1/09/2017

Whiplash, and Other Things

It's been a good long while since I posted anything, and for that I apologize. I moved into a new house, found out my wife was pregnant with our first child, and agreed to take in a Great Dane for an indeterminate amount of time, and had holidays to deal with, so that's my excuse.

But the time for excuses is over. I'm back, and I'm going to keep on building this site and going on unprovoked rants about things only I care about. So those of you who were hoping I had disappeared forever...tough shit!

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I watched a movie today that really got my gears turning: Whiplash. It was up for Best Picture in 2015, and I usually try to see the best picture nominees, but this one slipped by me. Actually, that's not accurate; I saw Birdman, and it ruined my appetite for 'high art' for a while. Did I already write about Birdman? If not, maybe I will next week.

In any case, the end of Whiplash nearly gave me a heart attack. This is a story about what it means to be great, and it has all the hallmarks of great storytelling. It concerns the battle of wills between an aspiring jazz drummer, and the cruel teacher who ultimately brings out the best in him.

Whiplash | Final Scene (2014) from Wes Candela • Voices Film & TV on Vimeo.

This movie really resonated with me, because I played drums when I was younger. I was in concert band from 5th grade to Junior year in high school, and I did three years of jazz band in high school as well. In retrospect, I really wish I had pushed myself harder, because I always loved music, and even though I didn't really appreciate jazz at that age, I do now. If I had stuck with it, who knows what might have happened.

Our band teacher, who did concert and jazz, was easily as mean as Terrence Fletcher, but half as talented (he was a drunk too). After seeing Whiplash, I have a new understanding of the man, because I suspect that he, like Fletcher, cared deeply about music, and was frustrated with the hordes of his students who didn't.

I would give anything to learn at the feet of a teacher like Fletcher, because I believe in the argument that Whiplash makes. I believe that "good job" is the most destructive thing an artist can hear. I believe that greatness is born of adversity. I believe that great people need to be pushed, and that the greatest people don't need a mentor, they need an enemy. And that's what this movie was really about.

In the final scene, Andrew Neyman finally earns Fletcher's respect the only way he can: by defying him. And you can see it in Fletcher's face the moment he catches on (thanks in no small part to the amazing performance of J.K. Simmons). The battle of wills depicted in this scene is riveting enough, but set to the tune of a virtuoso performance of the jazz standard "Caravan" it's absolutely heart-stopping.

To me, it's obvious that Neyman's ultimate defiance is exactly what Fletcher wanted from him. But Fletcher could never let Neyman know that, or Neyman would have his permission to defy him, and that would make it easy. It would be just as destructive as saying "good job". Fletcher always knew that the student he was searching for would have to defeat him at his most vicious and cold-blooded. So when he sabotages Neyman early in the recital, he's giving his final exam. Neyman, thankfully, rises to the challenge, and gives the performance of his life. And Fletcher knows it almost immediately.

The game between Fletcher and Neyman works on two levels. There is the surface game of Neyman vs. Fletcher. In the final scene, it's boiled down to that simple rivalry; who is in control of the concert? But there is a deeper game at play: Neyman's potential vs. his hesitation, and that's the only game Fletcher was ever really playing. Neyman is meant to play the surface game, always suspecting the existence of the deeper game, but never being sure. The deeper game needed to stay hidden, in order to force Neyman into taking that leap of faith, and being sure of his own talent. To push him to that point, Fletcher needed to become his enemy.

The subtlety of that scene is masterful. None of the above is explicitly stated, but it's all there, plain as the nose on your face. Impossible to miss, in fact. That, friends, is the stuff of great storytelling.

I won't argue that Whiplash should have won best picture (though it was certainly better than Birdman). It was up against some hefty competition. Its subject matter is a little obscure to some people. And its story argument is an uncomfortable one. It makes us realize that most of us are mediocre. Most of us have never been forged in fire like this, even if we deserved to be. And it probably makes some of us (certainly myself) wish we had been, even if we didn't deserve to be.

In short, this movie was quite an experience for me, and I'm not likely to forget it soon.