary.
Being the best at what you do is not a bad thing, it is something to aspire to. Starting off with more talent, insight or smarts, that’s a gift, not something to be ashamed of. Studying and working hard to make the most of your talents, that is honoring the gift. Challenging yourself, pursuing excellence for its own sake, these are all good things.
Robert Browning said a man’s reach should exceed his grasp, or what’s a heaven for?
The Handicapper General of Vonnegut’s Monkey House said you should strap weights to the ankles of a ballerina.
The flock in Jonathan Livingston Seagull said not to fly any higher than the rest of us. Know only as much as you need to in order to get out to the food, scarf down some fish, and get home.
I’m going with Browning, and I’m listening John Barry’s music today while I do it.
In a 2005 interview in The Guardian, Barry criticized modern composers who “have nothing to say” and are “just messing around with notes.” He blamed not just the composers themselves but the directors and producers who allow “45 minutes or an hour of music that doesn’t mean a damn thing.”
I’m sure they all called him an elitist as if it were a bad thing. I’m also sure he didn’t care, because like Sorkin and Stoppard and Sondheim and anyone else who takes the trouble to get it right, he knew that the lazy and mediocre will always try to repackage their deficiencies as a desirable norm, and any deviation from that norm as a character flaw:. Just as the Millerite must recast the brave and selfless hero as a psycho with a death wish, those lacking talent, initiative, ambition, intelligence, discernment, self-discipline, torso strength, mathematical aptitude, eloquence, spatiality, or simple compassion will always, always, always relabel to cover their deficiencies. Don’t let them get away with it.
John Barry was better than most people who try to make music. How do I know that? Because there is a soul revealed in score of Somewhere in Time, and that soul is beautiful. It begins with Rachmaninoff’s Rhapsody on a Theme by Paganini, and what it spins from one short variation that’s like a minute long could have become sickeningly sweet, cliche’d or trite in the hands of someone who didn’t understand the raw materials he was working with. It is music of loss and loneliness, of longing and of love. If you don’t think the people who understand those qualities and are brave enough to dig into themselves and bring out what they find there – to expose that most personal part of themselves to the world in order to make a work of art – if you don’t think those people are better than the rest of us, think again.
Elite isn’t a bad word. It is an aspirative one.
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