Whiplash feels like an “After School Special”, with a questionable attitude.
(Warning: It is always possible I didn’t get it. I am not immune to missing the point and then making up my own point which I think is their point but it isn’t, it’s mine, and I just replaced the point I didn’t get with the one I thought was the point but it wasn’t. Just saying. It can happen. And you may feel free to correct me if I’m wrong.)
Here’s the story. (Which is merely an expositional string of events, making it very difficult to misconstrue, meaning you can trust me on this part.)
A young college student with a passion to be excellent at drumming is accepted into what the movie labels the finest music program in the country, where he encounters a quintessentially “tough love” professor who believes that
“There are no words in the English language more harmful than… (UTTERED WITH DISMISSIVE CONTEMPT)…‘Good job.’”
Rather than being touchy-feelingly encouraging and supportive, the renegade professor includes in his pedagogical M.O.: Yelling, slapping, shaming, cursing, game-playing, manipulating, confidence-undermining and threatening with permanent expulsion from the band.
No compliments. The man’s going the other way.
(Note: The role of “The Monster Teacher Who Believes He Is Proceeding In The Appropriate Manner” – “appropriate” meaning it is the only way to attain Charlie Parker-like predominance – is played by veteran character actor J.K. Simmons, who normally plays likable characters like the psychologist Emil Skoda on Law & Order and the genial spokesman for Farmers Insurance. I imagine if Simmons had done Whiplash first, when his name came up as a possible spokesman, the ad people for Farmers would have replied “The Screamer?”, and they would have moved on to somebody else. It also occurred to me – though I do not know this for certain – that Simmons quite likely made a ton more money playing the insurance pitchman than he did for his Golden Globe-winning (and Oscar-nominated) performance in the movie. Which seems odd, but that is simply the way it is.)
Here’s the “hack scenario” version of Whiplash.
A committed neophyte drummer falls under the sway of an abusive, single-minded professor and, on the punishing road to maturity, he discovers that there is more to life than becoming the greatest drummer that ever lived.
Tried and true. You start him out at the extremes, and he winds up contentedly closer to the middle.
Here is the actual scenario of Whiplash.
A committed neophyte drummer falls under the sway of an abusive, single-minded professor, and, on the punishing road to maturity, he discovers…
He still wants to become a sensational drummer. And in the climactic moment of the movie, during an endless, (supposedly) transcendent drum solo, met with the enthusiastic approval of his maniac professor, he triumphantly accomplishes his objective.
No friends. No love in his life. No Aristotelian (or some other philosopher of equal stature) balance. The kid stacks all his chips on a single number, and he comes up a winner. Without the slightest indication of a regret.
Okay. You know my summary of (virtually) every American movie:
“Somebody wants something, and they get it.”
By that evaluational formula, this fits.
But “Yikes!” He got this?
That’s the Germans winning the war.
I mean, normally in “Somebody wants something, and they get it” movies, the ultimate successes are required to change, to soften, become more caring, more sensitively self-aware and aware of the people around them as well.
They are transformed, and then, they are rewarded.
In Whiplash, I don’t see any of that. The professor enjoys the satisfaction of having his odiferous teaching techniques vindicated. And the drummer, who started out willing to give up everything to become the best, in fact gave up everything and became the best.
That makes me unhappy.
I will not deny that, earlier in my career, I would wonder about the difference between the best practitioners in the sitcom arena and myself who was, he pronounced humbly, “really pretty good.”
What would it take, I hypothesized, for me to be “The Best”?
And if those “Guidelines To Greatness” could be determined, would I be willing to surrender to those guidelines to achieve it?
Bottom Line – How much did I actually want to be “The Best”? And if it was ultimately unessential to me, why was I thinking about it at all? (“It was only an exercise.” “Really?”)
It turns out, from the perspective at the other end of the journey, I was just fine with being “really pretty good.” I was ecstatic just to be participating. Though I readily acknowledge, that others, like the fictional young drummer in Whiplash, may aspire differently.
You can just hope that at the end of the trail – “Day is done, gone the sun” –
They are still happy with their decision.