Dir. Damien Chazelle. Starring Miles Teller, J.K. Simmons, Paul Reiser
People listen to music for repetition, predictability. This is why a three minute ditty on the radio can repeat its chorus three times and no one is bothered, and this is why people in pressed shirts go crazy for Ravel’s Bolero. Even music like Schoenberg’s polytonality is practically formulaic, requiring each tone to be stated once before it can be repeated. People watch movies, in many cases, to be surprised. Whistling the hook from, I dunno, “Hook,” by Blues Traveler, might cause someone to say, “Whoa, dude! Cool riff!” or “Ugh, that song?” but never, “Spoilers, man! Don’t ruin it for me!” This is not to say that music can’t surprise you (The Rite of Spring, and if you haven’t listened to it I won’t say where the surprise lies, is the first example that comes to mind), but that we don’t take its surprise value to be its end-all and be-all. We all know people who won’t watch a movie if they already know the ending; indeed, sometimes knowing the ending of a film before viewing it takes away the pleasure of viewing; I’ve never seen The Sixth Sense, because I’ve known the twist since 2000 and why bother?
It should be no surprise that Whiplash‘s screenplay, based on the fact that its main characters are musicians, works on the same surprise principle that music does. (But, in case you haven’t seen it and you’re looking to be surprised, significant spoilers below.)
Jason Concepcion is a man of many talents, but probably my favorite thing he’s ever written is his review of Whiplash. Like everything good we read, I seem to remember it being longer. At any rate, the article ends with a complete giveaway of what happens at the end of the film. Watching the film recently, I didn’t find that that mattered at all. The payoff was still there.
The film functions not so much as an example of Chekhov’s gun so much as it does Chekhov’s death emporium. Everything that is ever said comes back to matter later, just like you know that key change means the chorus is coming up in just a second. Mention throwing a cymbal at someone’s head? Yep, here comes J.K. Simmons tossin’ chairs. J.K. Simmons makes a throwaway line about folders? Not only is there a shot of someone’s folder getting put down, but it turns out to be a plot point. Lie about someone dying in a car crash? Watch out, Miles Teller, it’s a semi! Ginger Muscles Kid appears in an early scene in competition with Miles Teller? Back again in an hour or so, competing with Miles Teller! Even the closest thing to a surprise that we get – when we find out that Fletcher (Simmons) has invited Andrew (Teller) to perform in his band at a jazz festival for the sole purpose of destroying any chance Andrew would have at making drumming a profession – has been led in by a line two minutes earlier. He tells the band backstage that all sorts of people are out there who can turn any one of them into a paid – famous – professional…if they’re good enough. If they’re not, “those cats never forget.”
In another movie, this would feel redundant. It would smell like bad screenwriting, because in most movies, turning virtually every sentence into a hint as to what will come next is a way to broadcast that upcoming action; thus spoilers, thus disappointment, thus genre. We also value subtlety in writing. Coming out and stating some aspect of a person’s personality in a novel is not privileged as much as letting the moors stand in for his wild unpredictability. In Whiplash is not that kind of movie, but it still works, and there are two reasons why. First, this is a movie which features music, and the process of making good music, over and over again. You’re supposed to know what’s coming next. Second, it makes you whiteknuckle your way through the film, Fury Road style. The movie does not relent from telling you what will happen next; thus, the viewer sits there and anxiously waits for the wheels to come off. If a director can hold your anticipation long enough, the resulting relief from keeping your nerves taut – even if that relief is watching a folding chair fly at a person’s head – can be as good as shock. Even yelling “FASTER! FASTER!” while someone drums at 400 beats per minute can be a relief; at least there’s an end in sight. This is why Whiplash is not about a saxophonist or a trombone player; no matter how fast one of those guys can play, it will always be too slow compared to a drummer; no matter how ugly the sound is, it will never be as ugly as the sound of a drummer going hogwild behind his kit.
Andrew, in many ways, fails to hold my attention. He knows he’s unpopular, and he knows he’s not such a great person. His only goal is to become Buddy Rich. He has remarkable drive, but it’s curious to wonder how much of that drive is a teenage contrarian streak; would he want it that much if he didn’t feel the need to show up Fletcher? One of my favorite moments of his in the film comes when he goes after his cousins; the familiar trope of “praise the quarterback” is quickly upended when Andrew points out that his cousin is playing Division III ball. The cousin, resorting to the “I’m bigger ‘n you” ethos that stupid men are forced to resort to, says that if Carleton football is so lame, then Andrew should “come play with us.” Andrew is undaunted. “Four words you will never hear from the NFL.” It’s guilty pleasure dialogue, Sorkinesque and chippy, but it does very little to push the movie in a more interesting direction. Only when Andrew is surrounded by egocentrics on his level is he fun or interesting. When he is interacting with Nicole (Melissa Benoist), that egocentrism is revolting. She’s a person. He’s not. She’s not given much more to do in the film than to be a motivation like Fletcher is a motivation, but at least there’s a little dignity in her three or four scenes. (It would have been nice to have seen a woman do anything in this movie, incidentally. It’s almost Lawrence of Arabia in its total dearth of women.)
Fletcher’s pedagogy is catchy. If you push people past their limits, farther than they think they can go, then you have a chance at making a genius. Andrew wonders, in a conversation they have after both have been kicked out of Shaffer Conservatory, if pushing people like that will eliminate future geniuses because they couldn’t keep up with that kind of pressure. “The next Charlie Parker,” Fletcher says, “would never be discouraged.”
It’s the kind of teleological tirefire that passes for thought in white America, and it is the only justification that Fletcher has for doing what he does. For some reason – I blame football, but you might blame God – we act as everything that is meant to happen will happen. This assumes that anything is “meant” to happen, of course, but that’s a post for a different time.
By thinking that his methods can only bring a Charlie Parker to the top rather than keeping Charlie Parker from never reaching his potential, he has absolved himself of all wrong-doing. He has to, of course, because otherwise the suicide of a former student would be partially his fault; he knows it’s his fault, but he can’t actually admit that to himself. It’s a line of thought that also paints him as an agent of destiny: that a Charlie Parker can be brought out by someone like me, yet will remain undiscouraged by someone like me. For someone like Andrew, who thinks of himself as the avatar of jazz drumming for most of the movie, someone who believes that he is going to become the next Buddy Rich, that line of thought is deeply attractive. It’s why he keeps going back, even when anyone with an ounce of common sense wouldn’t do it. There is no better way to show an audience that your principals are utterly self-obsessed than to show their belief in destiny. No one believes in destiny unless destiny is believed to be on their side.