Monday, October 27, 2014
Whiplash, or: How a Movie About Drumming is Possibly the Scariest Movie of 2014
There's a scene in Whiplash where Andrew (Miles Teller, gradually building up a pretty great filmography with his best work so far) tells his would-be girlfriend Nicole (Melissa Benoist) that he can't date her because he is too focused on his drumming. He refuses to not only allow himself to resent her for wanting to interrupt this focus, but also to stop her for resenting him because she'll only be second best. He reasons that he is doing this not because he wants to be "great", instead wanting to be "one of the greats."
There was something so strange about this scene. At the beginning of the film, Andrew coyly asked Nicole out after months of going to the cinema where she worked and thinking he might have a shot with her. This happens midway through the film, where Nicole could be the only really positive connection (besides his father) he has in life, and yet he chooses to pursue his dreams of being one of the greats. Usually, we'll have a love interest helping the wannabe hero on his way, but the film doesn't have time to waste on human connections. It only has time to spare to tell a story of blood, sweat and tears.
No, this isn't some action/thriller a la The Equalizer. Instead, this is a drama about a first-year student at one of the top music schools in America hoping to achieve his dreams and aspirations of being the next big thing in drumming. Stripped away of a love interest, a highly dramatised back story explaining why Andrew must achieve his dream and a tear-filled speech about how he'll overcome adversity, this film leaves us with the raw, unflinching core of achieving something great: perseverance. This portrait of perseverance is splattered with hands covered in blood and blistered and sweat dripping off cymbals, and also the dark and intimidating figure of Terence Fletcher (J.K. Simmons, who is terrifying and certainly deserves the Oscar buzz), a music instructor who will stop at nothing to achieve absolute perfection.
Whiplash is probably more terrifying and intense than your average horror fare. Who knew that a film about a guy drumming could have you coming out the other side feeling exhausted and hoping that your hands haven't spontaneously grown blisters like the ones that Andrew deals with. What you really come away with, though, is questioning what can truly make someone "one of the greats". We now live in a society where there are plenty of inspirational quotes to keep you going through life, all with the same kind of message: "just do it, don't let anyone get in the way of your dreams, you can do it no matter what." Whiplash presents a message that is somewhat the antithesis of that, showing a more discouraging side to achieving the big dream, mostly in the form of Fletcher. This is a guy who knows that musical perfection can exist out there, but this is only found by exceeding expectations. He isn't the guy that will tell you to practice until you physically can't take it any more, he's more interested in destroying you emotionally to see if you still want your dream.
The film begs the question: why would anyone keep going under the mentorship of Fletcher? He hurls chairs at Andrew while he's drumming, uses Andrew's own personal problems against him, he forces three drummers to drum non-stop for hours on end in order to find a tempo that seems unachievable. You can look at it this way: most of us would just give up and walk away, knowing that Fletcher's kind of discouragement is probably correct and maybe you're in the wrong career. Andrew sees Fletcher as a villain to conquer, perhaps as a human form of his own self-loathing. Andrew is driven to hell and back by Fletcher. Does it make him a better drummer? Maybe. Does it make him better as a person? No. Fletcher is the thing that Andrew must overcome, and is the real thing that keeps Andrew going. For that reason, the film is pretty conventional in its narrative, being a simple tale of the villain that must be overcome by the hero. Through the drumming context though, the film has a more unconventional way of telling an age old story.
Yet, the film carries a pretty heavy message. Andrew is so young and embarks on his new college life with plenty of ambition to be amazing, which I find is something that is severely lacking in people my age. This is a time when you're supposed to have lots of friends and get the girls and have fun, but Andrew is the person who ditches his one human connection for practising the drums into the wee hours of the morning. Perhaps he has a little too much of that fresh-faced optimism that people his age have, and that makes him such an easy target for Fletcher. But you have to wonder what writer/director Damien Chazelle is really trying to say about the power of being "one of the greats", particularly in the music industry, in times like these when anybody can become famous on YouTube or on any one of the many talent shows. Someone as young as Andrew isn't supposed to be great because he hasn't had a lot of experience, but with someone as discouraging as Fletcher, why would you want to get any more experience? Andrew doesn't seem to be a particularly great drummer at the beginning and is more in tune with his dreams rather than his raw talent, so will practising for hours on end help him achieve his dream or does he just lack the talent? What is it that makes someone one of the greats? Fletcher seems to think he knows, Andrew thinks that he has what it takes. The blood, sweat and tears are certainly indicative of Andrew earning his right to say "ya know what? I'm trying really hard and I'm putting in the effort to become great." And yes, we as an audience want to give him a gold star and yell at Fletcher for being too harsh on him. Because that's the society that we've become: one obsessed with rewarding people for looking the part and putting their participation flag up, instead of going beyond expectations.
I think what Chazelle is trying to say with Whiplash is that we're a society who barely allows someone to dream enough to become one of the greats, and because just being is enough. The ones who genuinely try, like Andrew, are destined to be discouraged by people like Fletcher who won't settle for enough in a society where you barely need to even be enough. He then punishes Andrew - who thinks he's enough - to the point where he longer wants to be any more than enough. Though the film doesn't stake a claim in showing how those who aim low will always succeed, it does show that those who aim high and destined to have a tougher time.
And that's what makes Whiplash possibly one of the scariest movies of 2014: why should my generation even bother having ambition or value a hard-working ethic? Why try too hard if it has little gain? Will we even be capable of producing "one of the greats"?
Pretty scary stuff.