I watched 2013’s Whiplash earlier this month and I’ve been thinking about it ever since. Evidence of a solid flick. Gets inside the head and doesn’t stop moving around.
Why is this film captivating? Why am I still thinking about it? Do I identify with this film because I’m a teacher, or because I am like Andrew Nieman, chasing greatness?
Damien Chazelle wrote and directed Whiplash based on his experience with an abusive drum instructor. Reminds me of last year’s Birdman quite a bit. Tale of desire for greatness, for notoriety, and the finale doesn’t necessarily leave the viewer (me) with a sense of hope.
In the film, Andrew (Miles Teller) asks his former teacher, Terence Fletcher (JK Simmons) if there’s a line crossed when pushing someone to greatness. Does the method ever have the opposite effect, and actually discourage the student, or pupil? Fletcher replies that if the person is discouraged then perhaps he/she is not destined to be great; that is, if we are put off by our failures, then we do not grow. We must be willing to try and fail, then come back from the failure.
Fletcher shares with Andrew the story of Charlie Parker becoming “Bird.” It took being humiliated on stage, then practicing for a year before he started down his road toward immortality. This reminded me of the Robert Johnson myth. Legend tells that Johnson sold his soul to the devil in exchange for talent on the guitar. That’s not exactly how it happened, though. Johnson was not proficient on the guitar, so he took a year off, practiced, and when he returned possessed otherworldly skills. Johnson was all too happy to allow the myth to spread, to build his infamy.
Whiplash fits well in the zeitgeist (apologies for use of the term here, but it’s applicable), where accolades are desired more than achievement. While Fletcher’s methods are extreme (abusively breaking down and dehumanization), his point remains true. If people are not pushed or encouraged to reach beyond in some facet of their lives, then mediocrity settles in, and when mediocrity becomes the status quo, society stagnates and becomes necrotic.
Joyce once referred to Dublin the center of paralysis because that’s what he knew (his milieu). But is it the world now losing the ability to move or primarily the U.S.? We seem to embrace mediocrity or at least lovingly accept it.
While I agree with Fletcher’s philosophy in the film, I disagree with his methods. He pushes Andrew to be this greatness machine, but at an unforgivably high price. The pupil sacrifices all of who he is to become achieve the level Fletcher desires.