by Jordan Aaron & Joel Kalow
From the April 2015 Issue
Joel Kalow: What do we look for when we go to the movies? Visceral pleasure (there’s a reason those Michael Bay movies break the box office every other year), narrative experiments, old-fashioned, epic storytelling. We go for the laughs, the tears, and the in-betweens. But what about the message? Where does that fit in? Some films show their message in bold-caps, for good or for bad. Many are subtler in their intentions, but don’t be mistaken: the message is there.
It is the message of Whiplash, Damien Chazelle’s fast-paced character study/ode to the costs of greatness, that left me with a bad taste in my mouth. The film follows Andrew Neiman (Miles Teller), a drummer at a fictional Juliard-esque college in New York City, as he is mentored by the abusive, frightening and amoral Terence Fletcher (J.K. Simmons).
Whiplash is powerful and unnerving, edited to be as tight as a drum, with just as much impact as the title implies. It was a smash hit, garnering (mostly) rave reviews, and nominated for five Academy Awards. This is all to say, I liked it. Any problems I had with the movie on first watch were swept away by the spectacle of the performances, as well as that of the music. In light of the film’s three Oscar wins I’ve been thinking more and more about what has left me a little sour on the film. The answer lies in its message, and the execution of that message.
Anyone who has seen Whiplash can tell you that Chazelle knows how to end a movie. The climax is as intense, jaw dropping and goosebump-inducing as anything else from 2014. But it is that same ending that puts the nail in the coffin of what is ultimately a reprehensible moral message: Whiplash ends up endorsing the sociopaths central to its narrative, inadvertently arguing that true greatness lies in a purely selfish pursuit.
Here is where it gets tricky, because Damien Chazelle has stated that he believes the ending to be a tragedy, that Neiman will go on to be a sad, lonely, ultimately failed figure. This is all good and well, but nothing in the movie validates this opinion. In the end, we (the audience) must disregard Chazelle’s statements and go with the “text” of the film itself, which argues over and over that the sacrifices Neiman makes for his craft, such as tossing away any semblance of a healthy social life for his career, are worth it.
Several times throughout Whiplash, Fletcher references the famous jazz story surrounding a young Charlie Parker and Jo Jones, the drummer of the Count Basie Orchestra. The story as follows is this: Parker, a young up and coming saxophone player, got a chance to play with Jo Jones. Parker messed up in the middle of a gig and Jones through a cymbal at his head. Fletcher uses this story to influence our young protagonist, and further rationalize his abusive rants and teachings. Here’s the thing: The story is a lie. Jones, in fact, simply dropped a cymbal to the floor in frustration after Parker got off beat and could not find the groove again. The film never recognizes this however, and the audience is duped, like Neiman, into believing that this is where greatness lies. That would be fine if Chazelle showed the ridiculousness of this kind of behavior, but he never really does.
So I ask you this, Jordan: Do you find the message of Whiplash in any way misleading, if not at all kind of juvenile and oblivious to reality? Do you believe, as I do, that Chazelle ends up supporting his dual sociopaths? Or does it not matter to you, and the visceral nature of the film is where the real pleasure should be derived from?
Jordan Aaron: This film touches on an issue that is close to home for me and many other people. Outside of what Chazelle says about this film, Whiplash uses jazz as a vehicle for a bigger issue. In my experience with little league baseball, I often had coaches that would raise us to a high level of scrutiny. In first grade, I had a coach that I will refer to as Coach Allen. Coach Allen would have a tantrum if we struck out – especially if we struck out looking. If our performance wasn’t adequate, we would get an earful that not even major leaguers are expected to take. His son, however, always rose to the level of intensity that his father brought to the team. He became just as arrogant and obnoxious as his father – similar to Andrew and Fletcher. Years later, I had a coach similar to Coach Allen – we will call him Coach Roger. This coach was equally intense, and his son ate it right up. He didn’t talk during games, never smiled and treated baseball like business. Coach Roger was cast out by our town’s little league association and he formed his own team in another league. He recruited players that he handpicked and treated them terribly. They would be benched upon dropping a ball and moved to the bottom of the lineup after a strike out.
The point I am trying to make is that this deranged nature is inherent in many places in today’s society. We follow Andrew from his days as an awkward musician that was originally in it for the love of music. At the beginning, his goals are grounded in a sense of naïveté, but when he meets Fletcher, his desires change drastically. His musical goals intensify and become focused instead on being the best – similar to Coach Allen and Coach Roger. I don’t believe that a successful drum solo displays either character as right or wrong. The two achieved what they wanted, but in the mess of Andrew getting in a car accident, Fletcher getting fired, and a suicide, the film puts an asterisk on the road to this achievement, which is what I believe the message of the film is. Whiplash exposes a problem in our culture regarding what is acceptable behavior by a teacher, coach or conductor.
As for the film lying about the Jo Jones and Charlie Parker story, I disagree with the notion that this is a problem. Whiplash sets up the idea that Andrew is an awkward kid who loves drumming and is in it for the music. He nervously asks a girl on a date for pizza and explains to her why he chose to attend the school he did. He displays his love for music by talking about a Jackie Hill song that is playing in the restaurant, noting the drummer. This shows us that he is genuine and a protagonist to root for. But as he gets deeper into Fletcher’s world, so too does the audience. We get to the point where we have to choose if we get duped into this philosophy with Andrew. Is it when he tells off his family at dinner? Well, maybe, but his cousins, a football player and a Model UN member, are arguably worse. Was it when he broke up with Nicole, his girlfriend, in a rather cruel manner? Well, he is quite robotic and impudent in the way he talks to her, but he is doing it to push his career and is not trying to intentionally cause harm to anyone. Perhaps it’s when he leaves a car crash covered in blood to make it in time for a show that we disagree with his choices. Or when he subsequently attacks Fletcher. This scene shows us through Andrew’s actions that he has hit a psychological point of no return where he is no longer a person to root for. Whiplash uses its ending to set the stage for a legitimate question without giving an answer.
Kalow: I think your focus is too narrow; Whiplash isn’t about psychotic characters, it’s about how being psychotic is the only way to achieve greatness. The Charlie Parker story underlines this theme, but it’s repeated over and over. The car crash, the breakup and the increased tunnel vision are all obstacles that Neiman encounters and overcomes to be “the best.” They aren’t necessarily charismatic, but the film theorizes that they are necessary.
I am a firm believer that the ending of a film is the conceit, the summation of all of the themes into a (mostly) coherent series of moments. I don’t think anyone could watch the end of Whiplash and feel anything but elation – happy that Andrew didn’t give up, happy that Fletcher had gone from his enemy to his partner (there is a reason Andrew keeps telling Fletcher that he’ll “count him in”), happy that greatness was achieved. There is no sense of tragedy or failure, besides a brief look at Andrew’s horrified father, one that is brushed over immediately in favor of close-ups of Fletcher and Andrew, ecstatic and triumphant.
Perhaps it is a question of whether that bothers you: Just because the film argues that true greatness can only be reached if one sacrifices everything else, including personal character (a message that inherently contradicts the nature of collaborative art), does not mean that should negate the pleasure of a film so obviously well made. Can a film be forgiven for having an abhorrent message, assuming it is exemplary in almost all other aspects? I’d say so, as long as we address the more distasteful elements as well.
Aaron: I will still argue that the abhorrent message you talk about is what is supposed to open the viewers’ eyes. The film takes a cynical stance on this subject – it lets Fletcher and Neiman win. Fletcher took the humanity out of Neiman and Neiman sacrificed all of his integrity as a result, still managing to succeed at the end. This does not paint a pretty picture – and that is the message. If the film ended ten minutes before the end (Fletcher remains fired and Neiman stays out of jazz), then there would not have been much thought about it. The viewer would get what he or she wanted and walk away happy. But this film wants to truly question the audience and make an impact as opposed to a small nudge.
Kalow: If the film had ended ten minutes earlier, the audience would feel disgruntled at the lack of resolution. We root for the drum solo because we’re firmly on Neiman’s side, the side that prides itself in revenge and greatness above anything else.
I guess no matter what one takes out morally, the film has at the very least sparked a fun debate. Whiplash has its problems, but it’s way more interesting than the standard Oscar-British-biopic fare that generally takes over the awards season, and for that I am very grateful. I might not have loved the film the way most have, but there is no denying how exciting it is to have a young filmmaker like Damien Chazelle going forward, especially given the opportunities he will now surely have.
Aaron: Indeed it has sparked a fun debate, and I would argue that the existence of these arguments makes Whiplash a success. Fortunately, more meaningful and original films are being recognized by the Academy, quite possibly due to the larger number of nominations (10) that were presumably intended for blockbuster films. One can only hope that smaller films like these continue to get the attention they deserve, as it is important to keep our eyes open for new and fascinating filmmakers such as Chazelle, who challenge their viewers to think about the film, themselves, without needing said film to provide an easy answer.