I recently read a piece detailing the crisis of conscience experienced by a writer swept up in the philosophy of effective altruism, an ideology that seeks to improve the world as efficiently as possible. One of the pillars of effective altruism is the idea that morality and ethics know no distance, which is to say refraining from helping someone a world away is little different than refraining from helping a person right in front of your face. As such, there is always someone on the planet you can be striving to help, and when you aren’t, you aren’t being very effectively altruistic. So spending exorbitant amounts of time on writing a screenplay, as the author in question had, or exploring the arts, is a tricky subject for the creatively inclined effective altruist, as the global good any given piece of art is likely to achieve is pretty quickly dwarfed by any pursuit of charity. Which is to say that not only is my time spent writing this blog post a waste, it’s arguably morally reprehensible. A prospect I found most challenging. Quite a worldview, yeah?
All this is to say that one of the best ways I can describe writer-director Damien Chazelle’s film Whiplash to you is to say that it is precisely not a study in effective altruism.
Whiplash follows the pursuit by a young man named Andrew (Reed Richards [Miles Teller]) to be not just a great jazz drummer, but The Great Jazz Drummer. It’s an obsessive, rabid pursuit that leads him into the maw of a manipulative, brutal instructor, played by J.K. Simmons, who uses torment to either coax greatness out of his students or break them entirely. The film is tense and alive, but more than that it is challenging, almost aggressively so.
We all strive for some semblance of greatness in one thing or another, but watching Whiplash I couldn’t even pretend to have the drive the film’s protagonist displays. Whiplash challenged me to ask myself just how much effort I’m putting into what I want to do with my life and forced me to answer honestly.
Different as they are, by the time I was done watching Whiplash, I felt a hell of a lot like I did when I’d finished reading about effective altruism. Like someone who thought a good New Year’s resolution would be to run once a week being confronted by a triathlete at a New Year’s Day brunch.
Whiplash is a pretty extreme movie about extreme people with extreme motivation. It’s a movie that can simultaneously call into question your dedication and reaffirm your levelheadedness. It is by no means a feel good self-esteem boost, but it’s a damn fine Rorschach test when it comes to gauging our successes, our failures, and what exactly we’re doing with all of our time and effort.