Some Men Achieve Greatness

Whiplash
directed by Damien Chazelle
Sony Classics, 2014; 107 minutes

A violent game of fuck-you one-upmanship, Whiplash is one of the best American movies of the year.

In the red corner is Miles Teller’s Andrew Neiman, a nineteen-year-old jazz drummer with ambitions of greatness. In the blue is Terence Fletcher (J.K. Simmons), a teacher in the R. Lee Ermey mold. Their antagonism plays out in the practice rooms at Shaffer Conservatory, where Fletcher teaches and Andrew is in his first year. Simmons, dressed all in black (the uniform of the jazz savant), is a true teacher-terrorist. He spits racial and homophobic slurs, takes his musicians apart over undetectable shifts in rhythm or speed. He dismisses one trombonist simply because the boy does not know — or is too frightened to say — if he’s slightly out of tune. (He isn’t, but the crime of ignorance is sufficient for Fletcher to cast him out.) He’s exacting but impossible to please because he seems to believe that only a moving target can draw greatness from his players. From their first meeting on, Andrew wants nothing more than to impress him.

Andrew’s approach to musical improvement seems to be based on the so-called ten-thousand-hour rule. He moves a mattress into his practice room. He drums, he drums, his hands bleed, he plunges them into icy water, he drums some more. His technical achievements are hard won, and Teller’s face is often distorted by agony. One might recall Noah Taylor in Shine, furiously hammering away at Rachmaninov day and night, or Tom Hulce’s Mozart, feverishly scribbling out his requiem mass. Andrew asks out and then breaks up with a girl he meets at a movie theater, arguing that she would break up with him down the line anyway because of his devotion to drumming, or he’d feel oppressed by her needs. We’re encouraged to think that Andrew will achieve greatness through a combination of practice, monasticism, and a sheer sense of urgency.

Sometimes Whiplash seems to share Andrew and Fletcher’s dangerous fetish for genius. The repetition of a story about Charlie Parker having a cymbal thrown at his head, which Fletcher uses to illustrate the powerful spur to greatness that coercion and intimidation might offer, has irked some reviewers, including Richard Brody in The New Yorker, on the grounds that that’s not how it really happened (the cymbal was in fact thrown to the ground). Beside the point, I think. It’s just the sort of misrepresentation Fletcher would make, and contains just the sort of dangerous romanticism that’d appeal to Andrew. As if to underline this, writer-director Damien Chazelle has his characters reenact the scene in the first practice session Andrew attends with Fletcher:

Watching the film, you might think Chazelle sides with those who see genius as a kind of noble torture — as a bloody, sweaty, suffering process. Were this the case, Whiplash would be neither original nor interesting. Genius in the arts is more than just practice; it certainly can’t be attained by replicating other artists’ stations of the cross. (The literary equivalent would be the second-rate writer who drinks himself to death on the basis that it worked for Raymond Carver.)

But despite its tense, exciting final act, I don’t think Whiplash necessarily comes down on Andrew’s side. We see everything through the distorted lens of Andrew and Fletcher’s mutually destructive relationship; we’re given no objective sense of their greatness (or otherwise). It’s a claustrophobic movie, poisoned by its protagonists’ darker purposes. Towards the end, I was reminded of There Will Be Blood, another movie that achieves a sort of ambiguous greatness by adopting the warped perspective of its protagonist. There is no triumph at the end, only madness and violence. So too with Whiplash.

It’s a tremendously stylish film. Justin Hurwitz takes a single theme and crafts an intense, impressionistic soundtrack around it, without detracting from the big-band sound of the diegetic music. The camerawork and editing are as snappy and fast-paced as Teller’s drumming. Chazelle, working with editor Tom Cross, exhibits the same sort of flash and stylistic brutishness — superfast pans, jolting zooms, rapidfire cutting — as Paul Thomas Anderson in his early movies. It feels lean. The performances are also outstanding. Miles Teller broods, he growls, he grimaces. He’s perfect for Andrew: part-matinĂ©e idol, part-Jake LaMotta. His economy of style marks him out as a natural screen actor. Simmons, too, is great in a particularly unpleasant role. There’s always one more round of mind games with Fletcher, and Simmons plays it for all it’s worth.

Late in the movie, Fletcher plays Andrew off against two of the band’s other drummers to see how far he can push him. Each one takes turns before being cursorily dismissed. Andrew, eventually, plays so hard that he ends up splattering the kit with his own blood. Whiplash is a movie about endurance in the pursuit of greatness that makes greatness in film-making seem easy.

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