Damien Chazelle fall movies

Whiplash Review: Genius is Harsh

Friday, October 24, 2014 Rob Samuelson


Director: Damien Chazelle
Writer: Damien Chazelle
Starring: Miles Teller, J.K. Simmons

Genius is rare, perhaps even fleeting. It is also not about talent alone. Platitudes about the duration of Rome's construction apply even to the most brilliant people, and it's an unpleasant, sometimes unhinged exercise where things like real life and social pleasantries fall by the wayside in pursuit of greatness.

Writer-director Damien Chazelle's Whiplash unpacks that idea with laser focus. Miles Teller's Andrew is a first-year jazz drummer at the best music school in the country. He's more than raw talent, as established by the film's opening shot, a dolly push-in from a hallway to the practice room where Andrew toils away, sweaty and exhausted. A cut reveals the camera's point of view to be that of Fletcher (J.K. Simmons), the conductor of the school's prestigious jazz band. Their first encounter is not the easiest first impression scene to sit through, and the movie only gets harder from there.

Andrew and Fletcher spar throughout the film. Fletcher is the worst case scenario negative reinforcement teacher, with a motivational style that includes throwing chairs at his pupils' heads and never once offering a word of encouragement. Mirroring the drumming depicted in the film, Fletcher's behavior is constant, repetitious abuse of their physical, mental, and emotional faculties. Even in his more “teacherly” moments, he is a calculating monster, only asking about Andrew's family background to gain an emotional cudgel moments later when Andrew makes a miniscule mistake in practice.

But is Fletcher really the bastard he seems to be? This is where Chazelle moves the film from straightforward character drama into a thesis on the manipulative nature of cinema. Despite the opening shot, most of Whiplash is shown through Andrew's subjective, go-getting eyes. He is not a heroic character. This is not an example of Chazelle showing how his protagonist is flawed or bringing a level of “real world” humanity to him while retaining likeability – he does and says some despicable things to the people who surround him. This may not be on the same abusive level as his teacher, but his tunnel vision to perfection sends him into callous fits of egoism. He emotionally tramples his girlfriend and holds an air of superiority over his father's dinner guests for not having his gifts, which pale in comparison to the way he treats his bandmates, with belittling statements about their abilities and a possible bit of sabotage to gain early sway with Fletcher. Even the climax of the film revolves around an act of spiteful showboating that makes it about the conflict between these characters. This is uncompromising storytelling, some of the best film has to offer. But from a character standpoint, and for the other musicians who have to be bystanders to this drama, with their futures just as much on the line as Andrew's, it's selfishness.

This calls into question Andrew's emotional stability and maturity, as he cannot see at times obvious tricks, cruel as they are, to put him on the right path. One of his rival drummers, of a good natured personality, reminds him that Fletcher is “all bark, no bite,” which could be closer to the truth than Andrew's mind allows him to perceive. There are pointed scenes where Chazelle shows some non-grotesque aspects to Fletcher's personality, cracks in the mask, with the camera pausing on Simmons's face during moments of horrible self-realization/public deception, or voyeuristic peeks at a good nature outside of his practice room behavior. Fletcher even goes so far as to lay out his ethos in clear terms to Andrew in a third act scene, but his pettiness makes it worse for both of them, setting up the grand finale of selfish oneupmanship. Or is it just another Fletcher motivational ploy to wring greatness from Andrew? That's the wonderful mess Chazelle leaves for the audience to decide.

Andrew's goal is to be “one of the greats,” and he'll probably do it if he doesn't collapse under his own and his teacher's pressure. Chazelle, the first-time director, might be on the same route, and his first features is probably already there.

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