Whiplash

I’m Buddy Rich when I fly off the handle

Whiplash-4934.cr2Andrew Neiman (Miles Teller), a young jazz student at the fictional Shaffer Conservatory in New York City, spends nearly a year (his time) and nearly two hours (our time) confronting that beast of a fact that we artists learn all too early yet never accept: his plebeian family, concerned with division-3 sports and the accomplishments of his jock cousins, are just never going to “get it.”  If we all accepted that, maybe we would get more work done.  Or maybe we would be drained of all the audacity that fuels our best work.  It’s hard to tell with Andrew, because he’s never actually portrayed as an “artist”: he doesn’t make anything of his own.  But damned if memorizing Juan Tizol and Hank Levy charts isn’t going to bring him respect.

Whiplash is a tough film to pin down, which is probably good, but let’s ignore for a minute the pedantic misreading of musical history that defines the entire personality of Andrew’s scrupulous conductor/teacher, Terence Fletcher (J.K. Simmons), and just look at this as a film.  The narrative follows Andrew as he shoots for greatness, albeit alone, sort of forgetting that successful musicians (especially in jazz, and including idol Charlie Parker) play with other people.  Andrew flaunts the fact that he has no friends.  He deplores his extended family, and even seems to resent his father (warm-faced Paul Reiser) for the fact that his mother (conveniently!) left the family when Andrew was a baby – not to mention the fact that he mixes popcorn with Raisinets, which is just undignified.  Andrew is put in Fletcher’s class as alternate to the core drummer, then promoted to core without anything close to a promise that he’ll keep that position.  It’s not just his opponents, Ryan (Austin Stowell) and Carl (Nate Lang); it’s Fletcher, known to abuse students and play mind games (and like any other coach/drill-sergeant villain, he’s not above hurling every sexist, homophobic, and otherwise offensive adjective at his proteges).  So it’s set up as a formula Student vs. Mean Teacher narrative in the Sports Underdog tradition, complete with the thought that, like Buddy Rich, the Mean Teacher is actually a big softie who is just being hard on his students so that they can achieve greatness – as Fletcher controversially puts it, the worst thing you can say to someone is “Good job.”

Thus, Whiplash‘s plot can be easily plugged into any pyramid graph you’ve ever seen, but the performances and the motivations of the characters are what allow it to be something of its own (or at least to try as hard as Andrew to be that).  What’s going on with Fletcher, exactly?  Well, “softie” doesn’t come to mind when dealing with a character who calls teenagers “retards,” harangues them so hard that they hang themselves, and instructs a student to “get the fuck out of my sight before I demolish you” (the latter is the film’s single deliberate gut-buster, which Simmons can make out of just about any line, and wisely reserves that talent when it comes to this character).

There’s one other character worth mentioning: Nicole (Melissa Benoist), a movie-theatre attendant/cashier whom Andrew is sweet on already (he frequents her theatre so often that he has a “usual” candy).  The development between them, beginning with Andrew asking her out “for pizza or something,” is as charmingly awkward as it is in real life at that age, yet more organic than a contrived Meet Cute because it doesn’t need to pretend to be anything more complicated than a teenage boy asking out a teenage girl for the first time.  Romance is indicated by a simple shot of a flat shoe sliding over a table leg to the other person’s side.  The issue with Nicole is that she’s introduced as an important character, and we like her, and then she is used as a plot device that exists mostly in the background, and eventually not at all: Andrew breaks it off with her after Fletcher becomes hard on him, assuming that having a girlfriend will distract him from his practice.  She reacts as she should: incredulous that he would just assume this about her without ever mentioning it before.  Later, when he gets a chance at what he thinks is his big break, he phones Nicole to invite her, but she blows him off, mentioning (whether true or not) that she has a boyfriend now.  At least she’s given the last atom of agency between them, but Benoist’s performance is so genuine (she is, in many ways, the most realistic character in the film) that her absence in the second half is sorely felt, especially considering the lack of women in the film anyway (why does there only seem to be one female student at Shaffer?).  Instead, Nicole is used as a convenient way of saying that warriors like Andrew need to be lone wolves in order to be successful, and that idea is never combated by anyone else.

Fletcher’s “revenge” scheme later is the most unexpected and ingenious device in the film, and leads up to a figurative battle, during which both blood and sweat fly. The cinematography throughout focuses on excruciatingly closeup details of minute movements – a trumpeter’s first breath before blowing, the lighting of a cigarette, blood spreading from injured hands into a bucket of ice-water, etc.  It’s not as calculated and thematic as the cinematography in, say, Birdman, but boy, does it make one pay attention (in a film that is, perhaps, not about details, but still lets its characters care about the things they care about simply because they care about them, in spite of the formula narrative they’re living).

Just as Inside Llewyn Davis was not a bad film simply because the ’60s folk scene was “friendlier” than depicted by the Coens, it doesn’t much matter that Charlie Parker’s exploits after getting a symbol frisbee’d at his head were different than what Fletcher tells Andrew.  As ostentatious as Whiplash‘s “message”(s) may be, it’s still a story about the people living within this world, not the lore.

Whiplash (2014); written and directed by Damien Chazelle; starring Miles Teller, J.K. Simmons, Melissa Benoist, and Paul Reiser.

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