Best Ethics Movie Of The Year: “Whiplash”

I doubt that it will win “Best Picture” at the Oscar (though the consensus seems to be that J.K. Simmons, who dominates the film, has “Best Supporting Actor” in the bag), but “Whiplash” is the best film of the year that explores an ethics conundrum of long standing.

Without spoiling the film for those of you—the odds say a majority—who haven’t seen it, let me explain why.

“Whiplash” is ostensibly about a gifted music student’s quest to become not merely a good but a great jazz drummer. On the way, he encounters a fanatic, merciless, manipulative and demanding teacher (Simmons) who sees the young man’s passion and potential and is determined to either make his greatness bloom or break him trying. The movie raises the eternal question of the ethical obligation of the gifted to use their gifts to enrich society, culture and mankind. Arturo Toscanini once berated Bing Crosby for “wasting” his once-in-a-lifetime voice on popular music rather than opera. Is possession of a remarkable ability or talent something that forces the possessor to live an altruistic existence, subordinating his or her own desires to what will most benefit others? Is it unethical to refuse, to choose another path, one that is less daunting, easier, more relaxing, surer, without the stress, without the burden of chasing perfection and extraordinary success?

In “Whiplash, ” it appears that the prodigy has already made the choice to reach his potential. Simmons, however, realizes, as his student does not, how much pain and sacrifice is required. So important is the objective of not allowing a potential great to fail to take full advantage of a rare accident of genetics (or a divine blessing), that Simmons believes other, lesser human beings must be sacrificed as well.

We learn that the Simmons character sees it as his sacred duty to make sure that a great talent reaches full potential, no matter what brutality and cruelty is necessary to get it there. It’s a frightening spectacle, and a disturbing theory.

Is the character right? Let’s put aside the question of whether his methodology is the correct and effective way to accomplish that goal. You can consider that when you see the movie. I think it is possible to push brilliant students to achieve without making them want to quit or have a psychotic break.

I also believe that in part, Simmons is correct, and history supports his belief. The truly great is any field are obsessive; their values are warped to view one thing, and one thing only, as their life’s goal. Great achievers tend to be narrow and afflicted with tunnel vision; great men and women are often, even usually, poor spouses, neglectful parents, manipulating friends and ruthless colleagues. When your attention is focused like a laser on one goal, like being the greatest baseball hitter that ever lived (Ted Williams), or being the most brilliant composer (Mozart), or the greatest chess player (Bobby Fischer), or the most successful bodybuilder (Arnold Schwarzenegger), you sacrifice a lot of life’s variety and diversity on the way to giving civilization something special.

You also risk becoming a monster. Teachers and mentors like Simmons are intentionally building monsters, because they view the reward, immortal contributions to civilization and culture, as worth the undeniable harm to the individuals possessing the seed of greatness.

Is it necessary and noble for an artist, athlete or leader to sacrifice their humanity for the greater good? Is it selfish, a sin, a crime, for someone gifted with brilliance to choose to be a good and emotionally sound person rather than an important one? Is the mentor, parent or teacher who pushes a young genius to the breaking point as a way of ensuring that his or her gift isn’t lost to the world ethical, or is the teacher perverse?

I have been troubled by this question, as a lifetime dilettante who chose to do many things (arguably) well rather than any one thing brilliantly, most of my life, and was, very early, chastised about that choice by a teacher who could have been played by J.K. Simmons, though in drag.

See “Whiplash,” and let me know what you think.

19 thoughts on “Best Ethics Movie Of The Year: “Whiplash”

  1. That is precisely the dilemma, well put.

    I think each person has to come to their own answers, but it’s important not to evade the tough question – anyone who thinks the answer is ‘obvious’ is just not thinking.

  2. My parents and later teachers tried to push a third option: that of being high-level at everything, the thought being that you could not know what you were truly good at and were not permitted to specialize until you finished college, and the principle that once you started something, including an activity like music, you were not permitted to stop until you achieved some level of success or closed out that portion of life, i.e. you could stop something you did in high school once you got to college.

  3. I have to tell you, I am mediocre at just about everything. Two exceptions: Bob Ewell in MOCKINGBIRD and, strangely, Earthquake McGoon in L’il Abner. Neither have anything to do with what I did for a living. My whole, entire goal was to help as many people as possible live happy, productive lives and I’d like to think I succeeded. I believe that if I had been ambitious enough, I could have been rich and possibly famous, but the drive just wasn’t there. I was more interested in raising my son’s and enjoying life with my wife (took me a while to find her…#3…but she is the joy of my life). May not…probably not…the best way to go, and retired poor, but I’m still enjoying it.

    • You sound so much like me. It took me up until recently to figure out what I wanted to do, and even now I have the occasional doubt. All my ambitions had to do with being some sort of servant’ though. I feel that God has blessed me with lots of life lessons, and endowed me with such love for my fellow humans that I could be really good at helping people in one way or another too. I’m also on wife 3 (lost the first wife and daughter to a drunk driver, so I’m not sure how to count that). Lots of people have said “you should be a shrink”, but my wife says “no, you’d just tell everyone to shut up and quit bellyaching”. Nonetheless, I’d love to figure out something that I’m singularly talented at, develop the business sense to sell it, then disappear into the woods with my family, and self-sufficiently make widgets about 3 hours a day and play with my kids the rest of the time. I’ll probably die financially poor anyway, but if God sees fit to let me die surrounded by my precious family, I would have no complaints.

        • Thanks, Steven. The truth is, I didn’t hold up well for a very, very long time. They were my world, and my world was gone. A few months later,I had a gram of potassium cyanide in a 5cc syringe, and the needle in my arm. It was nothing less than a miracle that a good friend of mine happened to walk through my door just as I got the blood backflash in the syringe. It took a long time to be whole again, and I was stronger in a lot of ways, but there’s still some problems. I obsess over my family’s safety (the safest car, the best snow tires, top of the line car seats, the fact that my 6-year old still has to be rear-facing), my wife has to text me every time she arrives anywhere safely, It’s hard to say good-night or goodbye for the day, and sometimes I’m up late at night worrying about them. Still, I don’t take one minute with them for granted, and so I think we probably enjoy our time together more than most families do. In a way, I feel bad for people who don’t occasionally have experiences (not like that, of course) that help them get their priorities straight.

  4. Saw the movie. It was disturbing, and left me with some of the same questions but a slightly different take. The problem with the movie is that the potentially brilliant young man is not only aspiring to be the best jazz drummer ever, he is driven by a sadistic professor for two reasons — not just one: the first purported goal of the professor was to bring the young man’s true brilliance to the world; but it is painfully clear that this same professor also WANTED THE CREDIT for doing so and to achieve brilliance VICARIOUSLY through his student. This second objective is at the heart of this particular movie about the obligations of brilliance (in any field) — and about the motivations of those who drive young prodigies to either their highest achievement, insanity, or the unfortunate choice to get as far away from their real talents as possible.

    And this happens constantly and consistently with kids with great (or even just good) potential, if not brilliance. Parents, teachers, mentors, often drive these kids mercilessly, creating either pliant achievers (or over-achievers) or those who say “fuck you” and go off and do something completely out-of-the-box. (And here the vicarious achievement of the parent/teacher/mentor comes into play again: I was horrified, for example, watching some of the the fathers of other kids while my son played Little League. Horrible, pushy, mean, demanding, loud, and disrespectful. Nice role models, don’t you think? But then again being a good role model was the farthest thing from their [tiny] minds.) Hurray for the latter, in my opinion, because pursuing any passion or interest, out-of-the-box or not (e.g., raising a happy and emotionally centered child, or inventing a new kind of cereal box) is better than being pushed, prodded, and bullied into something by someone who has an agenda that is his alone, and not in the best interests of the individual being driven.

    For the sake of honestly, this from a person for whom a “B” was an “F”, and who, if she scored 99.75% on a test was first asked where she lost the quarter-point…

  5. I have mixed feeling about the character Simmons portrayed. He is brutal to the young jazz drummer but sometimes music teachers are like that. The good ones show a little compassion along with not letting people fake it. Better than the “everybody is exceptional” attitude that is seen in too many public schools and sometimes in American Universities.

  6. First of all, skills that one must be born with, that is, inbuilt physiological abilities, don’t tend to make that much difference to the world, either because they can be replicated with technology or because they cannot and therefore systems cannot be built around them. They are also not all that rare; I admire Bing Crosby’s singing ability but I think “once-in-a-lifetime” is romanticising it a bit. There are plenty of people born with excellent voices who never train them at all, let alone go into “mere” popular music. Point 1: Assuming most “gifts” are aesthetic stuff like being an excellent jazz drummer, they don’t matter that much. Point 2: They aren’t that rare, but they only get noticed when a person with one chooses to do something related to it.

    Furthermore, as far as I can tell, “genius” is not above-average ability per se, but rather a passion for a particular activity or subject of study that other people consider useful or cool. Such passion causes people to think about the activity and ways to improve on it when their minds would otherwise be idle or engaged in more conventional means of relaxation. “Living and breathing” a particular skill will lead to developing it to a capacity that others marvel at. Many geniuses tend to have limited scope, but there are some who “live and breath” skills that can be generalized to a variety of tasks.

    The most important implication of this idea is that anyone can in theory become great at anything that does not have physical requirements, provided they are prepared to sacrifice some of their preferred pastimes. Therefore, we do not need to wait for geniuses if we are dedicated enough and practice being inspired. The only advantage of geniuses is that it is emotionally easier for them to develop the skills necessary to excel, and they therefore develop them faster and more than most other people are willing to work for. Though mastering a skill takes different amounts of grinding for different people, only those who have the will to persevere, whatever their motivations, will be the ones to excel, and only at the very top does any rare inborn advantage come into play. Point 3: Any jobs that actually need doing, we don’t need “gifts” for; just hard work.

    The second important implication of this concept of “genius” is that people who are not particularly interested in a topic don’t tend to do as well in it in the first place. A person may have the mental acuity to be able to master any skill, but they can only use it effectively if they either have a genuine emotional affinity for what they are using it to practice, or they have the determination to learn a skill they dislike in order to achieve a goal. Because genius means spending one’s spare time imagining ways to improve, punishments and rewards tend to be ineffective at promoting excellence. Through fear or anticipation, people would focus on the negative or positive consequences rather than on the skill itself. They would avoid experimentation and other risks, and perhaps even thinking about the activity. Point 4: “Potential” cannot be unlocked through extrinsic motivation because that distracts the learner from the skill itself.

    Finally, although I consider it most ethical to use my skills for the betterment of the world, I see no reason why I should accept someone else’s judgment as to how. I will consider advice from people, but I will also consider their biases (a music teacher thinks practicing music is the most worthy career? Go figure!) I’m no Untermensch; I do not do things because I have to. I’m an Ubermensch; I do things because I want to. I will judge for myself the most worthy use of my time, taking into account opportunity costs based on my various “potentials,” but also figuring out different ways to apply them in my chosen path. I was just today reading an RPG description where certain character types get bonuses to different traits. +2 strength means they can arrange their skill points to have strength second to none, or it means they can have above average strength but have extra points to spend on other skills. A gift can take a person beyond others’ reach in one skill, or it can allow them to be quite good at many skills. Alternatively, it could be used to excel at a purpose others hadn’t thought of. Instead of using superhuman strength for adventuring, one could use it for emergency services. I call to question whether it was not worthier to allow the masses to experience Bing’s voice rather than cloister it for wealthy cultural elitists and snobs. Point 5: “Gifts” are versatile, so just because it is not being used they way you think it should be doesn’t mean it isn’t actively bettering the world.

    • 1. Having spent a lot of time studying Bing and other singers, believe me, he had a once in a millenium voice, a tenor who could hit the bass range. There’s been no one since even close. Yes, I know that a fisherman in Figi may be even better, but that’s just speculation.
      2. Points 1-3 inexplicably underestimate the importance, rarity and contributions of artistic talent to the culture and civilization. Salieri could work for a lifetime and not be Mozart. Nothing will make Mickey Spillane into Shakespeare, who, by the way, contributed more to human wisdom and enlightenment than Newton.
      3. #4 is often true. Not necessarily, though.
      4. #5 is an important and often ignored fact of life.

  7. Which Film Deserves to Win Best Picture was a pre-Oscar Variety article pitting two of the industry publication’s major critics against each other. The excerpt below from one analysis of “Whiplash” provoked my response to it, which follows thereafter.

    Guy Lodge: . . . People across all walks of the industry sincerely adore and admire “Whiplash”; its deserving presence in the blockbuster-inclined sound-mixing category speaks volumes. And yet I was surprised how little I felt the promised rush. For all its skittering expertise of craft, there’s a dishonesty to its characterization that denied me the emotional release for which the film — like all hard-fought art, as Chazelle’s screenplay states — strives. J.K. Simmons’ forcefully played conductor is a symbol of either constructive perfectionism or self-sabotaging sadism; despite its hell-for-leather bravado, “Whiplash” never makes a pronouncement either way, and I would argue that its fable-like construction demands otherwise.
    Both critics unreservedly named Simmons for Supporting Actor, by the way. (I originally mis-attributed the excerpt to Justin Chang, corrected here to Guy Lodge; the post is otherwise unchanged):
    Thanks for this polite and perspicacious joust (including handshakes amidst the battles). This kind of article raises the value of Variety’s single-author reviews yet another notch.

    Countering (or at least mitigating) Guy Lodge’s criticism of Simmons’ character is Jack Marshall’s authoritative post on his Ethics Alarms website awarding “Whiplash” Best Ethics Movie of the Year. The major argument used in the Variety review — that NOT resolving the characterization of Fletcher’s “either constructive perfectionism or self-sabotaging sadism” is dishonest — is seen rather to be its strength, both ethically and dramatically. For the script or its supporting actor’s emotional high-wire act to have come down on one side or another would have been … a come down.

    Here are a few of the Best Ethics Movie questions left behind in the dust if there had been an arbitrary closure: “Is it necessary and noble for an artist, athlete or leader to sacrifice their humanity for the greater good? Is it selfish, a sin, a crime, for someone gifted with brilliance to choose to be a good and emotionally sound person rather than an important one? Is the mentor, parent or teacher who pushes a young genius to the breaking point as a way of ensuring that his or her gift isn’t lost to the world ethical, or is the teacher perverse?”

    If Whiplash demands the simple(minded) moralizing of a “fable”, as Lodge sees it, then we need to do a reality check on Aesop. And forget about having anything but audio quality to talk about when the movie’s over.

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