I was biding time before True Detective a few weeks ago (episode 4, to be exact) when I decided to throw on Whiplash. I vaguely remembered hearing good things about it, and I’ve enjoyed the two leads, J.K. Simmons and Miles Teller, in their other work, so why the hell not? And…
I was practically panting by the end with exhaustion and near rapture. The film unrelentingly taps into the sublime in its final sequence, sucking you directly into the obsessively ambitious psyches of both Andrew (Teller) and Fletcher (Simmons) as they share pure transcendence. Through their competing, uncompromising commitments to excellence in (according to Fletcher) a country of “good enough” mediocrity (“good job” forming the most degrading thing you can say to someone, in Fletcher’s view again; Andrew abides), they create a moment that can fitfully be described as glorious.
The path there is far from righteous as far as our society might be concerned. In an era reasonably attuned to the psychological consequences of pushing boundaries (and prey to litigation), we tread softly, to the point that we might heave the gender-charged disparaging description of “soft” against ourselves. Fletcher wouldn’t hesitate to do so; he’s more blunt about it, in fact, unapologetic in his tyrannical posturing. He lords over his musical students, having no interest in teaching them but in hurling them toward their greatest ends. A true genius would not be deterred but inspired by such aggressive coaching, which you could aptly describe as torture. A literal case is made in the film against Fletcher along those lines after the fate of a former student, which triggers the retribution OR final test against Andrew, who had catalyzed Fletcher’s firing and so was set up to fall short of his Dream.
In the end, we are caught rooting for two maniacs. We forgive them both their flaws, especially their callous comportment toward (what they perceive as) inferior humanity; Andrew even thinks of and explicitly tells his girlfriend, Nicole, she’s an obstacle, and so he (in his mind, generously) spares her future misery by breaking up with her. This asocial act frees him to wed his drums, and to pursue harmony with his god, Fletcher; although, to be fair, they need each other to complete their self-actualization journeys. As an audience, we are pushed away from their humanity and into their possible legend. And strangely, I find myself thankful for it. If their twisted relationship leads to the awe-inspiring art we witness at the end, I suppose I must concede that their mutual sadomasochism is worth it.
Andrew blatantly asks as much, wondering whether there’s a line that Fletcher crossed in his brutal berating of every student under his wing. Is it possible that he shut down the next great musician by being so awful to them? Fletcher, of course, stubbornly defends his worldview and effectively passes it on to Andrew in the process. He argues that the truly great musician would never be beaten, and he summons exceptional historical precedents as proof of this parochial perspective. Beholden to this faith by virtue of his total commitment to it, he cannot see any other way of doing things. Andrew is a disciple of the same religion.
They are both rewarded for their faith.
So what do we walk away from this film with? Does a particular worldview prevail? Are we supposed to celebrate their self-centered quests for transcendent greatness? Andrew, at a dinner with family, states his desire to be remembered by future society instead of encumbered with present friends. He’s basically Achilles at that point. What’s fleeting present joy compared to eternal glory? Granted, we don’t know if either he or Fletcher will end up being remembered in their fictional universe, but they sure as hell carved a place in my memory with their performances.
Watching Andrew’s physical beating and psychological unraveling lead (eventually) to more steadfast practice and belief made me think about my desire to be a writer. So far, I can’t honestly say that I want to be a writer. I want to be a writer who’s already experienced success. I don’t want to put in the work, yet I want to be rewarded. Heck, I feel somewhat entitled to that reward, like the universe is going to hand me recognition and veneration on account of my (largely untested) ambition alone.
Am I willing to type until my fingers bleed? Am I willing to accept countless rejections? Would I write through them? To what, exactly, am I so committed? It’s not really people or a particular passion; I’m more of the pleasantly (relatively) drifting Nicole. Her “I don’t know” in reference to what she wants to major in is my answer to almost any serious question about my life’s pursuits. I’ve accepted that as “good enough” because what I’ve done and what I’m doing have worked out. But is there something I’m not pushing myself to do?