A lesson beloved by popular culture is that dreams are achieved via diligence and hard work. If you focus on your work at the cost of everything, without regard for the hurt you cause yourself or the people around you, that qualifies as the highest form of genius. It doesn’t matter who you are, as long as you’ve cultivated some special skill that allows you to ascend from the ignominy of normalcy.
The movie Whiplash is about a music instructor, Fletcher (J.K. Simmons), and his student, Andrew (Miles Teller). People loved it. It won Oscars and it boosted the career of its writer-director Damien Chazelle immensely. Several writers have pointed out that the movie glorifies abuse, and moreover, is not a realistic portrayal of jazz as an art form, but they represent a minority of the critical response to the film.
Anyway, the scene everyone remembers is a barrage of criticism from Fletcher during a rehearsal: “Were you rushing, or were you dragging?” The film revolves around how unreasonably hard his prize pupil is forced to push for his approval.
Andrew drums until his hands are bleeding, he drums minutes after he has been injured in a car accident, and throughout the film he absorbs all manner of unconstructive vitriol from his mentor, all for the sake of becoming a better artist. “Sure, he’s suffering,” says the movie, “but– and I know this sounds crazy– maybe he really is becoming the best musician he can be!”
As a counterpoint to that idea, we find out that one of Fletcher’s previous students committed suicide, and the implication is that this occurred due to Fletcher’s bullying. So Whiplash is apparently meant to condemn his methods of instruction after all, even though it devotes the majority of its runtime to his screamed insults and absurd demands.
“But is there a line?” asks Andrew. “You know, maybe you go too far and you discourage the next Charlie Parker from ever becoming Charlie Parker?” And Fletcher says “No, man, no. Because the next Charlie Parker would never be discouraged.” Then Andrew says “Yeah”. The student who killed himself doesn’t say anything, because he’s dead before the movie even starts.
My point is, why is this abuse so interesting? Why is it cinematic? Why is it admirable? Why is the dead student in Whiplash treated as a necessary casualty, an unfortunate side effect of the harsh environment required to make real art? If Andrew were a real person, he’d have recurring carpal tunnel and a painkiller addiction within a few years, and drumming until his hands bleed would make it more than likely that later in life, he’d be unable to drum at all. What’s so great about that? What’s so great, actually, about working yourself to death?
Whiplash is old news by now, but even a quick once-over of popular and critically acclaimed media makes it clear that the film is far from an outlier. Almost every sports movie is about pushing past one’s limits, obsession with the game, and practicing to the point of excruciating pain, inspiring countless kids to break their legs and get concussions chasing after the dream of excelling at their game of choice. Rocky didn’t win, but he sure did take a lot of blows to the head, which is how we know that he’s noble and perservering.
In fact, Chazelle cites the structure of sports films as an inspiration for Whiplash, acknowledging the existence of a pattern. The troubled artist consumed by their passion, Whiplash’s subject, is also a source of public fascination. Van Gogh suffered from mental health issues and ultimately died by suicide in poverty, but now we know he’s a genius because other people made a lot of money selling his work years after he was cold in the grave.
On a related note, in movies about discrimination, the oppressed person is frequently able to transcend their status via their hard work and skills. The lesson there is that if you just put your mind to it, even if you’re stymied by race, gender, class, or disability, then you can escape discrimination. Think of the film Akeelah and the Bee, where a young black girl from a poor family has a natural gift for spelling that she improves via academic rigor, so that the white man who tutors her can react with all of the respect and wonder of someone watching a dog play basketball.
Pretty much every mainstream story ever written about, say, a wheelchair user or an autistic person, is about their one transcendent talent, unless it’s about what a tragic burden they are. There are actually countless minority groups that can only excite audiences when they serve as the subjects of either misery porn or tales of inspirational bravery, to the degree where I don’t even have the space or energy to describe all the individual tropes and examples.
Some films acknowledge that the pursuit of success in a specific field can be tragic and hollow, but they never seem to question why it’s glamorous and noteworthy enough to justify our cultural obsession.
Maybe it’s impossible to make an anti-work movie the same way it is impossible to make an anti-war movie. Maybe when we turn the camera on a fictionalized Steve Jobs played by a handsome actor in a stylish film, and rapturously watch him climb towards success at the expense of his family and friends, we’re already giving him more attention than he deserves– regardless of what we say about him.
The camera loves characters who thrive in oppressive, demanding conditions. It doesn’t care all that much about the people those conditions quietly destroy.
It’s not like it’s wholly fictional, the Whiplash ethos. I could imagine any number of popular political commentators repeating Fletcher’s statement that “There are no two words in the English language more harmful than ‘good job'”. Those forced to live on government welfare are accused of laziness, even when they are disabled, chronically ill, or come from an impoverished background.
If they have too many kids, if they indulge in any small luxuries, if they indulge in alcohol or drugs, if they don’t have degrees or they have the wrong kind, if they aren’t devoted enough for God to reward them, then it’s all their fault. If someone buys a steak with food stamps, it’s front page news. They wouldn’t need food stamps if they just worked hard enough.
Why do black people worry about racism when they could be focusing on excelling instead? Why aren’t they all winning spelling bees? Why don’t disabled people just put on a brave face and push through the pain, and find gainful employment anyway?
Why does anybody need accommodations, or accessibility, or medical treatments that vastly improve quality of life, or respect at their workplace, or fair hiring policies, or a salary that’s enough to live on, or public institutions that actually make people’s lives better? If they only worked hard enough, if they only sublimate their every personal need in pursuit of some singular goal, then they could have everything they ever wanted!
Corporations nowadays don’t just want to know that you’ll show up on time and do your job. They want personal essays about how badly you want to be there, and constant assurances that working a shitty job with low pay and no benefits is actually your dream. When they ask you where you see yourself in five years, you better say “here, in a higher position”. They want to phone, text, and email you at any hour of the day or night and get answers ASAP.
They want you to work when you’re sick, when it’s a holiday, when it’s your dad’s birthday or your grandma’s funeral. They want your job to be your passion, and for you to go above and beyond with a smile no matter how many people scream at you and denigrate you and generally treat you like dog shit on their shoe. They want you to show up to a jazz concert after you get into a car accident. They want you to drum until your hands bleed.
You need their money, and as unions have dwindled in power and presence, it’s not like you’ll ever be in any position to negotiate. Employers want your soul, and they’ll get it. Everything in your life becomes a commodity, another line in your LinkedIn description or another nugget of information about you that can be sold.
But isn’t it heroic, sacrificing yourself for something greater? Isn’t that what every movie is about? Not sleeping, working through excruciating pain, giving it your all for no reward? It’s how you become great. If you can’t handle it, then you don’t matter. You’d never have become the next Charlie Parker anyway.
Is that what we want, to extend the corporate ethos of neverending work into our lives as artists and people? If you have to live up to the expectations of people like Fletcher to do it, maybe being great doesn’t live up to the sales pitch. For me, for a lot of people, it isn’t a choice between mediocrity and greatness. It’s a choice between mediocrity and not being alive anymore.
For all of Whiplash’s pretensions that Fletcher is a fascinating villain, there’s nothing thought-provoking or controversial about the things he says. I don’t sit there watching and think “he’s so horrible, but I feel like he also gives voice to a lot of harsh truths that don’t get much play in our society”. I think “Jesus fucking Christ, I am so sick of hearing this shit.”
The Bronze is a movie that didn’t win any Oscars, or many accolades at all. It flopped miserably as a theatrical release, it sits at a dismal 36% on Rotten Tomatoes, and it’s pretty difficult now to even find a way to watch it. It stars and was co-written by Melissa Rauch, best known as Bernadette from The Big Bang Theory, which doesn’t help its reputation. The reason I’m talking about The Bronze despite its position of critical ignominy is that one, for a “bad (insert profession here)” comedy it’s actually very funny, and two, it’s insightful about the consequences of striving for excellence in a way that many more prestigious movies aren’t.
Hope Ann Greggory (Rauch) was an Olympic gymnast when she was younger. It was her whole life, and her fame supported her entire family until an injury knocked her out of the sport for good. As an adult, she’s an overgrown middle schooler, stunted by a childhood where she singlemindedly focused– with the encouragement of adults around her– on something she can no longer actually even do.
The Bronze is different because it dares to look at Hope as an example of wasted potential not as an athlete, but as a person. It looks further ahead than Whiplash bothers to, by depicting her bumming around town aimlessly, stealing money out of strangers’ mail and using her hometown hero status to angle for free Sbarro at the mall. It asks the question: “Was all of her hard work actually worth it?” and comes to the conclusion that it wasn’t.
The plot of the film revolves around Hope training Maggie (Haley Lu Richardson), a spritely teenage girl and Olympic hopeful. Maggie is the sole hope of her mother, who works a stressful, low-paying job. She’s a great gymnast, but her downfall comes when she succeeds in her ambition. She replicates Hope’s grim trajectory, and ends up exploited by an older male coach.
Meanwhile, Hope decides that she doesn’t want anyone else to meet the same fate as her and Maggie. She starts a gymnastics school where the sport isn’t treated with deadly seriousness, and the kids line up for popsicles after every lesson– a far cry from her own coach’s draconian rules about food.
The Bronze isn’t an incredibly sophisticated movie, and its sense of humor can be pretty crude. But it succeeds on a fundamental level because it never blames Hope for her inability to live up to her former glory. Instead, her failings are in large part a natural consequence of the psychological damage incurred by being pushed past her limits as a gymnast to the exclusion of every other aspect of her life.
She has no final conversation with her own coach, with Maggie, or with the male coach who was her lifelong rival. Unlike Fletcher, none of them get a big speech. The story is about Hope, not them, and specifically it is about what ultimately saves her: ignoring the excellence-obsessed sports culture she grew up in, and leaving the dream of perfection behind.