Saturday, January 3, 2015

BEST FILMS OF 2014-- #9: "Whiplash" Invents and Perfects the Genre of Jazz Thriller

This is the third in a series of eleven posts counting down my favorite films of the year. Be sure to read about my #10 pick#11 pick, and about the honorable mentions too.


Few people influence us more than our teachers. A truly passionate teacher can shape our whole outlook, and can guide our interests. As you read this, you are probably recalling that handful of teachers that have been truly brilliant. This relationship, between student and their inspiring teacher, has been examined multiple times in film. It is a trope that, while often earnestly presented, has become somewhat cliché—but at their worst, they’re usually enjoyable if overly saccharine.

If phrased the right way, the plot of Whiplash would read like one of these films. In Whiplash, directed by Damien Chazelle, a bright and driven student discovers a teacher who inspires him. The teacher is passionate, charismatic, and strives to bring out the best in all of the students under his tutelage. He is unconventional, yes, but the student responds to his methods and they change how he sees the subject he cares about most.

But do not be fooled. It is a terrifying movie. Imagine if, in Dead Poets Society, when the kids stood up and said “O Captain, My Captain,” Robin Williams had thrown a chair at their heads and yelled at them to “shut up, you cocksuckers.” That approaches the level of disturbing that Whiplash brings up. It is the anti-Dead Poets Society. Whiplash examines the flipside of such a relationship—yes, an engaging teacher has the power to inspire, but the relationship is also powerful enough that it can be destructive.

J.K. Simmons conducts his symphony of madness.

The teacher in this case is Terence Fletcher, played by J.K. Simmons who is currently seen as not only being a guaranteed Oscar nominee this year, but is seen as the frontrunner to win the award by a mile. And it’s not difficult to see why. Simmons has been around a long time, and always done great work, but this is clearly a breakout role, where a filmmaker gave him a chance to showcase a range we have not seen from him. Fletcher is terrifying—a true cinematic villain who makes you worry about your own well-being on top of that of the characters on screen. Without such a strong sense of menace, the film would not have worked—it is, after all, a thriller about jazz music, so it severely needs Simmons to provide the actual thrills. He brings a terror to every move. Every line, every motion feels loaded with the intention to intimidate (and probably is). This is that type of villain who knows the evil they possess, and revels in it. It’s thrilling to watch. If you don’t think that the phrase “Not quite my tempo” could strike fear into your heart, then you clearly have not seen Whiplash.

J.K. Simmons as the cavalierly cruel Terence Fletcher.

But, just as a sense of menace alone, this performance would not have garnered all of the attention it has been receiving. What separates Simmons’ portrayal is how he makes Fletcher…almost likable? Not in a way that you ever like him—he’s foul-mouthed and violent and clearly dangerous—but you can understand the respect he commands. He’s affable, he’s funny, and he’s charming. Simmons manages to find humor in his performance. As aggressive and violent as he is, the next moment he can be goofy and laidback the next. And this heightens how fearsome he is in the more explosive moments.

Imagine if J.K. Simmons hovered over you like this every day while you did your job. It would be weird.

But, of course, Fletcher is only half of the relationship. On the student side of things we have Andrew Neiman, played by Miles Teller. I must admit that I’m not a huge fan of Teller’s—I think that his fans probably respond to very naturalistic style, but what some find natural about him, I find rather boring. I just find him an uninteresting actor, and unfortunately, I feel that here too (to be fair, I have not yet seen The Spectacular Now where I’ve heard he’s excellent). Especially considering that he’s sharing the screen with a powerful presence such as J.K. Simmons, we never become as invested in Andrew himself. We certainly worry about him and his safety, but the character typically feels fairly undefined. But, Teller nonetheless gives an incredibly committed performance. It’s full of blood, sweat, and tears. What IS clear about Andrew is that he loves drums—growing up listening to jazz drummers, music was his escape. His mother left when he was a baby, and his father (Paul Reiser, who brings a lot of heart to a small role) is not a musician, so we never learn where Andrew first heard jazz music, or where he learned what he did, but we nonetheless get a sense that drumming is a part of him. Now a student at the Shaffer Academy of Music in New York (it’s a fictional school, but think Juilliard), Andrew’s goal is simple—he doesn’t just want to become a better drummer, and he’s not necessarily looking for a job after graduation, he just wants to be the greatest drummer to have ever lived. Much like Fletcher is a more dangerous example of the charismatic teacher trope, Andrew’s character is also familiar—we have seen numerous films about artists who are seeking perfection. And other films have examined how that quest for greatness can be destructive (Black Swan definitely comes to mind). But I feel that message is especially well executed here. After all, Andrew’s artistry of choice is drumming, an especially emotional form of art. Drumming is beautiful to watch, and the filmmaking highlights the aggression of the act. Drumming is loud, it is angry, it is riveting. In the same way that Birdman’s mostly percussive score increases the tension and intensity of the action, you can imagine how in Whiplash the fact that the drumming itself IS the action makes the whole thing keeps your heart beating much faster than in most films about music.

To his credit, Teller has certainly mastered the "bored deer in the headlights" look better than anyone working today, and takes many opportunities to show off this skill.

Perhaps the most interesting thing about Andrew, to me, was that...he was not all that likable. Knowing the basics of the plot, one thinks that Andrew is going to be the innocent who is corrupted by the overbearing menace. But, Andrew's pretty much a blatant asshole the entire film. He's not a nice person, and is often rude to those he meets. I would have thought this would make us less invested in him, but it actually added another layer of depth to the film. Like I said before, we don't get too invested in him as we would have if he'd been a good person. But just because we don't get invested in Andrew or like him, we still empathize with him and and root for him. By making him less approachable, Andrew feels more real. The film avoids the familiarity of the traditional "good versus evil," battle. Fletcher may be destructive, but Andrew is self-destructive, and you have a feeling that he would do the same exact thing were he in Fletcher's situation. It makes the film not as morally black and white, and adds a layer of complexity by making the film's central theme that of abuse of power. Which brings us to the fully-realized relationship between Andrew and Fletcher that the film so eagerly explores.

Andrew on a date with Nicole (Melissa Benoist), one of the few characters we actually see Andrew interact with. And...he doesn't come out looking like a great person from those interactions.
At one point, Fletcher and Andrew have a discussion about Fletcher’s teaching style. Fletcher defends his violence and his aggression towards students (and in case I’ve not made it clear, he physically assaults them, like…it’s bad) with the same reasoning of most madmen: the ends justify the means. He argues that such extremity is the only way to bring out true geniuses. He is not just there to create great musicians, it is his dream to craft the best musician. “One of the greats,” he says. And this is where the relationship between Fletcher and Andrew is interesting—both have the same mindset—both are not content with mere quality. Both are driven by superhuman ambitions. They are kindred spirits, which is what makes Fletcher’s abuse even more terrible. As much as he hurts Andrew throughout the film, he perhaps hurts him most in this one conversation. Andrew, who has had the passion for drumming quite literally beaten out of him so that he is no longer pursuing it, asks Fletcher the not-so-veiled question of whether Fletcher could have had a great student—the next “Bird” they say—who became discouraged by Fletcher’s negativity? Fletcher’s response is blunt and pointed. The next Bird would not have given up. His point is clear: you’re not good enough. And that’s another way that this film bucks convention. We know that Andrew is hard-working, but for most of the film, we’re not given an indication of whether Andrew is good enough for what he desires. His peers don’t seem to think much of him, and honestly, neither does Fletcher. Although Fletcher gives him a few words of praise, it is far outweighed by the negative, and while I’d have to watch the film again to confirm this, I feel like every ounce of encouragement is later contradicted or undermined. And that adds to the bleakness of the film—not only does Andrew go through hell on his quest for perfection, but we’re not sure that perfection will ever be achieved. 

Fletcher and Andrew. In a tender moment.

Which brings us to the end of the film. In most films about inspiring teachers, and I would venture to say all films about artists achieving perfection, there is typically an inspiring ending—the ending where the artist shows their greatness and the teacher looks on in pride. Whiplash, for all of its darkness, gives us a similar ending, but predictably adds far more disturbing connotations. I try to avoid spoilers, and I don’t think it will ruin the film to know the ending as long as I don’t describe the grueling process of getting to that ending (which I won’t). But if you don’t want to know the exact ending, skip forward to the next paragraph. The film ends with Andrew having an opportunity to play drums on a huge stage—this is a performance that can make or break his career. Fletcher, of course, does not make this easy for him (and, for a time, “deliberately sabotages” his band, an offense he had accused multiple student musicians of doing before). But after some time, Andrew plays the solo of his career. For the first time in the film, we see the great drummer that Andrew always wanted to be. Again, if you haven’t seen the film, this isn’t a spoiler—Andrew’s journey is the true story, and frankly, my words here cannot possibly prepare you for the splendor of this final scene. So, in the end, for as turbulent as the film was, everyone seems to get what they want. Andrew finds the greatness he longs for (and, presumably, recognition and fame), and Fletcher finds the great student he had always hoped for. Both seem happy. Andrew is euphoric while playing—he is transcendent. This is probably the best moment of his life. Fletcher, meanwhile, has a twinkle in his eye which we have not seen before now. Fletcher doesn’t have many words in this last scene, but with just his expression, you can see a excitement (again, great work by Simmons) that implies Fletcher’s own joy at the events unfolding before him. So they get what they want. And, more than that, they get what they want through the methods used. Andrew’s performance at the end, I would argue, was not achievable if not for Fletcher. Specifically, if not for Fletcher pushing him far beyond his breaking point. In other words, Fletcher’s methods work. But, of course, having seen how terrifying these methods are, we have to question whether or not they could possibly be worth it. The film is not just questioning how Fletcher achieves his results, but it’s questioning the very concept of greatness itself. And I can’t think of another film that examined this idea, let alone one that has examined it with such acuity. Whiplash gives us the happy ending that its characters want, but not undermines it with everything that proceeds it. Your perception of what the film is about suddenly shifts, and leaves you with quite a bit to think about—it’s a film that you think about well after the film is over.

Especially because this face becomes the face of your nightmares.

That’s the nitty-gritty of what is so wonderful about this film. It is engaging, and fascinating. But, before I end this post, I would be remiss to not mention the other two stars of the film (other than Simmons). Even though Oscar nominations have not yet been announced, Simmons is a lock, but there is one other award, Whiplash is sure to be nominated for, and that’s editing. The editing is simply extraordinary. If you know how difficult editing a film is, then you will get an extra level of pleasure watching Whiplash and appreciating how much work went into it. Specifically in the aforementioned final scene, which took two days to film and was compiled together from an impossibly long amount of footage to come together as a believable and exhilarating cohesive piece. Miles Teller knew how to play drums a little bit before being cast, and studied hard to improve his skills (his drum coach was in turn rewarded a supporting role as another drummer in the film) but no one could have ever been at the level that the role commanded unless they were already a professional drummer (he drums a LOT). Making the drumming believable is perhaps the most impressive technical achievement of the year.

But the other star of the film is the music itself. Jazz gets a bad reputation from those who aren’t aware of it. It’s typically seen as very laidback, sophisticated and boring. The laidback, I get—it’s a very cool and relaxed sound, although the musicians have to work so hard—so much of it is rhythm-based, and with the encouragement of improvisation, musicians really have to stay on their toes. Sophisticated I…don’t really get. After all, jazz started in black communities in America in the late 19th century-- this was hardly the music reserved for high society. It’s a music of the people. But the complaint leveed against jazz that I get the least is that it’s boring. Jazz is dangerous, it is seductive, it is incredibly exciting. The thing is that Whiplash is not about jazz—it is about Andrew’s drive for excellence and the monster who fuels his self-destruction—but jazz still plays a starring role. The music-playing sequences are shot so lovingly and, yes, in a jazzlike way. The camera in these sequences often goes on a tilt. Cinematographer Sharone Meir plays with the camera—it looks slick and composed, but is visually interesting and unexpected. And, yes, it is jazzlike. The film, like the genre of music it uses to frame its story, is all about passion. It’s all about intensity. It is truly thrilling, and is one of the most uncomfortable and fascinating films of the year.

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