Archive | January, 2015

Whiplash

12 Jan

Some things to know before diving in:

  • Readers should be aware that this is a summary of my thoughts on the movie Whiplash. It don’t consider it a review, per se, but it does give an impression of my assessment of the film. However, unlike a movie review, I am not primarily setting out to describe why I think the movie is good or bad, and I am not taking care to avoid spoilers. Therefore, if you haven’t seen the film and don’t want spoilers and/or deeper analysis of various aspects of the film, I recommend not continuing until you have seen the movie.
  • I also want to give two items of context to be held or considered when reading this review.
    1. As of this writing, I have seen Whiplash once – on Jan 4, 2015. There may be nuances I have missed or may see differently on a second viewing. I also recognize that I generally have my most intense emotional reactions to movies during a first viewing, and that can skew my perspective or what appears to be of more importance in a film. The week since the viewing has also likely shifted some aspects in my memory, I suspect, and I will do my best to supplement my fuzzier memories with information from the internet, which, of course, can also be skewed in its own way.
    2. I fully recognize that one’s personal, emotional reaction to film (and art) is a very subjective experience and the conclusions one makes about such art are inherently influenced by these subjective reactions. While I do agree that there are objective principles with which one can generally evaluate art and the intent of the artist is valuable to explore and understand, what an individual recognizes as a primary theme or what one identifies as the most impactful and important aspects of that artwork can understandably vary greatly from person to person. While I consider the thoughts below to be true, I understand why they either didn’t occur to others or others consider them less important to the overall movie than I do.

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After seeing the movie, Whiplash, I have listened to and read many assessments of its themes and purpose. From the general culture, much of the discussion is centered around whether the abusive methods of teacher, Terrence Fletcher (J.K. Simmons) are:

  1. Required or at least integral to the creation of extraordinary artists (or other professionals) who desire to be the very best at what they do and/or advance the profession in which they work.
  2. Abuse, plain and simple, that is not to be tolerated, regardless of results. The ends do not justify the means.
  3. Something in between. Maybe intense “pushing” is required, but not that intense. Maybe it is required once one has determined the individual to be capable of coping with it, but shouldn’t be used on others that may not be able to cope with it or don’t have the initial potential talent to yield the desired results.

There is another, smaller community within my personal network that, on the whole, loves Whiplash, but don’t see assessing the teacher’s methods as the primary point of the film. Generally, this community sees the student, Andrew Nieman (Miles Teller), as the focal point, which I agree with. The movie is a dramatic tale of recognizing and following through on your goals – a view of how one lives a life of purpose and acts in accordance with reality to achieve extraordinary goals.

The writer and director clearly states the movie was made to encourage people to examine and assess Fletcher’s teaching methods:

“To what extent is it the tyranny pushing people, and to what extent is it other stuff? I personally think fear is a motivator, and we shouldn’t deny that. Someone like Fletcher preys on fear. I think there’s a reason his methodology sometimes works, both in real life and on the screen. Fletcher’s methodology is like if there was an ant on this table, and I wanted to kill it, so I used a bulldozer. Yeah, you kill the ant, but you also do a lot of other damage. And in Fletcher’s mindset, that’s actually fine. Fletcher’s mindset is, “If I have 100 students, and 99 of them are, because of my teaching, ultimately discouraged and crushed from ever pushing this art form, but one of them becomes Charlie Parker, it was all worth it.” That’s not a mentality I share, but in many ways, that’s the story of the movie. He potentially finds his Charlie Parker, but he causes a lot of wreckage in that pursuit.”

Of course, in the same interview, the author notes:

“If you’re going to play music or do any art form, just as a hobby or as purely a source of enjoyment, then yeah, you should enjoy it. But I do believe in pushing yourself. If you actually take the idea of practice seriously—to me, practice should not be about enjoyment. Some people think of practice as “You do what you’re good at, and that’s naturally fun.” True practice is actually about just doing what you’re bad at, and working on it, and that’s not fun. Practice is about beating your head against the wall. So if you’re actually serious about getting better at something, there’s always going to be an aspect of it that’s not fun, or not enjoyable. If every single thing is enjoyable, then you’re not pushing yourself hard enough, is probably how I feel. But this movie takes it to a extreme that I do not condone.”

Chazelle goes onto discuss how he feels jazz is full of more cruelty and hatred than people often realize or want to admit. He also asserts the importance of people who surround artists while rejecting the notion that “those who can’t do, teach.” Teachers, critics, historians, producers are not inconsequential to any given art form, but their tasks and purposes are fundamentally different from the person onstage, playing the tune.

When looking back on the movie, this ambiguous questioning is certainly evident. While never condoning Fletcher’s methods, the idea of wringing greatness out of an artist via pain and fear is also not wholly rejected.

With that background, I move onto my thoughts about the movie:

In my opinion, the movie is about how good people are lured into abusive relationships and the difficulty (and reward) of moving past them, even while recognizing any benefits you may have gained from them. The hardest abuse to recognize and protect yourself from comes from people who convince you that it is for your own good – allowed into your life by promising you things that are noble desires and by recognizing and praising your talents. Then, the abuse is perpetrated wrapped in the rationalization that it is the only way you can achieve your potential.

Often, in the course of such abuse, the victim is psychologically broken and substitutes the desire to achieve their potential for the desire to please the abuser. They see pleasing the abuser as synonymous with achieving their potential and lose the nuanced difference between the two. This can often be seen in cases of abuse of a romantic partner. The abuser takes advantage of the victim’s desire for a romantic relationship – a completely valid and noble desire – and breaks them down to the point that the victim comes to define a successful romantic relationship as one where their partner is constantly satiated, mollified, and happy. Their role in a successful relationship is to keep or make their partner happy – regardless of their own happiness. Insidious ideas such as unconditional love and sacrifice as a requirement for happy relationships feed into this contortion.

Onto some details…

In Whiplash, Fletcher initially meets Andrew while Andrew is practicing alone at night. Fletcher’s reputation for leading one of the best ensembles at one of the best schools in the nation (world?) piques Andrew’s desire to obtain Fletcher’s approval and a spot in his ensemble. In the initial meeting, Fletcher offers no assessment of Andrew’s ability, but mocks him with linguistics (“I asked why you stopped playing and you started playing again”).

As Fletcher hunts for talent in the lesser ensembles at Shaffer, his methods of weeding out the wheat from the chaff include some assessment of skill, but are ultimately masterful manipulations to turn students away from looking at what they may or may not have played incorrectly and towards attempting to figure out how to impress Fletcher. This is further developed in a later scene where Fletcher expels a student from the elite ensemble when the student admits (incorrectly) to playing out of tune. Fletcher justifies this, noting that the student was in tune, but couldn’t tell, and that was worse than being out of tune. However, you can’t tell if the student did actually know if they were out of tune or not. All we know for sure is the student couldn’t stand up to the abusive manner with which Fletcher attempts to find the source of the discordance.

In the course of the movie, one of Fletcher’s former students dies. This isn’t shown, but merely discussed. We see Fletcher when he gets the call and can feel his palpable distress. Shortly after, Fletcher plays a recording of the student performing and praises his skills and talent, obviously upset over of his early death. Fletcher explains that the student died in a car accident.

We later learn that the student committed suicide after suffering from depression and anxiety for years. This is intended to show that Fletcher’s methods are destructive for the individual as a whole, even while they may contribute to positive development of specific skills. It is also intended to show that Fletcher knows this. By lying about the manner of death, Fletcher feels the suicide is – at least potentially or partially – his fault. I will grant that one could mourn the loss of talent, even if it isn’t up to the highest standard, but it is important that by mourning, one is recognizing there is value that has been lost. By lying and continuing his abuse, Fletcher is concluding that the value of the non-“Charlie Parkers” is worth destroying in the search for and development of a true “Charlie Parker”.

This brings me to the scene that seems to distill Fletcher’s raison d’être. After a season burnt out on drumming, Andrew comes across Fletcher performing in a Jazz club. After the performance they discuss Fletcher’s methods. Fletcher asserts that he “was there to push people beyond what’s expected of them,” seeing his methods as necessary to the development of great performers. He opines, “There are no two words in the English language more harmful than good job.” When Andrew questions this, wondering if Fletcher’s methods might discourage the great performers he is trying to develop, Fletcher responds that a Charlie Parker wouldn’t get discouraged. (Which is a comment deliberately made to provoke Andrew, who has spent several months feeling “discouraged” by Fletcher’s methods.)

There is a false alternative at play there. Option #1 is telling artists “good job” or (as is also discussed in the scene) “you didn’t quite get it, but it’s ok. We’ll work on it tomorrow.” Option #2 is criticizing the performance in such a way as to cause strong emotional and psychological pain in an effort to motivate the artist to improve via fear of pain. Surely, there is a third option that doesn’t involve giving false or disproportionate praise, focusing on what was done right to the extent that the artist isn’t required to focus on what was incorrect and needs to be improved but also doesn’t require destructive psychological and mental abuse that involves giving false or disproportionate criticism. Many people have said, “I had this teacher who was very hard on me and I am better for it,” and then go on to describe frank, but reasonable critical feedback. Occasionally, there are stories of behavior that seems designed to be embarrassing, but ultimately seem to be reacting to apathy with an appropriate level of anger – answering rudeness with rudeness. Many stores from famous artists include a teacher or person in authority telling them they’d never amount to anything, with the artist then directly or over the course of their career proving them wrong. This also isn’t the same as what is represented in Whiplash, as often the teachers aren’t respected by the artist – the artist feels the teacher’s evaluation is wrong and sets out to assert what they know to be true – not simply conform to what the teacher wants to see. (see: Elvis and his eighth grade teacher).

The case of Charlie Parker himself is also worthy of discussion. The story as put forth by Fletcher is a false representation of what actually occurred, with the real story indicating Jo Jones’ disapproval of what later would come to make Parker great. This feeds into my overall assessment of Fletcher and the purpose of the movie. I believe Fletcher is a narcissistic sadist whose talent is assessing jazz performances. When Fletcher discovers the story of Charlie Parker, it is distorted into something more extreme that allows him to rationalize his feeling of self-importance (“Charlie Parkers cannot exist without people being assholes for them to prove wrong or to force them to see what they need to do to improve.”) while utilizing his skills via methods that satiate a disturbing appetite for inflicting cruelty and asserting dominance.

Andrew is eventually convinced of the harm being done and displaces the tyrant, but at that time doesn’t let go of the mistaken premise that greatness can only be bought through suffering and pain or is only fully unlocked through defiance. Andrew stops drumming because he believes greatness and happiness cannot co-exist.

Now, after all this, why do I still love the movie?

I interpreted the final scene, which is admittedly ambiguous, as Andrew delivering an extraordinary performance in spite of the damage Fletcher caused and clearly rejecting Fletcher’s power over him. Does it say that what Fletcher did had no impact on his skill? No, certainly not. Additionally, the extraordinary performance starts after Andrew, humiliated again, curses Fletcher, asserting the performance at least begins as retaliation, which feeds into the narrative that the artist needs a monster to retaliate against to achieve greatness.

But then, something beautiful and subtle happens.

Andrew closes his eyes. He plays from memory and he plays as he knows it should be played. He lets his skill and talent loose, playing according to his judgment, his assessment, and his ability. He is, as he was at the beginning of the film, playing it this way because he thinks it should be so – not because it will win a competition, not because Fletcher will be pleased, not because Fletcher will be pissed. He plays as he determines it should be played, in service of elevating the music. He creates art.

Recognizing what is happening, Fletcher is proud, but also desperate to keep and assert his role in Andrew’s success. Fletcher begins conducting the band around Andrew’s drumming, eventually moving to conducting in front of Andrew. Andrews eyes are closed for the majority of this, further providing an air of desperation and invalidity to Fletcher’s assumed control.

In the one moment I recall Andrew opening his eyes, he does connect with Fletcher, but he doesn’t submit. Andrew looks wearily and almost sadly at Fletcher and then ultimately seems to zone back into his playing and his eyes subsequently glaze over. Andrew never smiles or otherwise give any indication of thanks or solidarity with Fletcher. As I heard and saw the sequence, Fletcher’s adjustments to his pantomimed conducting seemed always just a hair behind Andrew’s playing – the band followed Fletcher, but Andrew didn’t need to. For that song, Andrew plays independent of Fletcher, and thus is free to be great – and enjoy it.

Perhaps teachers should take care to pursue their goal of developing extraordinary talent in accordance with reality, and not a twisted rationalization. Additionally, we should all be aware that the very things that are great within us can be used as weapons against us by those who wish us harm or wish to climb to greatness on our backs. In your quest to achieve greatness, do not let the good within you be twisted against you. Do not allow others to demand your self-destruction and suicide in the name of a greater cause. You are your greatest cause.

Greatness is difficult to achieve and the process can be painful at times, but one can achieve greatness – and enjoy it.

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