Commenter Stas Wirthing on my last film-related post thinks I missed what Damien Chazelle was aiming for in his movie, “Whiplash.” His comments are well-worth a post of their own – which is what I’m giving them here:
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. . . .
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.
To which I replied:
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?
Which led to:
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. . . .
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.
The heart of our debate relates to the question of subjectivity. “Whiplash” stays very close to its protagonist – we’re seeing the world through his eyes. But, as Wirthing notes, it doesn’t hold our hands. It doesn’t tell us that his view of the world is skewed. So it’s easy to conclude that the film believes that what Andrew sees is the world.
A good point of comparison would be Martin Scorsese’s film, “Taxi Driver,” which stays very close to its protagonist, Travis Bickle, to the point of having him in every shot. Scorsese’s goal was to make sure we don’t get any emotional distance from Bickle, because if we did we’d dismiss him as a nut-job. He didn’t want us to feel sympathy for Bickle; he wanted us to feel what it was like to be Bickle – and Bickle didn’t have perspective on being himself, so we couldn’t either.
Was Chazelle aiming for something similar? Did he want us to be with Andrew in that sense: so close to his perspective on the world that we couldn’t avoid seeing the world as he did, but counting on us to be able, once we left the theater, to recall that his perspective is thoroughly twisted? It’s entirely plausible – and, if so, then I have definitely mis-read the film. But it does seem to me that one difference between “Taxi Driver” and “Whiplash” is that Scorsese might have felt confident that Bickle was objectively so deranged that nobody in his audience would actually think he was siding with Travis Bickle, and therefore mis-read his film in the way that I might be mis-reading “Whiplash.”
Of course, maybe he shouldn’t have been so confident. John Hinckley aside, the ’70s was the era of social breakdown and panic about same, and, in that context, enough people read “Taxi Driver” as a Charles Bronson flick to make Travis Bickle a culture hero. I may well be making the same mistake with “Whiplash” – reading the film as grimly affirming what it intends merely to make me feel from the inside – but recoiling from it in consequence rather than rejoicing.
In any event, whatever Chazelle was aiming for, he should be very pleased that people are having arguments like this about his film. Any film that generates this kind of debate is by definition worth seeing.