Monday, February 2, 2015


Smarts and Stings

     Damien Chazelle adapted his earlier short film into Whiplash, starring Miles Teller and J.K. Simmons.  It’s both a psychological thriller and bildungsroman in its exploration of the central character finding the courage to locate and
express his artistry through the unyielding force of his martinet teacher.  To paraphrase Nietzsche, “What doesn’t kill you makes you stronger,” and that’s the point in terms of achieving greatness.  People say they believe in or are committed to excellence; Whiplash shows what it may take to realize it.

Father and Son
     The basic plot revolves around Andrew Neimann, a young jazz drummer, enrolling at the Shaffer Conservatory (Juilliard stand in?) and being pushed to his limits by Terence Fletcher, his conductor/instructor.  Paul Reiser plays Andrew’s single father, a decent man who always supported him through offering comfort, but didn’t follow through on his dreams of succeeding as a writer.  What the movie posits is whether a demanding approach to teaching (and parenting) is more effective than a caring approach.  

Terrence Fletcher a.k.a. J.K. Simmons
     Because it’s about highly technical drumming in the jazz genre with perfect sound mixing and features gorgeously baroque editing by Tom Cross, this movie pulsates vividly.  The two leads excel in directly opposing ways.  Simmons has the difficult job of shading a one-note character so that he somehow surprises in his every appearance.  If there were to be one moment when he was tedious, the whole movie would be lost.  It’s a testament to his power, while also possessing two of the most expressive eyes in American movies that I felt he was always forcing down another set of emotions.  It’s revealing that when his character plays music, he’s a little generic.  When he’s teaching, he’s in the stratosphere or the outer ring of the seventh circle of hell, depending on your pedagogical viewpoint.

Miles Teller
     Miles Teller continues his emergence as a potentially great screen actor after Rabbit Hole (2010) and The Spectacular Now (2013).  He was sweet and stunned in the first, beautifully charismatic and wildly unstable in the second, but this part is tougher because he has to seem unassumingly ordinary and yet capable of being great.  The edge to his ego cuts in a family dinner scene in which he may have unconsciously taken Fletcher’s approach more to
Teller and Benoist
heart than he realizes.  There’s a break up scene between Andrew and his girlfriend Nicole, played with understated intelligence and sophistication by Melissa Benoist, which recalls a similar scene in The Social Network (2010).  The difference is that in this movie, Andrew displays his brilliance/arrogance while Nicole reacts, whereas in the earlier movie, Mark Zuckerberg reacts to Erica Albright’s vitriolic denunciation of his personality.  Teller reminds me of Julianne Moore in Boogie Nights (1997), Katharine Hepburn in Long Day’s Journey into Night (1962), or Al Pacino in And Justice for All (1979) because he can look both ten years younger and twenty years older than he is in different scenes.  He has a slab face that seems inexpressive until it’s revealing layers of emotion and a large body with odd angles that make him look like a lug or heroic.  (His next project is Fantastic Four – ugh, is he already selling out?  Or is this a way to finance more personal work?)

   Many movies in this subgenre, whether The Corn is Green (1945) or An Officer and a Gentleman (1982), end on a sentimental note.  The Paper Chase (1973) also featured a spectacular blowout by the student against his teacher; the final joke was that the teacher didn’t know who he was (in this case, Fletcher is Andrew’s nemesis in the classical sense).  An Education (2009) had the courage to provide a happy ending culturally for the protagonist, but left eventual romance to the audience’s imagination.  Whiplash goes one step further.  It ends on a perfect note – actually a perfect frame – yet it raises questions beyond those it poses.  It’s a movie to argue about with others, though it might leave viewers immediately speechless.  It’s a very fine work, but I don’t know that I think it’s great because Fletcher’s character isn’t completely honest with himself, though he’s ruthless with his students.

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