“Whiplash,” the new film from writer/director Damien Chazelle, will surely earn J. K. Simmons his first Oscar nomination, and may be a contender for other nominations as well. It’s an engrossing story about a folie a deux between two strong-willed artistic personalities, and the overpowering drive for greatness. It’s simple, it’s got a powerful drive, and it’s got a very direct and overwhelming performance. The Academy will eat it up.
It’s also got a hollowness at its core, which I don’t think will hurt it one bit. It didn’t hurt another film that got the Academy’s attention a few years back, also about an artist consumed with ambition. That film, Darren Aronofsky’s “Black Swan,” won Natalie Portman an Oscar for her performance as a driven young ballerina. On the surface, the contrasts with “Whiplash” are more notable than the similarities – to begin with, Aronofsky’s film is far bigger, more visually inventive, more overtly expressionist in its method, while Chazelle’s is a classic small-scale “indie” film – but I think they have something essential in common that is worth picking at like a scab on our culture’s soul. To whit: an unwillingness – or inability – to wrestle something far more elusive than artistic ambition: the true nature of artistic genius.
Chazelle’s film follows Andrew (Miles Teller), a drummer at a prestigious music school called Schaffer Academy (a thinly-disguised Juilliard). Andrew is determined to become one of the great jazz drummers in history, and the surest ticket to that destiny (as he sees it) is to earn a spot in the studio band run by the famously abusive Mr. Fletcher (played with great gusto by Mr. Simmons). Nobody else sees anything much in Andrew – his father is at best perplexed by his ambition to be a great drummer, and the rest of his family is downright hostile (and Andrew returns that hostility tenfold). But Fletcher sees something in Andrew, and asks him to join his band when Andrew is still a freshman. Thus begins a classic sado-masochistic mentor-mentee relationship, Fletcher alternating between building Andrew up and ruthlessly cutting him down, including humiliating him in front of his fellow musicians, repeated physical assault, and a host of twisted mind games.
Andrew buys in completely to Fletcher’s theory of greatness, according to which the best way to produce great artists is to demand the impossible of them, and to abuse them mercilessly when fail to deliver, the better to motivate them to try harder. “There are no two words in the English language more harmful than ‘good job,’ ” Fletcher says, and Andrew smiles in agreement.
It’s worth noting that while their meeting of the minds happens very quickly, this particular exchange takes place after quite a bit of plot has washed under the bridge. Andrew has, by this point in the film, already been through several cycles of favor and disfavor complete with tongue-lashings and flung furniture; has already demonstrated the insanity of his commitment by demanding to play the drums in competition immediately after crawling bloody from a car he has just totaled in a horrific accident; and, most important, has already turned on his former mentor in retaliation for his most-recent rejection, resulting in his mentor losing his job. Andrew believed in Fletcher’s philosophy before Fletcher ever arrived on the scene, and he still believes in it after he’s formally rejected him. And sure enough, the film builds to a climax and conclusion that appears to validate Fletcher’s philosophy completely.
Fletcher thinks of himself as a counter-cultural figure, railing against the prevailing acceptance of mediocrity, but he’s just representing another strain in our culture: the “Tiger Mother,” vigorously applying the spur of negative motivation to ultimate achievement. His notion of where greatness comes from is very Malcolm Gladwell; you practice for 10,000 hours, and you at least have a chance. And his currency is external recognition: winning the competition, impressing the audience, getting a job. This is not counter-cultural; if anything, what’s notable about “Whiplash” is how unaware it is of the achievement focus of our culture generally. It’s as is nobody in Andrew’s world had seen “The Hunger Games” or “Divergent” or “Ender’s Game” or any other piece of contemporary adolescent dystopia pitting children against each other in a brutal contest contrived by adults. Had they done so, they might have recognized Fletcher as a type.
The thing is, it’s not obvious that most of Fletcher’s abuse has anything to do with promoting outstanding musicianship, as opposed to promoting a twisted emotional dependence on his personal favor. Fletcher doesn’t do any instruction. He doesn’t teach. Moreover, there’s no sense that there are particular qualities of play to be cultivated; Fletcher is all about accuracy, being on tempo and on pitch. Now, these things are incredibly important, especially for a drummer, but while good musicianship definitely requires these things, it’s also about feel – indeed, without feel, all the accuracy in the world won’t get you anywhere near greatness. But feel is something Fletcher seems to have no interest in. And neither does Andrew – his own practice seems focused, overwhelmingly, on going faster, faster, faster.
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“Black Swan” would seem to start in a similar place when it comes to the question of what makes great art, but to end somewhere different. Its heroine, Nina Sayers (Ms. Portman), is the same kind of driven personality, determined to be great. She’s devoted her entire life to this ambition, spurred on by her former-dancer mother (a deliciously over-the-top Barbara Hershey), and to the exclusion of any kind of social or romantic life. As with “Whiplash,” the story turns on an unexpected opportunity to move up the ladder – in Sayers’s case, to play the lead in a production of Swan Lake. And there’s a mentor, Thomas Leroy (Vincent Cassel), who isn’t above playing some mind games, particularly pitting her against another rising ballerina, Lily (Mila Kunis).
Leroy’s main objective, though, isn’t to push Sayers to her physical and mental limit – she’s already doing that to herself – but to open her up to a more ecstatic dimension of experience; to find her dark and passionate side so that she can actually play the Black Swan as well as the White. It seems that practice, discipline, and ascetic athleticism aren’t enough. You have to live. You have to feel.
There’s an obviously erotic dimension to this emotional opening-up, but Sayers ultimately finds her dark passion not in that erotic awakening but in finally giving full rein to the violence of her ambition, and killing her rival – at least in her mind; much of the pleasure of Aronofsky’s film lies in the distinctive way in which he blurs the line between reality and fantasy, and the visceral impact of his own imagination (particularly as it relates to the horror of corporeality itself). In any event, when she finally lets go, she is able to dance the role with the required abandon – but at the price of her own destruction.
That sounds like almost the opposite of where Chazelle’s film goes – but under the surface, they share something deeper in common, and that is a fundamental lack of interest in the experience of creating art, the reduction of that experience to achievement, to passing some kind of test. We never really understand why Sayers wants to be a dancer, or what she gets out of dancing, beyond achieving what her mother never did. We don’t ever really understand why Andrew wants to be a drummer, or what he gets out of drumming, beyond wanting to prove to his uncomprehending family that he is great. The thing itself – the dance, the music – isn’t really in view.
Unlike Chazelle’s, Aronofsky’s film is aware that his heroine is missing something – but it’s the wrong something. It’s not sex, or the love of the body, that Sayers is missing. It’s a love of the dance. And the film – which is so visually striking that you know Aronofsky is in love with his own medium of film – is missing it, too. You don’t come away from “Black Swan” with any feeling for dance.
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Artistic genius is an elusive thing. Romantics tend to think of it as something innate, that only needs to be let out. And there is an element of the innate, most often; the great painters, writers, musicians, etc. – most of them started out with a gift. But not all of them, and not all to the same degree. Cézanne was not Picasso. Beethoven was not Mozart. Some truly great artists are more labored, and you can tell, while others make it look effortless.
What they have in common, though, is a fierce attachment, a love, of the activity itself, not for the sake of recognition, not as an index of personal achievement, but for the sake of the thing itself and what is being done. And that’s even true of drummers, those work-horses of the music world who one too often thinks of as only serving as a kind of background for the “real” musicians.
For my proof text, I’ll offer the documentary, “Beware of Mr. Baker.” Much of the film is devoted to Ginger Baker’s chaotic life and apparently unscratchable itch for personal conflict. But much of it is about the music, the one thing that Ginger Baker loved unequivocally and passionately in a life otherwise marked by a great deal of anger, spite and outright misanthropy.
I came out of that film energized, filled with a ludicrous desire to be as good as Ginger Baker at, well, at anything. Not because I wanted to prove something to an uncomprehending father or an over-controlling mother, but because I could hear, I could feel, what he was doing – and I could see, on his face, that he could feel it, too. That feeling looked like something worth having, worth more than many more comfortable things in life. Certainly more than praise from the teacher.
That’s the feeling I never got looking at the face of Miles Teller – or the face of Natalie Portman. That’s what they have in common, and it is the saddest thing about both films.