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Double Feature Feature: 10,000 Hours Edition

Whiplash [1],” 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 [2],” 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 [3],” 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 [4]” or “Divergent [5]” or “Ender’s Game [6]” 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.

*     *     *

“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.

*     *     *

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 [7].” 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.

6 Comments (Open | Close)

6 Comments To "Double Feature Feature: 10,000 Hours Edition"

#1 Comment By scritic On November 29, 2014 @ 10:53 am

I agree with you that Black Swan doesn’t really offer an answer to why the main character loves to dance (although I love that movie, for other reasons). But if [8] in the Times is anything to go by, it seems like Whiplash does manage to get into the craft of being a jazz drummer. Perhaps there are different ideas about what it means to be a good jazz drummer and the film is emphasizing one that you don’t quite agree with (speed, or something like speed)?

#2 Comment By Noah Millman On November 29, 2014 @ 6:45 pm

Yeah – I went into the film looking for what Scott saw, but I didn’t quite see it.

I’m not a jazz drummer myself. My son’s taking drumming lessons from a drummer whose first love is jazz, though he does all kinds of gigs – that’s as close as I get, and it isn’t very close at all. But something bugged me about the film, and that something was the complete lack of joy in the work, on anybody’s part.

By the way, Scott in passing makes mention of the whiteness of the movie’s jazz world. I think that, to some extent, that just reflects how jazz has changed – but I also think it’s another indicator of what’s missing. Over and over in the Ginger Baker doc, people talk about how he was one of the few white drummers who really played like a black drummer – who had that feel to his playing. Which is a big part of why Baker wound up moving to Africa. There’s a big old world out there, with all kinds of music being made. But the musical world presented by the film is remarkably hemmed-in and confined. And again, this is all related to the hierarchical, careerist perspective on the music world that the film reflects.

I really, really wanted to like this film. I admire Chazelle’s craft as a writer and a director. But it bugged me that I couldn’t tell if he saw the world in this confined way, or whether this was supposed to be a limitation of the character. If the latter, I think it’s a flaw in the film that I couldn’t tell – that it felt like this was the perspective of the film and not just the character. If the former, well, then I just reject it.

#3 Comment By Stas Wirthing On November 29, 2014 @ 7:48 pm

I posted a long comment which vanished into the ether, so before I try again I’ll see if this goes through.

#4 Comment By Stas Wirthing On November 29, 2014 @ 8:24 pm

Sorry about my earlier “test” message. Not sure what went wrong.

Yours is an interesting, intelligent analysis — unsurprisingly. My take on Whiplash is a little different, however. I see the film as more than a Gladwellian parable. It examines the agony of being frustrated in one’s quest for greatness “for all the wrong reasons.” It’s this “for all the wrong reasons” that makes the film so original. Andrew’s musical genius is never examined because, in his eyes, it is never in doubt. (The entire film is through his eyes, so subjectivity is everything.) He wants to be one of the greats. He knows himself to be well endowed with genius. Only one obstacle on his way to greatness: his sub-par ear-eye coordination. “Are you rushing or are you dragging?” He knows he is the new Buddy Rich, except a Buddy Rich who can’t keep tempo. He’s Lawrence Olivier with a stutter; Marilyn Monroe with acne; Martha Argerich with arthritis. His barrier to artistic greatness is a shortcoming that is the antithesis of art itself: the mere capacity to beat like a metronome. Andrew is not trading with Mephistopheles for genius but for better neuromuscular junctions. This is the anti-Salieri.

Evolution made the emergence of an Einstein or Shakespeare natural because natural selection rewards smarts. But it doesn’t reward keeping a double time swing steady. Evolution never cared that we could play fast scales like Pollini or hit backhands like Federer or bend it like Beckham. In that sense, writing poetry is evolutionary natural in ways banging on drums is not. Andrew-the-genius is frustrated to be stuck with that other Andrew, the Andrew who can’t time his downbeats to the nanosecond. The film explores his willingness to sell his soul to vanquish that other Andrew. Think of it as a loving mother selling herself as a prostitute to feed her children. Andrew’s artistic genius is her maternal love; his urge to turn himself into a machine corresponds to her need to resort to prostitution. Now only a vulgar film would focus on her love, because its strength could only exist inasmuch as it could be taken for granted. Likewise, Andrew’s Faustian pact can only be given its due if his musical genius remains unexamined. It’s significant that the film never suggests any deficiency in Andrew’s artistic genius. His only weakness is his inability to be a machine. And Buddy Rich was both man and machine. This is a key point. Not only the joy of making music is off topic but its mere evocation would almost certainly derail the narrative arc. In fact its only occurrence is in the piano bar where Andrew is a passive observer.

So it’s not just that Whiplash is not about jazz or art. It’s not even about Andrew and Fletcher. It’s about the Faustian calculus one is willing to engage in to accede to what one believes is one’s due when the only obstacle is a pedestrian handicap with a passing connection to the greatness of the goal.

As Robert Bresson used to say, the greatness of an actor is not measured by what he shows but by what he hides. That’s why Whiplash shines in ways Black Swan doesn’t: its refusal to compromise by tossing to the viewer any artistic insight left me quite impressed. I saw it as a remarkable sign of cinematic confidence and maturity in such a young director.

That said, it’s easy to misread the film, as Richard Brody did by wrongly lending seriousness to the characters. The only seriousness is the madness engendered by the burning desire to overcome mediocre neurotransmitters. It could be a movie about Schumann’s unhinged efforts to strengthen his weak fingers, which led, in part, to his descent into madness.

#5 Comment By Noah Millman On November 30, 2014 @ 1:21 am

That’s a very interesting read. I need to think about it more. Three quick thoughts, though:

First, evolution probably cares a lot about whether we can keep time. Music may precede language in the history of hominid communication, and rhythm certainly precedes melody in the development of music.

Second, as I mentioned in my earlier comment, I know Andrew wants greatness for all the wrong reasons – but how do I know that the movie knows this? In particular, how do you square your read with the movie’s ending, which seemed to me to clearly signal Andrew’s ultimate victory, over his father’s skepticism, his mentor’s cruelty, and his own hands? What does that ending mean in your reading?

And, finally, why a drummer? Granted that he wants to be great for all the wrong reasons. Why does he want to be a great drummer specifically?

But I want to think more about your read – it’s worth my time to do so.

#6 Comment By Stas Wirthing On November 30, 2014 @ 8:51 pm

These are good questions, which I can only try to answer as a viewer. I don’t know what the director really meant but perhaps this doesn’t matter. Though I did hear him say in an interview that the film was partly autobiographical. He was a drummer in a jazz ensemble with an abusive teacher. Evidently they played in the White House and were voted Best High School Jazz band in the country by Downbeat — which raises the issue of our society’s tolerance for abuse in the face of success (see Penn State, Rutgers, etc.): a separate issue though one worth examining.

Why does the movie know Andrew wants greatness for the wrong reasons? Actually I think the movie suggests he wants it for the right reasons, precisely because he’s not particularly good with the mechanics of drumming. It’s not that Andrew can’t do super-fancy fills — he can — the problem is that he can’t keep basic time. But presumably he does not situate the genius of drumming in one’s capacity to keep a steady beat. So I infer that he has artistic genius in him (or thinks that he does) from these three factors: he sucks at basic drumming; he thinks he can be great; he is not unhinged. The last point matters because the narrative arcs turns him into a semi nut job by the end.

Evolution and keeping time… In that interview I mentioned, the director said something really interesting which your son might relate to. He was a pretty good drummer — enough to win all awards in national competitions — but much of the abuse he got was from his lack of “absolute tempo.” It’s like perfect pitch for rhythm: the ability to keep a steady beat without a metronome. Easier said than done. I thought naively that that task was up to the conductor but he said, no, it’s the drummer’s job. One can be an amazing instrumentalist and lack that ability. Listen to Stevie Ray Vaughan carefully and you’ll notice how he always rushes, so that the beat is probably a good 20% faster by the end of his songs. I am not sure how innate that ability is: musicians are asked to practice with a metronome precisely because it might not be so genetically programmed in us.

The ending? My suspicion is that it’s ambiguous enough to allow for all sorts of interpretations. This is my read for whatever it’s worth. By then Andrew has joined ISIS-jazz (or whatever the cult of Fletcher might be called). His solo is artistically superb but what matters is his teacher’s approval. Pure Stockholm syndrome. My take is pessimistic. He’s become Fletcher and will eventually teach jazz and abuse his students, having ruined all of his artistic potential.

My analysis could be off. But that’s why the movie worked for me. Its lack of didacticism and hand holding left us with questions and no clear answers. As a piece of social commentary, I see the movie as darkly satirical. And this ties with the abuse scandals I mentioned earlier. I can imagine the last frame with the letters: “And now, before you dismiss this film as fiction, please go and read about Mike Rice, Bob Knight, Jerry Sandusky…”

At the same time, one can draw a number of other conclusions. My only peeve, I guess, is the complaint that the film fails to show the joy of jazz. Evidently, the same director made an earlier movie precisely about the joy of jazz, so there is evidence that he gets it. Whiplash leaves out the joy of music in the same way a film about rape might leave out the joy of making love.