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Whiplash

20 Mar

Whiplash – written and directed by Damien Chazelle. Drama. 106 minutes Color 2014.

★★★★★

The Story: At a New York jazz conservatory, a young drummer is brutalized by his teacher.

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Whiplash is an essay on teaching. J.K. Simmons is to win the Oscar for Best Supporting Actor for it – although it is not a supporting role. It is a leading role as by nature of the material it has to be.

However, setting that aside as a failed fait accomplis, the story succeeds in presenting a tyrannical bastard whose uses his position as teacher to run riot over those in his care. The story fails on another ground, however, which is to make plain that the teacher he plays is insane, wrong, and lying. And that there there is no advantage whatsoever to endure or outlast his tutelage.

J.K. Simmons plays the teacher who bullies and slaps his pupils. They are all males and he revels in homophobic put-downs of them. He calls them faggots and cocksuckers never calls them anything else. “Okay, ladies,” is his greeting when walking in the rehearsal room door. He is capricious in his treatment of them and widely contemptuous. His encouragement of them is to shame them.

We have had enough of this sort of teacher in our lives. The lie they tell us is that they are behaving vilely toward us for our own ultimate betterment, that we may exceed ourselves in high art. They are reducing us to tears and fear and zero self-esteem, they say, so we may surpass ourselves and become names to be reckoned with. It is a complete lie. What they are doing is seeking dominion, and that is all they are seeking.

We have had enough of such teachers. We have enough of such teachers as Madame Sousatzka. We have had enough of the tyrannical behavior of Sanford Meisner, the overbearing queening of Stella Adler, and the brutality of Kim Stanley when she taught in New Mexico. Their purpose was not to liberate their students to the full potential of their talent but to reduce them to an audience merely – an audience which they as actors no longer or never did command.

It is exactly the same as the motive of Adolf Hitler, whom as we know had no strategy whatsoever for what he was doing in Europe, save to dominate it. We see it in his speeches and his acts. And they succeeded. To what good end? None.

Likewise, in Whiplash the virtuoso performance that we see is not that of the drummer who is badgered and nearly killed by the demand for subservience. The virtuoso performance is that of the actor playing the teacher. His domination dominates the show and creates it.

And it must be understood that such a performance can only take place when the actor is given the chance by the script to reduce another human being to ashes. As with Hitler, so with Professor Fletcher. So with Bette Davis in her heyday at Warners. Not only in seizing dominion over the set, but in her actual life, and not only there, but in her big virtuoso fliteing scenes when she tells some male character off in a movie – scenes written especially for her – and thrilling to behold. Thrilling to imagine that we ourselves might tell someone off just like that. Wow.

Better not.

Egomania run rampant. Humans playing God.

Not a good idea.

Not good for whom?

In Whiplash we are not asked to examine the question what effect this might have on the person doing it. The life and art of Bette Davis disappear for the last forty years of her life. What about that? No. What we are asked to behold is the effect on the student. This the film makes clear for a while, but finally does not make clear.

Does the student ultimately benefit by his teacher’s brutality? Or not.

The young man is cast and played admirably by Miles Teller.

His lesson, from all this though, is what?

Does he triumph at the end because he has been browbeaten? We don’t know. All we know is that he takes over the orchestra itself by starting up and setting the beat for a Carnegie Hall number as Professor Fletcher is announcing it to the audience. But what is the action here?

Is the drummer proving the teaching method to have been fortifying to him?

Or is the drummer acting separately, independently, and apart from it?

All we see is the action by the drummer, which is to seize dominion from the conductor, Fletcher. That’s all we see.

So is he doing to Fletcher what Fletcher was doing to him? Is he beating Fletcher up in public?

Of course, the drummer seizes power over the moment, the band, the conductor on anger. And he plays the drums on anger.

For only anger can do this. Only anger can fuel a display of dominance. Only anger can Hitlerize over the pupils of a Sanford Meisner or a Terrence Fletcher or a nation.

The pretense on display before us, which is that Fletcher then recognizes the drummer’s sovereignty and partners up with it, is bushwah. Dominators do not twin. They are solo acts. As the drummer is a solo act.

Is the drummer’s solo also toxic? Also a feat of egomania? An act of ruthless self-indulgence?

Is human anger always toxic?

Maybe yes, maybe no. Depends.

It is useful to set this rendition of teaching next to another presently before us, that of Kevin Costner in Mcfarland USA.

Yes, the coach there makes the boys exert themselves beyond their current level. Of course he does. That is what coaches do. And the coach he plays has been demoted to the outpost of Mcfarland because of an out-of-control anger.

But that is not what we see in the coach now. What we see in him now is steady application of long-distance running drill fueled by encouragement – not by demeaning the team, not by calling the boys faggots, not by reducing them to humiliation, tears, and fear. The actual dominion in that Chicano community is that of the mother serving Costner his food in no uncertain terms. The dominion is family. The moral of the story is that the race is won – in the Carnegie Hall of cross-country running – not by the best runner but the worst runner of all. And everyone benefits.

When pianist Sviatoslav Richter hitchhikes to Moscow at age 19, he has been playing the piano all his life but has never had a piano lesson in his life, but he goes there to play for Russia’s greatest teacher Heinrich Neuhaus. Richter auditions. Neuhaus whispers into the ear of the person next to him. “I believe he is a genius.” Richter stays in Moscow and, being without funds, camps out for a good while by sleeping in Neuhaus’s apartment under the piano. And Neuhaus kindly teaches him the few things Richter has yet to learn. He turns out to be the greatest classical pianist of the last half of the 20th Century.

That is a story about how a great teacher deals with talent. A hard home, under a piano, yes, but not a hostile home.

But the great fact about teachers of art, cruel or kind, is that they presently learn that not one student in a million has any talent at all. What students get out such schooling is an immersion in a sport or art which will enrich their lives forever – and better their lives too for the effort and the victory of the effort. And what the students will learn of craft may indeed aid them to become but to become no other than competent amateurs, devoted aficionados.

There’s nothing wrong with that. Not a thing. But to listen to J.K. Simmons as Fletcher talk about his great purpose in battering his students, to hear him compare himself to someone who by throwing a brass cymbal at a player turned that player into Charlie Parker is be asked to swallow a consummate arrogance as a consummate kindness. It is not a kindness. It is the reverse. And it has nothing to do with teaching. It is the reverse.

J.K. Simmons is the virtuoso artist here, not the young man who plays the drums. For Simmons is given the anger scenes to play, and, even when they are not anger scenes, anger is what the character desires to run and will contrive to run given any cue whatsoever. Rage is the touchiness of an absolutist agenda. Rage is the frustration of an inflexible expectation.

Almost all of this the script delivers to us and so does Simmons. All save the writing, playing, and direction of the final lie in the jazz dive toward the end, where Fletcher reveals his holy strategy to the drummer.

This is not played as the hollow hyperbole of an absolutist agenda that it is. It is played as the Greatest Ideal In All Teaching – just as all absolutist agendas are presented. Granted Simmons as an actor must believe Fletcher’s doxology is true, good, and necessary. But what the player and the script and the director have not given us is the empty inhumanity in Fletcher his behavior is meant to supply or disguise. Fletcher weeps at the death of a talented musician he once taught. What he tells his band is that the young man died in a car accident; what actually happened was the young musician committed suicide. Brought on by Fletcher’s hounding of him. What a phony!

We are offered a good many things by this film, however. And it is well worth seeing. Not because of the violence Simmons is able to body forth so well – after all he is a first class actor ripened up by Oz for such roles. Rather it is also well worth seeing for the handling of the material itself in its display before us, the pulse of big band jazz playing, the mis-en-scene of a music school, with its dank corridors and uninviting ambiance – enough of a counterpoint to encouragement without Fletcher’s tyranny present.

Miles Teller is a lovely actor as the drummer. And in his hands and those of the cinemaphotographer we get a full experience of the dynamics of drumming itself.

The movie also tells its larger story well and honestly. It won Academy Awards For Best Sound Mixing and Best Film Editing. And, of course, Best Supporting Actor. You will not disagree.

 

 
 
 
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