|Bryan to himself: I kind of miss drumming.|
This review is about Damien Chazelle’s Whiplash, but before that, two sentences from the novel Percival Everett by Virgil Russell by Percival Everett:
That I then, you then, I now, could imagine such hell was hell enough. (213)
I could be writing you could be writing me could be writing you. (216).
I mention these lines from Everett’s very postmodernist text because this blurring of the lines between subject and object, between creator and created, between teacher and student, is at the heart of Chazelle’s film. And yet, Whiplash arrives at this hyphen without the appearance of either gimmick or contrivance, which is what separates it from both Inarritu’s Birdman and Linklater’s Boyhood.
Not only have Oscar ballots been cast but they have been announced. This conversation is old. Birdman won. And fans of every other film, but mostly Boyhood, have tweeted and blogged the ending of the world in accordance with such awful tragedy.
However, what was lost in immediate reaction was how both Birdman and Boyhood, despite their differences, are so similar. The former was quite postmodernist in all of its middle aged reflecting upon reflection and its insistence upon the power of the artist to transcend everything. And the latter was an attempt at realism, resisting the idea of the heroic epic for the ordinary moments of lived story. One flirted with death. The other was rather bloodless. And yet, both insisted on the power of art and relied on the
gimmick art of their production: Inarritu created the illusion of one long
tracking shot and Linklater resisted the construction of a climax for twelve
long years. These films are not that different, and neither, for the most part,
is Whiplash, except that Chazelle’s
effort is the only one of the three that really seems to transcend generational
points of view.
|Bryan to himself: Maybe not so much.|
Boyhood is an adolescent work and therefore cannot articulate itself with words and thoughts. Therefore, it aims to show. Birdman is about a middle-aged man who has outgrown action and therefore is left with nothing but words and thoughts and contemplation. And yet, both Mason and Riggan hate their critics. The former resists the instruction of his overbearing high school art teacher, and the latter revolts rather stupidly against a New York play critic. Both therefore are in search of something more real. Both are in search of something beyond words and criticism and theory. And both films suggest that they find it on their own terms. And yet, neither quite captures the act of creating something terrible in its beauty quite like Whiplash.
Throughout Chazelle’s film, the conflict revolves around to what extent does Andrew Neimann (Miles Teller) want to be a great jazz drummer. Does he desire it? Or, is he driven to become it? In essence, the issue is about whether or not he can forgo his own identity and become what Fletcher (J.K.Simmons) envisions as the perfect drummer. In other words, at issue is the same question present in both Birdman and Boyhood. And yet, in Whiplash, unlike in Boyhood, real doubt and suspense exists over whether such an act is even possible. After all, in Boyhood, there is never any real doubt as to whether Mason will cross the threshold that separates childhood from young adulthood. Never. Not once. And, in Whiplash, unlike in Boyhood, the film is never quite so aware of its transformative processes, except through the actions of its characters.
Every move made by Fletcher is an act of manipulation. He composes not only music but human lives, and if they cannot live up to his artful vision, then so be it. He is not after mediocrity. He is after perfection. This pursuit demands endurance, and so he rids the world of imposters. He is the critic supreme. He is a monster. And yet, he, too, is an artist. He paints this narrative with the blood of his musicians.
And, therefore, Andrew’s transcendence is an act of sacrifice, which makes his journey much more like Birdman’s Riggan than Boyhood’s Mason. Both of these individuals must abandon themselves. However, Riggan’s abandonment of self removes him from both his responsibilities in life and in the theater, while Andrew’s loss of self abandons him to the stage. It is fitting, then, that he turns away from his earthly father and towards the teacher who has broken him into a machine.
|Bryan to himself: I am SO glad I was a terrible drummer.|
For much of the film, these two individuals wrestle for control. “Not my tempo.” “Are you dragging?” “Are you rushing?” “Not my tempo.” “Not my tempo.” Fist in the air. Fist in the air. Blood on the sticks. Blood on the drums. Fist. Blood. Fist. Blood. The creator and the created. It is no stretch to suggest that the marks on Andrew’s hands are
stigmata stick-mata. And the result of the
teacher’s demands and the student’s sacrifice is the spirit of jazz, that
pounding rhythm of the blood that rises when the two are possessed by the same
tempo, when the two possess each other.
And yet, this image is horrifying in its beauty. As my wife and I watched, she yelled in the film’s final frames, “No! Andrew! Don’t give back control!” And this film is about control. It battles over it constantly and then compromises through the convergence of two bodies.
Bryan Harvey can be followed @LawnChairBoys.