Thursday, January 15, 2015

Whiplash - Sadist Bebop

A mentor can be the best person in your life, or the worst.  If they're the latter, you're in for some very bad years.  This is the pedagogy of pain.  Even now I'm sure you can remember that one teacher, coach, or Bar Mitzvah-prepping rabbi who truly infuriated you like nobody else ever can again.  They pushed you more than was fair, beat you down, and seemed to enjoy it, the sick-os.  There is a method to this tough love, and maybe the cruel mentor is actually brilliant teacher who pushes out of love.  You can thrive, coming out stronger than ever thanks to being pushed beyond your limits.  Hell, you might even come to thank them for their punishment.  Then again, they could be pushing just for the sake of pushing.  Pushing to knock you down and indulge in your tears of failure.

"Whiplash" dances enigmatically across the motives of a cruel mentor.  It is the story of an ambitious young music student, Andrew (Miles Teller), who falls right into the hands of the most brutal conductor in New York City - probably also the world.  That man is Terence Fletcher (J.K. Simmons), a name that rings with fear and respect across the halls of the fictional Shaffer Conservatory.  Andrew sees Fletcher as his ticket to stardom, the one figure he needs to convince of his greatness who can then convince the world.  He wants so badly to be noticed, even if in the worst ways, that he seems wicked taskmaster as the best guide to greatness.  However, Fletcher's own reasons for thrashing Andrew's body and soul may not be quite so benevolent.  In a film about really only two characters and a drumset, "Whiplash" creates a stirring and thrilling collision of two characters in a very warped non-sexual courtship.

If you thought Amazing Amy from "Gone Girl" was the most manipulative character of 2014, then obviously you have not yet seen "Whiplash".  J.K. Simmons steps into this movie completely bald, lanky but with clear muscle tone.  He can bark and scream and belittle like the best of R.L. Ermey's "Full Metal Jacket" monologues.  If you're gay, he'll torture you for sleeping with men.  If you're Irish, he'll torture you for having red hair.  Hilarious stuff to watch, probably not very nice to be the victim of.  His tight elderly skin stretches and warps as Fletcher warps between human and demon, breaking his students into dust.  However, it is not the screaming you need to watch out for.  It's the moment he's not screaming, the moment he tries to be your pal.  That's when he finds the weapons to truly smash you into nothing.  Give me him a little trust, just a hint of your psychology, and he'll betray you to stab right where it hurts most.  It is a tremendous character at the heart of a great movie, well deserving of it's Best Picture nomination today*.

To Andrew, Fletcher is his Jo Jones.  In an infamous anecdote that dominates this movie, the greatest jazz drummer of all time, Charlie Parker, was nearly killed when he played so badly for Jones that the older man nearly decapitated him with a thrown cymbal.  After that humiliation, Parker went home, drummed his fingers to the bone, and was forged into a master.  Fletcher is the cymbal in the story.  Notably though, the person who told Andrew this story was none other than Fletcher himself.  In one brief aside the conductor took his student when he was most nervous, opened up to him, then realized Andrew's weaknesses:  not just ambition, but isolation.  Feed the fire of ambition by referencing Charlie Parker, any young jazz drummer's hero.  Conjure a fantasy of greatness built out of intense punishment and training.  Then he's ready for anything, you can do whatever you want to him, and he'll still come back for more.

I find it hard to trust Farmers Insurance when their spokesman is Satan.
"Whiplash" is not a movie about Fletcher.  The evil conductor is only a villain, he has no real existence in this movie beyond a force to drive Andrew.  You never are told whether Fletcher is actually trying to drive Andrew forward or if he is simply a true sadist through and through.  And it does not matter.  Fletcher is a force of nature, it is uninteresting to imagine him as a person, like Andrew is.  Andrew is the impressionable young man whose fears and inadequacies make up the true tragedy of "Whiplash".  Empty lives need something to grab onto, and Fletcher is all too willing to let you grab.  Then he'll crush every bone in your arm, while still being entertaining for the audience.

Andrew is a weak character.  He opens the film already deeply alone, seemingly having no friends at all in Shaffer.  Thanksgiving dinners are tight awkward affairs as Andrew competes angrily with his athlete relatives.  The only other two characters in this film of any consequence are Andrew's only real outlets into humanity:  his well-meaning father, and his girlfriend, Nicole (Melissa Benoist).  Dad is too far away in Princeton, New Jersey to be of much help (Hudson River tolls being murderous after all), and Andrew ignores Nicole then finally breaks up with her to focus entirely on his drumming destiny.  Miles Teller is typically a loudmouth cocksure party-animal in his frat boy films.  Here he seems scared, alone, and like all young men, pitifully arrogant.  The other students at Shaffer mull around the halls in pleasant conversation, having each other for support against Fletcher.  Andrew has nobody but Fletcher and Charlie Parker tapes.  Sounds like he needs some imaginary friends on social media, but I suppose destroying yourself to musical training works too.

In a sparse ninety minutes, moving with all the determined energy of a great short story, "Whiplash" develops Andrew into a single creature of percussion.  One would think that proper musical training would be something of a group effort.  Don't jazz people usually have fun, free jam sessions or something?  Don't you need a report with the other people in your band?  Fletcher specifically is against that, training his students against each other in violent rivalries.  Andrew locks himself into his room, pounding away desperately at his drum set, trying to get perfectly in rhythm to defeat his master's impossible standards.  The conductor conjures up humiliations for Andrew just to hurt his ego.  Fletcher forces his entire choir practice to shut down as he makes his drummers play the same note over and over, trying to hit some preposterously fast tempo.  Andrew slams his sticks down so fast and so hard his hands gush blood, yet it is still not enough.  This is not real music anymore, it's a torture chamber.

Thunderous applause from an empty room.
For the final act "Whiplash" borrows the structure of a thriller, ramping up the tension and the danger to all characters involved.  Unlike most thrillers, especially ones starring sadists and desperate victims, there are few moments of actual mortal danger.  Yet it still feels as terrifying and out-of-control as say, "Prisoners".  It is just two personalities colliding into one other, tightening an obsession that both share.  Reality finally begins to take a toll - you cannot be as outrageous as Fletcher without succumbing to a lawsuit.  You cannot be as single-minded as Andrew without finally letting your life crash around you.  Fletcher and Andrew's relationship grows from abusive to antagonistic, with each other playing a game of gambits and counter-gambits on the stage.  On the betting table is everything:  careers, futures, and self-respect.

The climax is, naturally, a concert with Andrew drumming and Fletcher conducting.  This is no friendly meeting of master and pupil, but rather a musical battle of wills between a couple of bitter bastards.  The finale of "Whiplash" is one of the best scenes of the year, which is unfortunately because I cannot really talk about it in detail.  We're all limited by the rules of the film review, and the Sacred Taboo Against Spoilers, will forever shackle me.  Either way, it is a wonderful combination of music, editing, and raw acting talent, as two opposing forces blast at each into pure hatred... then like two hurricanes morphing into a single monster storm, combine into something greater.  Something breathtaking.

Jazz to me is not a particularly exciting medium of music.  I don't listen to music from the 1930s, I'm not the kind of person who sits around white houses in black turtlenecks with glasses of wine feeling superior to the entire world.  Yet when director Damien Chazelle films some old-fashion jazz standards, it feels like the most explosive and amazing kind of music you have ever witnessed.  A stodgy concert for crusty Upper West Side types suddenly is a rock concert with pyrotechnics and intense emotions.  Watching Andrew dive deep into his greatest drum solo is the kind of dangerous filmmaking that leads  embarrassing episodes of uncontrollable airdrumming in the bathroom for twenty straight minutes.  That is hypnotic, electric filmmaking.  That is why you need to see "Whiplash" . Part drama, part cat and mouse, all excellent musical style.

* Holy shit am I behind on posts.  Constantly infinitely behind.  Best of List will appear no later than next Friday, that's a promise.

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