The Archetype of the Prodigy

“Learn why the world wags and what wags it. That is the only thing which the mind can never exhaust, never alienate, never be tortured by, never fear or distrust, and never dream of regretting.”

-advice from Merlin to Arthur, “The Once and Future King,” by T.H. White

This piece in the NY Times Magazine features interviews with various highly successful people over the age of 80, and an essay by Lewis Lapham, himself 79. It does an effective and thorough job of debunking the modern-era PR surrounding the Prodigy, an archetype that persists in spite of regular, systematic and statistical debunking by, among others, Malcolm Gladwell in his book “Outliers.”

We seem to love the idea of the Prodigy, culturally – I suppose the King Arthur story itself was in this genre, the gifted youth destined for greatness, and come to think of it, Jesus probably also fits – born with a host of angels singing, destined to change the world before dying in his early 30s. So the allure of this narrative is at least a couple thousand years old.

And yet, old people (over 40) inconveniently hang around, achieving great things, whether or not they started out as an exceptional Prodigy. Another path to success and mastery, per Gladwell, is to merely stick around and continue to invest hours and hours, up to and beyond a thumbnail average of 10,000, or five years at 2,000 hours a year, or forty hours a week for 250 weeks.

There’s a new film out in theaters called “Whiplash,” which is quite good, and was written and directed by a youngster born in 1985 – according to my math that means he’s under 30 now, meaning he was under 28 when he first said “action” on the set of his 3-million dollar feature.

I am constantly telling people, students of all ages in the film and video classes I teach, that the first thing they make will not be shockingly, profoundly popular and successful – and yet here comes this guy, with seemingly no prior experience, the exception to that rule.

Clearly a prodigious talent, a Prodigy if there ever was one, Mr. Damien Chazzelle. I don’t begrudge him his success, I was genuinely impressed with the film… I may be finally too old, at 36, to muster the fires of professional jealousy, though a certain amount of ambient envy seems natural and appropriate.

I think he absolutely deserves his success, and, at the same time, I’m curious about the socioeconomic forces at work that orchestrated his debut as a cinematic prodigy. He wrote an excellent screenplay, which seems like a personal story: it’s about a young man who’s very good at something, struggling to become Great at it. But still, a budget of three million dollars doesn’t automatically materialize around a great screenplay and a talented young man. It would be easy to find any number of experienced directors who would leap at the opportunity to direct such a film, for cheap or for free.

For the people who put up the money, it must have been important for the story of the making of the film that it be helmed by this newcomer, this Prodigy, whose personal story it is, and whose identity so clearly mirrors the protagonist of the film. It’s a film about a Prodigy, made by a Prodigy. A film about a Prodigy directed by a fifty-year-old director could have been equally well-made, but would lack the cultural appeal and the built-in PR of its multi-layer Prodigy status.

If you take a new talent and surround him with an experienced crew, great actors and savvy producers, all of whom have long resumés on film and on television, you get all the benefit of your Prodigy narrative with very little risk – if your director collapses under the pressure he can be replaced without too much fanfare. If he succeeds in putting together a functional and even elegant film, then all the young filmmakers of the world get another example upon whom to pin their aspirations as they hustle their own projects at Sundance, SXSW, Tribeca. The Prodigy Archetype is perpetuated for another generation, in case the stories of Quentin Tarantino, Robert Rodriguez, Kevin Smith, and Steven Soderbergh from the 1990s were starting to seem dated.

Meanwhile, the old masters, the Frederick Wisemans of the world, with filmographies stretching back half a century into the 1960s, continue to do brilliant work, with their own sort of longstanding mythology in place, I guess. If Wiseman is 85 now, that means he was born in 1929, and was already 38 (!) when he made his first documentary feature film.

What’s not part of the PR package with these old guys is the idea that anything comes quickly or easily, however ambitious and precocious one may be. What I see in my classes with older students, and my filmmaker friends who are now far too old for Prodigy status is often discouragement and confusion, since they don’t see how they can fit into the successful filmmaker narrative. Indeed they can’t, it’s not written for them – it’s intended to keep the hustlers hustling, to give the NYU kids and the USC kids something to dream about and strive towards.

Mr. Chazzelle might actually have a harder time on the other side of 30 getting movies made, once he loses his Prodigy sheen, as has happened to countless young and promising filmmakers before him, going all the way back to Orson Welles. I hope that among the many sage, gray eminences on the Whiplash team, there is at least one Merlin, who will remind him that however quickly Mastery is declared by the experts and the critics, there is still, inevitably plenty left to learn in the world, about filmmaking and about everything else.

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