A few nights ago I saw the movie Whiplash. As many people have said, the acting was superb and overall it was a quality made movie. But what pulled me in was not the plotline, but rather the assumptions of the characters and the varied interpretations of the people with whom I saw the movie regarding what makes a life worth living.
Andrew, the main character of Whiplash, wants to be the best. In one conversation with his family, when they ask him why he doesn’t have any friends, he says that they would just get in the way. He wants to be remembered, like Charlie Parker was remembered. He wants to be great. His dad looks at him and says that Charlie Parker died at 35, that’s not success.
But Andrew is unswayed, and continues to engage with his abusive band teacher in order to force himself to be better, to win, to prove that he is the great person he could be. He refuses to be broken by the abuse that the teacher doles out, even if that means trying to play while his hand is broken and he’s bleeding.
The end of the movie is ambiguous. Andrew plays an amazing solo. He plays to his own tempo instead of listening to the conductor. But he does it all because he was abused. He becomes great through the horrific methods that left another student dead from suicide.
Underneath the success, the amazing performance, the smile that Andrew finally gets from Mr. Fletcher, there’s the dark knowledge that if he keeps doing what he’s doing, he as well will probably end up dead. If nothing else, he will be alone, anxious, depressed, and constantly feeling that he isn’t living up to his own potential. He requires greatness of himself, because he sees how much the greatness of one person can affect others.
As Mr. Fletcher says, it’s unacceptable to deprive the world of the next Charlie Parker.
But is it really? Is great art more important than actual human lives? Or even one single human life that gets extinguished after short years that are filled with unhappiness?
Let’s talk about another movie for a moment. Monuments Men is for the most part a rompy kind of action movie, but somewhere in it is a question. The Monuments Men take resources that the army could have been using to save human lives and direct those resources towards saving art instead. Great, amazing art, but art nonetheless. Is it ethical for the army to do that?
I tend to think no. Art is beautiful and enriching, but there is always new art being made. People continue to create meaning, beauty, connection, and discussion through art in almost every circumstance they are placed in. Art is not a finite resource that we will run out of. There is no perfect painting or drum solo or play that is out there waiting to be created. We create what we need, what is meaningful to us, and we get the meaning that we need out of the art available to us.
I’m not one to value an empty or unhappy life simply for the sake of life, but I’m also not one to value art without any end. Art is valuable insofar as it enriches human lives, and when it takes away from the human ability to be fulfilled and content, or when it takes away resources from keeping people alive, art starts to lose value. I think that’s true of any human endeavor. No goal is more important than its consequences.
So back to Andrew and Charlie Parker. Why does Andrew think that being great is a better goal than any immediate happiness? Clearly he wants to be remembered, but he also seems to think that he’s doing something good and enriching for the world (just as Mr. Fletcher does) by creating something great.
I am so afraid of that rhetoric.
While talking with friends after the movie, I found that I was the only one who really resonated with that intense drive and need to always be better, the all-consuming, obsessive perfectionism. I can vouch that in my life it has been an extremely damaging influence. But those around me didn’t feel like the movie was in danger of portraying that obsession in a positive light because they had never felt it, never been in a place where they thought that it was the best way to be.
Of course in the movie, Andrew is supposed to be sort of screwed up but only develop clear mental illness symptoms after Mr. Fletcher starts pushing him. But I don’t think that obsession of this level is something that one can just learn. It’s something that you have to spend your whole life fighting if it’s in you to begin with. And while the movie clearly criticizes Fletcher’s methods, it does not clearly criticize the art that comes out of it. It does seem to imply that the art that comes from the abusive, obsessive methods is better than what would have come about if Andrew had a sane teacher, made some friends, stayed with his girlfriend, and tried to temper his obsession with drums by being a healthy person mentally.
So the movie seems to imply that there is some sort of trade off here, that we could get some amazing art, something important or meaningful out of this kind of drive, and that while it’s unhealthy, it is amazing.
And sure there are real life examples of these types. Sylvia Plath or Kurt Cobain, people who used their mental illness to fuel their art and whose dark art touched and was important to thousands upon thousands of people.
And there is never any guarantee that the depression makes your art better. More often than not it makes it worse because you can’t think clearly, your mind is trailing in circles, you have no energy. More often than not you create work that is indulgent rather than transcendent. Of course some people who recover choose never to truly engage with the dark emotions again, and that hardly creates good art, but it is possible to continue to think deeply while in a healthy place. Some of the best art is art that comes from a place of self-respect rather than depression, fear, and uncertainty.
And there’s more than one life that gets hurt when someone wallows in their mental illness. Everyone they interact with gets hurt. Despite the fact that they aren’t trying, most people who are incredibly depressed, anxious, obsessive, and perfectionistic, are not very nice and are certainly not able to have healthy relationships because they themselves aren’t healthy.
But of course the people that I was watching Whiplash with didn’t see it as glorifying this kind of obsession. I’m not sure what it is that made me think it was condoning at least part of the obsession, but perhaps it’s that I expect discussions of (what clearly seems to me to be) mental illness to not simply portray the behaviors because just showing the behaviors can feel like condoning when you’re in a bad place. If I had watched this movie 5 years ago I would have seen it as validation of my choices. I would have watched it and seen a young person overcome everything to pursue perfection and then achieve perfection. I would have seen that it was possible.
And so I wouldn’t have stopped.
I do wonder about our portrayals of obsession and whether we treat those behaviors in a way that says “this is not healthy” or whether we do some glossing over of the truth. How did the film actually treat questions of obsession? Did it say that there were benefits? Of course no one would see it as condoning the behavior of Andrew, but it did seem to make him into a hero, or possibly an anti-hero, something even more attractive to many (especially young) people.
I can’t predict how other people might react to this film, and the people that I watched it with didn’t seem to see it as any kind of validation, but it did focus on a young person overcoming obstacles to reach his goal, even if there were huge sacrifices along the way. Many people would see that as a positive. Continuing the stereotype of disturbed genius isn’t really helpful to anyone, and while the movie criticized the choice to embrace that life, it didn’t do anything to dismantle the stereotype that exists in the first place, leading to many people seeing artistry and greatness as something that necessarily comes with insanity.
This might lead many people to frame questions of dedication to art as whether they want to be happy or whether they want to be great, when in fact they can be both.
So let’s hop back to Monuments Men. Is any piece of art worth ruining your life over? Probably not, especially when we can create art without the intense depression that the movie portrays. Of course every individual has the right to make the choice in their own life, but it’s important to create messages that say it doesn’t have to be that way. You can be amazing without being pushed in cruel and awful ways. Oftentimes greatness comes with support, love, and self-empathy. Especially in today’s world where the cruel actions of famous people get broadcast to the world immediately over the internet, people are becoming less and less tolerant of brilliant assholes, and instead expect their geniuses to give back in some way.
There are many other facets to the reactions to this movie. I see more women feeling driven to prove that they deserve to be on this earth by being great, leading me to worry about the effects of portrayals of greatness on young women. How do we portray negative things in a responsible fashion is a concern that has never been properly answered (no Plato, we don’t just not portray them). And how healthy can obsession ever be?
But I do think it’s important to pull apart the association between greatness and depression. It’s not necessary.