I started dating my first real girlfriend in the final weeks of my senior year of high school. Before that, I’d “dated” girls that I called “girlfriend” and they called me “boyfriend,” but that was middle school and considering the fact that we never kissed or went on dates or called each other on the phone or really did much of anything besides hold hands as we walked around the school, I’m pretty sure that doesn’t really count. I digress. This girl and I dated for a couple months. To this day, I’m not sure I ever had a more natural romantic relationship with somebody. We were both too young for the guarded cynicism of adult relationships. We were simply ourselves, and we were happy. Emphasis on “were.”
It was all well and good until this girl came back from a Christian bible summer camp. I’m a “teapot agnostic” now, but I was a devout Christian at the time. I read the Bible. I went to a weekly Bible study. My faith was integral to who I was. But this girl made me look like a militant atheist. She was a hardcore Southern Baptist. She exclusively wore ankle-length denim skirts to school. Her parents wouldn’t let her listen to the Beatles. My spirituality at the time was imbued with a degree of (and I hate to use this word now cause it’s so condescending but that’s how I was at the time) tolerance. I didn’t think gay people were sinners. I respected the rights of other folks to have different religious beliefs than me. This girl did not.
The day she returned from her summer camp was the day the final Harry Potter book was released. I remember this because she called me right after I finished reading the scene where Dobby dies. I had finally finished sobbing over the most traumatic death in the whole series just as the phone rang. We talked, and it was clear almost immediately that the religious flames in her heart weren’t at their usual simmer but were blazing to such a degree that they’d burn down everything around them. Without realizing the book was out, at one point she talked about how a minister at the camp was blaming Harry Potter for the troubles young people were facing at the time and how she agreed. When our phone call ended, I didn’t say “I love you” like I always did. Our relationship didn’t survive our next phone conversation.
Now, you might read this story and think I broke up with her because she was a bigot (which she was) or because she was a zealot (which she was) or because I felt like our approaches to Christianity weren’t compatible (which they weren’t) which would all be reasonable grounds to end a relationship (or maybe even that she forever marred my memories of my favorite book franchise which isn’t really a solid reason to end a relationship but more sane the reason I’m about to give you), but that wasn’t the case. At the time, my #1 goal in life was to be a politician. There’s no exaggeration when I say that I wanted to be President of the United States some day. And what I realized in that “imaginary persecutions against Christianity”-filled conversation we had before my first relationship ended was that this girl would be a liability to my political career some day if we stayed together. How could I preach acceptance and have a partner who supported the opposite? And so I ended it.
I’m not at all proud of that particular story. It represents an ugly part of my personal character… an ugly part of my character that I’m still working on to this day. Ambition. I only bring it up because in the 2014 satire Whiplash, I saw a surprisingly not-exaggerated reflection of those worst sides of my own past. Whiplash‘s “hero,” drummer Andrew (Miles Teller), dates a young movie theatre employee played by Glee‘s Melissa Benoist. Andrew is attending one of the most prestigious music schools in the country and has just become the core drummer for the school’s studio jazz band led by the violent sociopath Terrence Fletcher (J.K. Simmons). Benoist’s Nicole is going to Fordham (a decent public college in NYC) and doesn’t even have a major yet. Andrew knows what he wants in life — to be the best drummer since Buddy Rich — and is pursuing his dreams with a laser focus. Nicole is content to be young and figure things out. Andrew doesn’t have time for those sort of distractions and he breaks up with her in the most condescending way possible.
That scene — and a handful of others thematically tied to it — is the heart of Whiplash, a film about what striving for greatness at any cost actually means. We’ve all seen so many biopics about “great” men (and women) that leaven the sacrifices these individuals make in their pursuit of glory with a degree of reconciliation… reconciliation with family they’ve pushed aside, the triumphant moments where they become the public figures we know and love today, lessons learned about the balance between work and happiness. When Whiplash finally delivers its “triumph,” it’s splattered in literal blood and involves the musical equivalent of a “hate fuck” between two sociopaths that have been hell bent on destroying one another.
I suspect that Whiplash resonates the strongest for those of us who have a little Andrew in us but realized how unhealthy our ambitions and aspirations had become and how those ambitions are empty when you don’t have anyone to share them with besides yourself. By the end of Whiplash, the only person that Andrew hasn’t alienated is his father (Paul Reiser), but he has his Charlie Parker moment in the film’s climactic sequence. Is it worth it? Andrew would say yes. Fletcher would say yes. Whiplash itself is a little more bearish on what Andrew has actually achieved.
There’s a scene in Whiplash that I’ve always felt was a little too on-the-nose although the film is so excellent in every other way that I don’t generally mind too much. Andrew has gotten Fletcher fired from the music academy after Andrew’s own expulsion for assaulting Fletcher on stage at a performance — after surviving a brutal car crash and dragging his broken body to the venue to perform. Andrew doesn’t know that Fletcher knows he got him fired and the two discuss Fletcher’s teaching methods which are… unorthodox to say the least.
Fletcher believes that the two most dangerous words in the English language are “good job.” I’ve had bosses that share his outlook on life. Fletcher doesn’t believe that positive reinforcement makes us strive to be better. He believes that pushing his pupils not just to the boundaries of their abilities is the best but actively pushing them past said boundaries is the only way any of them will ever achieve greatness. The film tells a story about Charlie Parker and Jo Jones several times, and Andrew wonders if Fletcher might discourage the next Charlie Parker with his teaching methods. Fletcher assures Andrew that the next Charlie Parker would never get discouraged, and both sincerely believe it.
One of the things that makes Whiplash work so well is that Andrew (and many of the other kids in Fletcher’s core band) isn’t a natural prodigy. He’s the alternate in his regular class’s band, and the other students don’t think highly of his talents. Fletcher chooses Andrew for his band because he recognizes almost immediately that Andrew is willing to do anything to be the best. And while the film makes hints in certain directions about why Andrew is so obsessed with greatness — an absentee mother, a father who is the definition of academic mediocrity — the film wisely doesn’t try to analyze Andrew to death and instead lets his obsessions (and his actions in regards to his obsessions) define him.
And an ugly truth the film lays bare — because it would be dishonest to do otherwise — is that for folks like Andrew who aren’t natural wunderkinds, that sort of desperate perfectionism and unhealthy discipline is necessary to be one of the greats. There is greatness in the small sense (the greatness that it is probably healthy to strive for). And there is greatness that redefines the boundaries of what it is possible for you to achieve, and that sort of greatness requires sacrifice and the more you sacrifice, the greater you’ll be at what you’re doing. I’m not sure that I’m a great writer, but I have written full-time at a professional level despite the fact that I don’t have any formal writing background. Writing is how I pay my bills and I was able to do that because for years I pushed school and friends and family and enjoying myself to the side so I could hone my craft on this blog and work for sites for “exposure” (fuck that shit). I never worked so hard that I was bleeding — as Andrew does multiple times in Whiplash — but there were periods where I was writing 4000+ words a day for this blog just trying to make it so that my writing was remotely fit for public consumption.
And when I was a kid, I was obsessed with my grades. If I got anything short of an A on a test or an assignment, I was an emotional wreck. I had to be the best. I couldn’t fail. And that was a result of the patriarchy. I never fit into traditional definitions of masculinity (I’m tiny and androgynous), but I could be smarter than everybody else. And I threw myself headfirst into being the best and letting everyone else know it (much like Andrew does when his family is over and he lords his music accomplishments over his college football playing cousins). And I was fucking miserable. I had no friends. Everybody hated me. There’s a reason I didn’t date until high school was essentially over. I was completely insufferable to be around. And I’d become that way because that was the only way that I thought (as society had tried to teach me) that I could distinguish myself.
But my life was empty. Those achievements were empty. They weren’t tied to anything bigger than myself. They weren’t part of a social link that was bigger than myself or my own personal need for validation. And the only moments in Whiplash that are healthy (by design) are the ones with those links. Andrew watching Rififi with his father. Andrew asking Nicole out on their first date and then bonding over the way that their parents overly criticize them on the date itself. The drummer Andrew will eventually come to loathe comforting Andrew after other members of their band mock his talents. And when Andrew finally does have his Charlie Parker moment, he’s thrown all of this away. Was it worth it?