Friday, May 1, 2015

At the Movies: "Whiplash"

At the Movies with Michael5000

Damien Chazelle, 2014.

Current imbd score: 8.5 (imdb 250: #38)
Ebert: Never got to see it.
Rotten Tomatoes: 95%(!) Fresh
Provenance: Watched on DVD with Mrs.5000 on Morgan's recommendation. 

Whiplash explores the strange relationship between a drummer at an elite jazz conservatory, and his explosively abrasive mentor, Terence Fletcher. Fletcher, who conducts the conservatory's elite band, believes that merit can only be achieved by persistence through adversity. He provides the adversity. He ritually humiliates, screams abuse at, and occasionally throws stuff at his student musicians. "There are no two words in the English language more harmful," he believes, "than 'good job,'" because those words tell someone that they have reached a satisfactory level of performance and don't need to keep striving. His approach to critiquing a "just OK" performance would be more along the lines of shouting at the player, in front of his or her peers, that they were playing like shit and wasting his time.  The theory, of course, is that the student will rededicate himself or herself to practice in order to avoid a repeat of the humiliation next time around.

Well, it's not a pedagogical approach that works for everyone. It is, however, an approach that kind of works for Andrew, the student at the center of the story. Andrew dreams of greatness. He wants to be the best jazz drummer in the world, and we are meant to understand that this is no delusion. He really has the talent to get there, if he works at it hard enough. In an ordinary movie, this would set up a series of challenges to be overcome with a brilliant and satisfying triumph at the end. In Whiplash, what we get is more of a sustained questioning of the whole nature of the quest for greatness.

As his musical skill develops, we will see Andrew become alienated first from people who are merely really good at less obscure endeavors, and then from pretty much everyone -- everyone, that is, except the mentor who honors his passion for excellence by heaping scorn and derision on any deviation from sheer perfection. Is success worth this much sacrifice? At what point does devotion to honing a skill become a compulsive madness? Is it OK to demean the merely capable, if that is what you have to do to foster the occasional genius? Many viewers will leave the movie with strong opinions, but to its credit Whiplash doesn't really give you answers to these questions.

Nor is this a movie that gives you the lazy luxury of a good guy and a bad guy. We are given occasional glimpses of Fletcher, though he inarguably a profoundly difficult, unprofessional, and probably dangerous man, being decent, thoughtful, and kind. Andrew, though he commands our sympathy throughout, is also arrogant, reckless, and sometimes shockingly callous.  Like many of us, although hopefully more so, both of them are at their worst when motivated by high ideals.  The two men are ultimately locked in a strange and passionate conflict of wills, one that might easily be called destructive or even devastating if the film ended ten or twenty minutes earlier than it actually does. The final minutes, for better or worse, make it a little harder to make a quick summary judgement.

By getting so caught up in the film's ideas, I have completely failed to convey that Whiplash is an electrifying visual celebration of the art of the trap kit. It can not be an easy thing to synchronize your movements to complex percussion, but the actor Miles Teller does an amazing job of convincing us that it is really him playing the drums, in complex and variable meter, and in solos of mesmerizing complexity. This is a challenging movie to watch -- probably especially so for people who have been yelled at a lot in their lives -- but it is also kind of an amazing movie to watch.

Plot: See above.  As an aside, but for the record -- and this is spoiler territory -- I've noticed that a lot of commentary on Whiplash has made an unwarranted assumption.  Per the Wiki summary: "Andrew agrees to testify."  It is actually not at all clear whether Andrew testifies or not, and the story is more interesting with the ambiguity intact.

Visuals: Dark tones to fit the mood, with a spectrum of gold and brown drums, practice rooms, and concert halls.  Occasional alarming scarlet highlights.  The editing is kind of miraculous.  Also, check out the way Fletcher's immaculate wardrobe is used to convey his personality and authority, right from the opening scene.

Dialogue: All of the characters are highly intelligent, diligent people.  That doesn't mean that everything that comes out of their mouths is well thought through and constructive.

Prognosis: A very entertaining film, full of surprises.  Lovely to watch, exciting to listen to, highly engaging, often disturbing, and packed with all sorts of interesting social questions without offering any easy answers.  This is my kinda movie.  Maybe it's your kinda movie too.

Michael 5000's imdb rating: 9.

1 comment:

DrSchnell said...

I'm intrigued - will check it out soon.