It’s easy to imagine how life as a writer or director in Hollywood—which on a good day promises meddling producers, scripts-by-committee, and fealty to test audiences—might seriously distort how you think about the relationship between art and commerce. Given these obstacles, just getting a film to the screen might feel like a victory, though that victory can quickly turn pyrrhic. Just watch any actor or director on a late-night talk show, trying to put a shine on a film that’s DOA. It probably shouldn’t surprise us, then, if a film stumbles a bit when it addresses artistic life. I was thinking about this recently while watching Damian Chazelle’s Whiplash for the first time. I was four hours into a flight home from Amsterdam, tucked away in a cozy business class pod I’d poached at a bargain at a Schipol kiosk, and I was already on my second film—I’d started Whiplash almost immediately after finishing Burnt, the Bradley Cooper vehicle from last year, about a bad-boy chef’s scheme to bully his way back into the culinary thermosphere. Even the airline’s precision-tuned hospitality couldn’t stop me from feeling slightly dispirited. By any popular accounting, these were very different films (a heralded debut, a failed vanity project) and yet, in certain fundamental ways, they seemed disappointingly indistinguishable.
In Bradley Cooper’s hands, intelligence is a protean thing—charming, willful, defensive, and destabilizing, at once or in waves, at times touched by mania (Silver Linings Playbook), overcompensation (American Hustle), or even fraud (Limitless, The Words). In Silver Linings Playbook, David O. Russell gave Cooper’s self-doubt room to breathe and leveraged Cooper’s stubborn enthusiasm against the intractability of our idea of mental illness. In American Sniper, Clint Eastwood pushed Cooper’s charm inward, allowing it to bubble to the surface only occasionally, while simultaneously projecting the anxiety and insecurity out into the world, reconfiguring T.S. Eliot’s objective correlative as political gesture. If American Sniper is, as Richard Brody has written, a story about “genius in crisis,” it’s also a story about genius in the making and, ultimately, a story about the self-bargaining and self-deception with which we justify the sacrifices genius demands. That Kyle’s particular “genius” is lethal is a sly touch, though it doesn’t change the calculus. Eastwood’s film, far from being glib, elevates an abiding sympathy and righteous anger into a form of patriotism. As the Manichean architecture of Kyle’s moral universe crumbles, and his notions of duty, honor, good, and evil are undone by the complexity and carnage of war, Kyle crumbles along with it. Eastwood makes the heroic seem inherently fragile.
In John Wells’ Burnt, Cooper is, once again, a genius, though this time culinary. It’s a shame the film doesn’t take better advantage of Cooper’s comedic gifts and its own diminished stakes to inject the levity its premise demands:
Adam Jones had it all – and lost it. A two-star Michelin rockstar with the bad habits to match, the former enfant terrible of the Paris restaurant scene did everything different every time out, and only ever cared about the thrill of creating explosions of taste. To land his own kitchen and that third elusive Michelin star, though, he’ll need the best of the best on his side, including the beautiful Helene.
Wells is an accomplished writer and producer, though Burnt is just the third feature film he’s directed. Perhaps the pitch-meeting heuristic of “Top Gun meets Top Chef” appealed to John Wells, Producer even as the script’s reliance on exhausted signifiers doomed John Wells, Director, to failure. I’m saying it’s bad. But there are a lot of bad movies. So why did critics carve into this one with such cruel high-spirits? (This review, for instance, does yeoman’s work.) The answer, I think, resides in the film’s mistaken belief that it has something to say about something (“Art”) critics care about; that it proceeded to say it in such a hackneyed way only made the offense worse. Take an early scene in which Jones solicits a favor from a powerful restaurant critic, played by Uma Thurman, who not only goes along with his unethical plan but also says, to no one in particular:
“You know, when I lie awake at night and list my regrets, you’re one of them. I say to myself, ‘Simone, you’re a lesbian. Why did you sleep with Adam Jones?’”
This is the stuff of failed rewrites. Worse, however, this dialogue shows up just moments before the film’s protagonist screams at his staff that perfection takes priority over convenience (“Throw it away if it’s not perfect!”). That’s brazen.
The answer to Thurman’s question, if you’re wondering, is that everyone sleeps with Adam Jones. Or wants to. The film works diligently to ensure we understand Jones’ asceticism as a choice—men and women fawn all over him—tied to his heroic focus on craft. He’s more smug than seductive, however, and we’re left to infer his appeal from the fact that people around him react to him as if charmed. This is a perfectly fine method for detecting black holes from 8000 light years away (until recently, the only way), but it feels a tad lazy as a screenwriting technique. And yet, if the metaphor fits: Jones’ efforts at brand-rebuilding are driven by a pragmatic calculus that thinks nothing of blackmail and theft, and he’s no less of an asshole in the kitchen. In one particularly egregious series of events, Jones wheedles a fellow restaurateur to fire his head chef, Heléne (Sienna Miller), a single mother, so that she’s forced to work in Jones’ kitchen in spite of her clearly-stated preference otherwise. In due turn, he screams at her, assaults her, and fires her. They reconcile, of course, and yet even then he refuses to grant her a half-day off for her daughter’s birthday. Naturally, she develops into a love interest. Why?
No matter. Burnt makes masochists of all of us. The chefs are petulant, if talented, children who take a kind of survivor’s pride in their cruelty. Abuse is mistaken for competition, and competition is mistaken for education; it’s a marketplace of culinary idealism animated by a petty animus and creative destruction, regulated only by the invisible hand(s) of loyalty and respect. That’s not a complaint, mind you—I went to the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, so I get it—or at least it wouldn’t be if the movie took the idea seriously. But the film refuses to entertain the possibility that Jones isn’t the best (Jones never doubts himself and his peers never doubt him, and thus we’re never permitted to question it). As a result, Burnt isn’t the story it thinks it is, that of a persevering, battle-tested genius; it’s a story of peerage, more Russian oligopoly (or kleptocracy) than Adam Smith.
In spite of the focus on greatness, the film shows little interest in exploring the nature of Jones’ talents. We learn nothing about his origins (he had the standard “difficult” childhood, someone mentions), or his skills, or even, and this is most remarkable, his tastes. It’s fair to ask if the movie cares about food at all. Instead of taking a deep dive and showing us what culinary inspiration means, the film leaves us to watch him fret and fuss while he chases a form of perfection designed to please a Michelin reviewer. A third star is an accomplishment, but it’s one that completely ignores the relationship between a chef and his audience (whether it be his diners or those of us watching at home). Perhaps it’s a necessary narrative crutch. How do you show culinary inspiration, after all? But even so, it’s a MacGuffin that swallows the entire film. We’re left listening to Jones wax psychological about the kitchen being the “only place he’s every felt like he belonged” and his attraction to its “heat, pressure, and violence.” Save for a turn toward graciousness at the end—the equivalent of a tyrannical director dutifully checking off names from the Oscar stage—Jones behaves a bit like a sociopath. If only the film had the courage of its convictions and let Jones be the cipher or black hole it insinuates he might be… There’s a formalist and utilitarian appeal to the idea that art (culinary or otherwise) can channel our most unruly and dangerous impulses into another person’s pleasure. To recognize this appeal, however, you also have to recognize that art is larger, more interesting, and longer-lasting than its practitioners. Wells, caught somewhere between test audience expectations and serious inquiry, gets it precisely backwards. Burnt devotes too little attention to real emotions or real cooking to teach us anything about either.
Whiplash, a year older, might have provided Burnt some tips on how to dramatize the obsessive pursuit of artistic perfection. Andrew Neiman (Miles Teller), the protagonist of Damien Chazelle’s Whiplash, truly comes alive at his drum kit. But that’s just a charitable way of saying he’s a bit of a snooze everywhere else. For the first fifteen minutes of the film, Neiman, a freshman at the fictional Shaffer Conservatory in New York, shuffles from frame-to-frame, an amiable if blurry presence. There’s a hint of something edgier, though. It’s in the quickness with which he tells people that Shaffer is the best program in the country, and his semi-endearing, slightly-annoying transparency about his ambitions. Everything changes once Neiman falls under the tutelage of Terrance Fletcher (J.K. Simmons), the director of Shaffer’s top jazz orchestra, however. The movie turns abruptly away from its minor key realism and toward the allegorical, and what follows is a showy psychodrama that pits a father’s unconditional support against a legendary teacher’s arbitrary rules and impossible demands, making for crackling drama but shoddy psychology. As a theory of art, it’s worse. Fletcher, for whom “tough love” is too long by half, elevates withholding to an art form. And yet, for all of his splenetic, rhetorical force, Fletcher’s doctrine is incoherent. If he’s such a purist, and if validation is such an enemy, why does he rely so heavily on professional validation to motivate his orchestra? Ironically, Fletcher’s band is built for competition, and it’s safe to ask, as one cousin does at a Neiman family dinner, only to be met by Neiman’s contempt, how one decides who “wins” when aesthetic response is subjective or when genius is supposed to be its own reward. For Neiman, “the best” requires a belief that greatness can be measured and recognition meted out accordingly. Nothing Fletcher says challenges this conception. For all of his railing against the dangers of validation, he’s telling himself “good job” every time he polishes his trophies.
Fletcher is less a teacher than a cult leader, and his jazz-based religion (sadly, not this one) demands not discipline but monomania. Neiman is disappointingly quick to adopt Fletcher’s disdainful view of everything not-jazz, however, and almost immediately his successes and failures at Shaffer exert a Sims-like control over his outside life: when he earns praise, he asks the lovely cashier at the local art house theater on a date; later, when he’s castigated by Fletcher, he meets her for coffee and breaks up with her. She is dead weight, he says, and he’s on a path to glory that requires him to travel light. Worse, perhaps, at least professionally, he treats his fellow musicians with contempt. We watch him practice alone until his hands bleed, and this tortured solitude carries over even when he’s playing with the orchestra. Even if we accept that the life of a musician can be a bleak one, jazz itself has never felt so lonely.
In the final scene, an ambitious, tightly-choreographed set-piece, Neiman launches an epic drum performance, dragging the orchestra into a stirring rendition of Juan Tizol’s and Duke Ellington’s standard “Caravan.” As the camera circles, Neiman is framed in sharp focus as the rest of the orchestra blurs at the edges of the frame. The camera picks up even the smallest details of Neiman’s solo, the sweat bouncing on a cymbal, tiny specks of blood on his kit, before swiveling to Fletcher, now reduced to being a cheerleader, and then to Neiman’s father, looking on in disbelief from behind the small glass window of a door. Watching Neiman leave everything behind—Fletcher, his father, his fellow orchestra members, and seemingly physics itself—I thought, of all things, of Kubrick’s star-child and 2001: A Space Odyssey. Dialectical, allegorical, virtuosic, and fetishistic, Whiplash seems to be talking less about artistic genius than it is about something both more grand and more abstract, a transcendent individuality based on technical proficiency, at once accomplished and utterly masturbatory. Sure, as Neiman drums deeper and deeper into solipsism, he gets an approving nod from Fletcher, but at what price to his friends and family, his bandmates, and, finally, his audience? To Chazelle, like Kubrick, audience members are like taxpayers, expected to foot the bill for an exploration that was designed to leave them behind all along.
Ground control to Major Tom? The risk inherent in thinking of artistic ascendance as a dialectic is an almost pathological linearity. The narrative necessitates that everything feed into the development and arrival of the artist and thus that everything be consumed or discarded along the way. It’s fundamentally solitary. And through it, even the past is converted to fuel: Jones is drawn to flash of fire and the knife’s-edge, and his derogation of sous-vide cooking as poaching fish in a “condom” is intended, I can only imagine, to posit him as a bareback kind of guy in a world of culinary safe-sex. Neiman draws inspiration from the mid-century virtuoso Buddy Rich, identifies with the jazz of the 1930s (he tries to impress his date by noting some swing from 1932 on the pizza parlor stereo) and, as far as I can tell, ignores anything after 1960. The films fetishize tradition but can’t be bothered to get that tradition right. Through this kind of utilitarian alchemy, the rich, complicated history of jazz—quintessentially American, born of slavery-era African American culture—becomes the story of a white private school student’s struggle to play drums in front of Lincoln Center millionaires (right next to Lincoln Center’s David H. Koch Theatre). Is this kind of white-washing a symptom or side-effect of this process or is it the point? Does it matter? The method by which Fletcher “teaches” Neiman is a caustic winnowing in which he attacks everything—Neiman’s sexuality, his ethnicity, his socioeconomic background, his birthright—that’s not straight, white, male. Burnt doesn’t fare much better, braced and bracketed by its own rigidly hierarchical notions of masculinity. It’s not just that lesbians stop being lesbians around Jones, it’s the almost-vampiric unilaterality of Jones’ relationship with Tony, an old friend who funds Jones’ restaurant, cleans up his messes, and pines for him from across the kitchen. There’s a risk inherent in confusing competition for natural order. The films’ faith in competition as a kind of meritocratic clearinghouse is essentially neoliberal, and like neoliberalism the films are frustratingly blind to their own narrow demographic sensibility. The films rise out of, and give in to, the same narrative Hollywood has been telling itself for years and, as a result, serve to justify and reify Hollywood’s entrenched successes, excesses, and biases.
This world-view is called into question by the Coens’ Inside Llewyn Davis, which dares to suggest, in an almost Rawlsian way, that the distribution of talent and success might each be inequitable or even arbitrary. Set at the turn of the 1960s in New York’s Greenwich Village, it follows a few days in the life of its titular antihero, a folk singer trying (and failing) to carve out a career. Davis isn’t so different from Jones or Neiman. He sings beautifully, and he’s darkly charismatic, self-absorbed, ambitious, and self-sacrificing. He is, in other words, a character of thorny complexity, and thus perfectly at home within the Coens’ cosmology. But there’s an uncomfortable neutrality toInside that’s a far cry from the hero-worship of Whiplash and Burnt. The film is decidedly agnostic about Davis’ talent. He’s not bad, mind you, but he’s not great, and the way this plays against narrative expectations creates a fog of uncertainty that rolls in early and never clears. Davis, on the other hand, is convinced that he’s special, and his sense of his own specialness drives him onward, over and through everything that might stand in his way. Although he’s not without conscience, his loyalty to his own ambition is blinding and, as a result, even his attempts at accountability tend to exacerbate his mistakes—he’s like “King Midas’s idiot brother,” he’s told, because “everything he touches turns to shit.” Like Jones and Neiman, Davis looks for validation everywhere. He’s hungry for commercial success, and he’s hungry for artistic recognition (even from people he doesn’t respect) and, in their absence, he’s prone to a petty nihilism that expresses itself through bullish destruction, whether by angrily heckling a performer onstage or sleeping with married friends. For much of the film, we’re inclined to question Davis’ behavior, but not his ambition. By the end, it’s impossible to tell the two apart.
The film blurs these lines by up-ending the myth of artistic ascent and instead tracking what might be Davis’ last days as an artist. Davis is broke, dead-eyed from his day-to-day hustle, exhausted from couch-surfing. He’s no longer young. His solo debut album isn’t selling. As a result of all of this, his search for validation takes on an almost manic intensity that inspires Davis to tag along on a drive to Chicago in a last-ditch attempt to catch a promoter’s eye. Davis fails, of course—the promoter doesn’t “see a lot of money” in Davis’ songs. But even the successes don’t feel much like successes—the film is stacked high with remaindered albums (by Davis and others) that drive home the point that what feels like artistic arrival often ends up disappointingly anticlimactic. Here, validation seems less a coronation than a kind of payday loan, a usurious line of credit fueling a bad bet. Artistic neediness becomes indistinguishable from blind self-bargaining. If this sounds dispiriting, that’s because it is. One evening, after dinner with the Gorfeins, a sweet, middle-aged bourgeois couple who now-and-again provides Davis with a meal and a bed, Mrs. Gorfein asks Davis to sing for them. The wife struggles to comprehend his hesitation, noting that music issupposed to be “a joyous expression of the soul.” It’s clear, however, that Davis doesn’t even understand what that means anymore. Like Jones and Neiman, Davis mistakes his lack of generosity for purity and purpose, and defines himself through what he rejects. The difference, of course, is that the Coens recognize this as a character flaw. They don’t elevate it to an ethos.
I was Andrew Neiman. I was built for my MFA program, a natural fit for an environment where the fight for funding (and by extension status) was very public. Those times I managed to come out on top, I imagined it to be not only fair but just. Like Jones and Neiman, I was an outsider, or felt like one—small-town, middle class, a middling student who graduated from a mid-sized state university—and I viewed my time in graduate school as a kind of class struggle, relying upon fellowships, awards, and praise to prop me up and propel me onward. By the time I left Iowa, I’d won a national prize and my first book of poetry was on the verge of being released by a giant New York publishing house. Which is why it would be hard for me to say that the MFA system as I knew it doesn’t “work.” It just depends on how we define “work.” I improved dramatically, others around me improved dramatically, and something akin to literature was created almost daily. That’s no small thing. But the system—an illusory gift economy that also yields at a nudge to reveal a neoliberal faith in competition—could hardly be called fair or just. In retrospect, I’m not even sure what “winning” meant, other than that I was the right person, in the right place, at the right time. It’s probably not coincidence, then, that the “winners” of the Workshop sweepstakes (and, honestly, the program itself) looked an awful lot like the monolithic casts of Burnt and Whiplash.
Further, as much as the structure and validation—the constant reassurance that I was, in fact, talented—provided me with a temporary fix-it or release from lacerating self-doubt, it wasn’t the source or catalyst of my improvement. Not really. Inside Llewyn Davis seems to grasp this. For all the struggle and internal competition within his Greenwich Village community, Davis is cared for by those around him, both artists and patrons, who provide him with meals and shelter, find him jobs, line up his performances. The artists struggle with one another, but they struggle together. As such, the Coens construct a Village that is truly a village and it’s hard not to feel some longing for their shared purpose and experiences. If the film allows for any redemption at all (and if does, it merly flickers), it rests in the possibility that Davis might come to appreciate those around him just a little more by the end. Art isn’t forged in the fire of competition. Not really. And, although artists may live for moments of Neiman-like transcendence, they still need to figure out how to live every other minute of the day. Two years after I left Iowa, I’d stopped writing altogether.
If we’re at the end of the MFA’s reign as a gatekeeper and tastemaker, I’m not going to mourn. I benefited from it, without question. I not only ended up publishing a book but managed to parlay my experience there and a decent LSAT score into a legal education. But the fact that I so desperately craved admission and approval, that I blindly accepted both as a measure of actual value, explains a lot about the trajectory of my writing career after. When I walked away from academia and writing, it was in large part because I realized that I’d gotten the math all wrong. And Mrs. Gorfein, it turns out, was right. As the credits to Whiplash began to roll, and I tilted back into the dark quiet of the cabin, high above the Atlantic, I thought of James Baldwin’s “Sonny’s Blues.” It was the first short story I ever loved, and I used to teach it in my writing and literature classes. Like Whiplash, it’s the story of a young jazz musician. Narrated by the title character’s brother (like Neiman’s father, a high school teacher), who has been at odds with Sonny over his lifestyle, Baldwin’s short story concludes with Sonny’s return to the stage after his release from prison on drug charges. Baldwin’s depiction of the performance shares little with Whiplash’s celebration of willpower and technique, invoking instead the idea of art as an act of generosity and community:
And as though he commanded, Sonny began to play. Something began to happen. And Creole let out the reins. The dry, low black man said something awful on the drums, Creole answered, and the drums talked back. Then the horns insisted, sweet and high, slightly detached perhaps, and Creole listened, commenting now and then, dry, and driving, beautiful and calm and old. They all came together again and, and Sonny was part of the family again. I could tell this from his face.
In the ebb-and-flow of the on-stage collaboration, Baldwin provides a compelling argument for the pain (collateral and otherwise) that we must accept as the price for art. Genius, he suggests, resides in performance, not the individual, and as such it is a fleeting thing, existing “only for a moment” before releasing us back into the world, where “trouble stretches above us, longer than the sky.” For Baldwin, the quintessential outsider, this is far from a lonely act:
Sonny’s fingers filled the air with life, his life. But that life contained so many others. And Sonny went all the way back, he really began with the spare, flat statement of the opening phrase of the song. Then he began to make it his. It was very beautiful because it wasn’t hurried and it was no longer a lament. I seemed to hear with what burning he had made it his, and what burning we had yet to make it ours, how we could cease lamenting. Freedom lurked around us and I understood, at last, that he could help us to be free if we would listen, that he would never be free until we did. Yet, there was no battle in his face now, I heard what he had gone through, and would continue to go through until he came to rest in earth. He had made it his: that long line, of which we knew only Mama and Daddy. And he was giving it back, as everything must be given back, so that, passing through death, it can live forever.
Spencer Short is an attorney and author. His collection of poetry, Tremolo (Harper 2001), was awarded a 2000 National Poetry Series Prize. His poetry and non-fiction have been published in The Boston Review, Coldfront, theColumbia Review, Hyperallergic, Men’s Digest, Slate, and Verse. He lives in Philadelphia.