Monday, January 26, 2015

Miles Runs the Voodoo Down: WHIPLASH and The Myth of the Great American Tyrant

 (S           P           O           I           L           E           R           S)

The most exhilarating action sequences of 2014 don’t involve flying superheroes, or exploding robots, or Tom Cruise.  They’re simply composed of one man and drum kit.  Miles Teller going to war with the snare, the kick, the ride.  And himself.  Always himself.

The ferocity that Teller’s Andrew Neimann brings to these scenes is, in many ways, the syncopated heartbeat of Damien Chazelle’s Whiplash, one of the year’s most emotionally intense films and one of the great anti-fables of the canon.  During his bid to establish his core spot in the Studio Band, the elite jazz competition squad helmed by the maniacal Terence Fletcher (J.K. Simmons), Neimann routinely punishes his shortcomings by ensconcing himself in a closet-like private rehearsal room and whaling away at his kit in precision speed drills that serve as both self-improvement and self-flagellation.  A series of tight close-ups, but also a string of would-be emotional exorcisms, these scenes are both thrilling and disturbing in their focused intensity.  The rewards for his drive and dedication are ruptured blisters on his hands, the blood from within spattering his sticks and cymbals.  And a sense that it’s still not good enough.

The ambiguous matter of that possessed drive and determination, and its rewards, is the central question of Whiplash.  Teller is an ideal actor for this role.  His natural baby face has always allowed him to play younger than his age, but there’s a steely reserve in his eyes that also allows him range beyond the boy next door.  The private interior war of Andrew Neimann, the tormented tumult between his family’s middlebrow existence and the transcendent glory to which he aspires, his hero worship of the legendarily mercurial Buddy Rich running smack dab into the immediate powder keg of rage that is Fletcher, his struggle with romance vs. ROMANCE….it all requires the ability to nimbly shift between a broad gamut of conflicting emotions.  It requires an actor who can win over the audience’s sympathies, while shattering them in the next moment.  We’ve seen this character before, the idealistic young man (or maybe the proper formatting at this point in cinematic history should be Idealistic Young Man) running the gauntlet to greatness, emerging on the other end a little older, a little more bruised, but a little wiser.    

Whiplash’s summoning of the question of glory’s price situates it in a timeless tradition of such stories.  But it also serves as a stinging critique of that most beloved and worshiped of all cultural archetypes: the tyrannical genius surrogate father.  Anthropologically speaking, this character stretches back throughout the annals of history.  But Americans have always had a special affinity for such brilliant bullies.  R. Lee Ermey has made a career out of riffing on Full Metal Jacket’s Sgt. Hartman (itself a riff on Ermey’s own past as a drill instructor.)  Several generations of young men have latched onto his profane insults as call and response goofs, but more often than not there’s also a sense of enjoyment for the power that such diatribes imbue (or, at least, that was the case amongst my Boy Scout friends in 1988.)  Bobby Knight is still lauded as a college basketball legend; how many former players still praise him as a great molder of young men, the tough love that they needed at that critical point in their growth?  Sure, he may have been ultimately fired for crossing the line of intimidation one too many times, but we’re not that far removed from decades of Knight’s tirades, chair-throwing, etc. filling up highlight reels. 

It’s no coincidence that these two men made their mark in the military and the sporting world, fields ruled by their dedication to rule, order, and power dynamics.  Their mutual philosophy trades in breaking down the green recruit, depriving him of any shred of an ego, and then building him back up into a sleek and disciplined machine.  It’s admirable at heart, yet exploited too often in the name of tradition.  But the love of the tyrant goes even further.  It explains the grudging admiration that Dick Cheney still enjoys, the same one that Jack Nicholson aspires to in A Few Good Men.  Christ, how many times in the last decade plus, when another torture revelation, another illegal wiretapping scandal emerges has “You can’t handle the truth!  You need me up on that wall!” been replayed ad nauseum on the news?  We’re told that we might disagree with the methods themselves, but that we need villains like them to make the world run.  And hell, with the cowered manner of a post-9/11 country in tow, it’s not a surprise that such bromides continue to be thrown around.  But we’re straying a bit into improv territory here.  Best to get back to the charts.

J.K. Simmons is just one in a long line of cinematic genius tyrants, his Terence Fletcher a physical coil of muscle and tendon, a psychological coil of rage and brilliance.  His sarcastic, profane tirades are stiletto knives of aggression, but they’re also darkly hilarious (he’s easily the most eloquent character in the film.)  Indeed, Neimann and his fellow Studio Band members so often come across as feckless that the viewer is almost driven to siding with Fletcher.  These Millenials!  And their lack of anything resembling standards!

But this version of the tyrant comes along at an intriguing cultural turning point.  Modern society has rallied against bullying like no other time in recent history, so the social acceptability of loving this type of character is becoming more and more taboo.  It certainly lends added heft to what are already queasy confrontations between Fletcher and his charges, as he draws a bead on every ethnic, economic, and sexual insecurity that they possess.  At the same time, there’s truth to be had in Fletcher’s criticism of young people who are only satisfied with comfortable mediocrity, of a generation of Millenials who have been insulated against suffering and failure by parents desperate to atone for their seemingly painful childhoods.  Irresistible force, immovable object…you know the game.      

Whiplash’s power lies in the almost surreal extremes to which the plot is pushed to enhance its refutation of the genius tyrant image.  Some have criticized the film for not getting jazz right (whatever that is) or for ignoring the inherent joy of musical performance.  But despite the semi-autobiographical aspects of the story (Chazelle was a high school drum prodigy), it’s a mistake to think of this as a jazz film.  Or as a fully realistic one, at that.

 For me, Andrew’s car crash on his way to a major competition seems to provide the key to much of the film’s aim.  Having been physically and mentally thrashed by Fletcher in the run up to this contest, he’s now a brilliant set of frayed nerves, deeply proficient but petrified of making another mistake, of losing his spot.  After the crash, as Andrew jogs to the performance hall and beyond, the film takes on a disjointed, somewhat hallucinatory tone.  The story is told from his point of view, so it’s not too much of a stretch to theorize that some degree of psychological break has taken place, that much of the remaining plot is a slightly enhanced version of what the real events might be, the traumatic results of whiplash both figurative and literal.  
The viewer might go into Whiplash looking for the emotional reassurance that often comes from this type of melodramatic, Manichean conflict.  But catharsis is not what Chazelle is aiming for.  That would be too easy of an endgame.  Throughout the story, he constantly subverts the audience’s expectations for a traditional payoff.  When Fletcher is brought to tears after receiving the news of the death of former student Sean Casey, it seems to be that moment when the monster is revealed to be a softie hiding behind a gruff exterior.  But Fletcher merely doubles down on his histrionic intimidation of the Stage Band.  When Andrew attacks Fletcher onstage, it’s the moment of glorious revenge that a hero is supposed to have.  Only it ends in his expulsion from the Shaffer Conservatory and a conflicted moment in which he agrees to anonymously testify against Fletcher in a lawsuit involving the Casey’s death (which, in opposition to Fletcher’s car crash version, is revealed to be a depression-related suicide.  It’s doubly interesting that even though the lawyer nails Fletcher for creating the environment that eventually led to Casey’s demise, the film offers no final evidence.  There exists the very real possibility that this was who he already was, that Fletcher offered him a moment of stability and strength before he returned to the long goodbye of his life.) 

Months later, Andrew and Fletcher seemingly reconcile when they meet in a jazz club, the former now a deli clerk, his teacher fired from the Conservatory.  Fletcher offers him his old gig, playing “Whiplash” and “Caravan” at the JVC Festival, and for a moment the audience expects this to be that feel good resolution to all of the psychological warfare.  But Fletcher ups the ante by betraying Andrew onstage with a piece for which he’s totally unprepared, final revenge for ratting him out to the college board.  Finally, Andrew bolts offstage in the consoling arms of his father; “Let’s go home” Dad says, in a line drawn from so many family dramas of yore.  But Andrew is too deeply entrenched in this private war to give up, his final fuck you delivered to Fletcher as he hijacks the concert with an extended drum solo of such primal anger, force, and skill that it serves as the emotional exorcism that he sought for so long in his speed drills. 

And yet, the final shots of the film are of Andrew and Fletcher exchanging a smile.  The teacher and the pupil.  The devil and the object of temptation.  The villain and the hero.  Both caught in an ever-regenerating contest of wills.  Shades of the famous Rich-Gene Krupa drum battle, two prodigious talents soloing against each other in tandem.  No easy answers.  No reassurance.  Drum roll.  Curtain.