Columnist discusses several films’ approach towards competition

by Sammy Bonasso, ’20

The most memorable visual from 2014’s Whiplash depicts the protagonist, a drummer pushed to greatness by his abusive teacher, drenching his hand, bloodied from playing, in a water pitcher. The blood infecting the purity of the rest of the water symbolizes—rather evidently—the pollution of the protagonist’s psyche by his teacher.

Overall, Damien Chazelle’s 2014 film would have viewers believe a dichotomy reigns in everyone’s life: be a person or be great. Everyone can choose a legacy or a life for themselves—to enjoy and commit to the people you meet or cut them out to invest in a passion. What a cruel, binary world the people who adopt this mindset live in! Yet I often can’t help but believe in it.

Image courtesy Paramount Vantage

Also consider Paul Thomas Anderson’s 2007 film “There Will Be Blood.” Protagonist Daniel Plainview, a greedy oilman in 19th century California, finds success by allowing no one else to succeed. He embodies the avaricious spirit of industrial America and summarizes the film’s themes in one sentence: “I have a competition in me …”

These films resonate with me like no other book, song, or conversation can. They so uncannily codify the approach I’ve taken to success in high school that I recommend the films to anybody and everybody (I lent Mr. Palmer “TWBB” as a junior and recently gave Mr. Silliman “Whiplash”).

However, adopting either of these mindsets, as I’ve done in the past, proves detrimental to one’s worldview. Keep in mind that I didn’t base any of my views on these films; I watched the movies only after I’d grappled with the themes they address.

I often grow depressed when I start to believe “Whiplash”—that we must decide between humanity and greatness. If you pursue greatness, you’ll spend most of your time working and likely equate amount of work with success (at least, that was my path). As you grow more involved with your work, you’ll think little of social interaction, and you’ll be launched deeper and deeper into obsession.

Adopting a “There Will Be Blood” mindset, however, causes you to view others as little more than competition and to rejoice when they fail. Given enough passion, a relentlessly competitive nature could cause a person to go out of his or her way to make others lose, as Plainview does.

I adopted each of these mindsets, in one way or another, my sophomore year. Unsurprisingly, that year proved to be the most difficult of my life, largely on account of how I viewed others and the world. And there are countless more unhealthy mindsets regarding success; identifying all would be a vain task. We should take note of the healthy methods towards success, instead.

Image courtesy Sony Pictures

Look to Damien Chazelle’s second film, “La La Land.” Like “Whiplash,” “La La Land” maintains that we must forfeit being with people to achieve greatness, but the film also celebrates these people, as they often help us accomplish our dreams. “La La Land” doesn’t maintain that we must give up our humanity to succeed, either.

Why not learn from Paul Thomas Anderson’s film “Phantom Thread,” as well? The movie recognizes the competition present in all relationships but, unlike “There Will Be Blood,” offers a solution to this toxicity: mutual sacrifice and allowing someone else to succeed over you.

Of course, 120-minute films can’t offer concrete solutions to complex questions, as much as I wish they could. But I relate to cinema more than any other medium, so I draw most inspiration from movies. I recommend you watch all the films I listed, but don’t limit yourself to this medium: Search for answers in books, songs, and especially other people.