C and I watched the movie Whiplash last night. I know some people thought this was a great film, but I found the central conceit extremely problematic. Essentially, the movie says that, to achieve success in art, you must sacrifice friends, family, even life. The protagonist, Andrew, literally almost dies (and almost kills another person) because of his drive to succeed. And while I get it — yeah, we must Strive, capital S, for our art, the film’s message is toxic. It says that art is in competition with life, that they are antagonists. It says that to devote fully to one’s art means one must give up all other distractions. Andrew’s teacher, Fletcher, is the ultimate narcissist, so convinced of his own utility he is unable to see how his behavior literally destroys lives. (One kid kills himself because of the abuse he receives in Fletcher’s class, but Fletcher himself is indifferent, because he’s trying to “push” the students to reach their potential.) The film’s climax comes when Andrew walks off stage (apparently a failure) and then returns to play a drum solo of drum solos (wait, no he’s not a failure!), while a bemused and angry Fletcher at first frowns and then begins to smile as Andrew keeps playing (the student has surpassed the teacher; wow, didn’t see that one coming). We are supposed to cheer Andrew on, but it’s fucking embarrassing. Are any of the other band members important, these musicians who have devoted most of their lives to their music? The film says no. It’s only the Artiste, capital A, Andrew, that matters. Everyone else plays a supporting role in his one-man show. Andrew is the one who bleeds for his art (literally). Andrew is the one who abandons a traffic accident he caused to get to a gig (we are supposed to cheer his determination). He is the one who dumps a potentially great partner because she would be a “distraction.” He is the one who feels superior to his family because they won’t be famous when they’re dead and buried (and he thinks he will.) His father, played by an ever supportive Paul Riser, just watches from a distance while eating popcorn (as we are supposed to do), ever accepting of his sociopathic, narcissistic child.
AND ALL OF THIS IS FUCKING TOXIC.
Look, I’ll be the first to tell you that there have been times, when I’m writing, and I just want to hole up in a cabin in the woods for a week or a month or a decade and shut off all outside distractions and just do the work forever. But you have to come out of that cabin. You have to remember that you are never the sole creator of anything, that everything you are is the product of thousands of people’s labor (yes, even your art). That you are not the star of your own biopic, but one actor in a very large play that has been going on for a long, long time. I firmly believe that if you are Striving, capital S, to the exclusion of friends, family, and life itself, well, my friend, you are doing it wrong. Art is enhanced by friends, family, and life, always, always, always.