Whiplash

October 21, 2014

still-of-j-k-simmons-in-whiplash-2014-large-picture

It should come as no surprise that the Grand Jury and Audience Prize winning film of the 2014 Sundance Film Festival should traffic in territory of a recently successful film. In this case, Damien Chazelle’s Whiplash has more than a hint of “Black Swan but with jazz drumming” as it centers on a young artist in a relatively niche cultural market desperate to reach perfection. Despite the easy reductive write-off that so often afflicts Sundance favourites, it does impressively manage to sidestep the attempted-crossover crowd pleasing stories that the festival loves to promote, and it features filmmaking beyond handheld “capture the raw moment of drama” that is so pervasive and yet so hard to pull off. Whiplash is nothing new, but it’s well made and propulsive enough that it hardly matters, and if its insights fall into a kind of clichéd hard-bitten romanticism, at least it is committed to reflecting it with what’s on screen.

Beginning with a long shot of Andrew (Miles Teller) practicing on a drum kit in a room at the end of a hallway, the camera moves in closer until we cut to Terence Fletcher (J.K. Simmons), the conductor of the elite jazz ensemble watching him. From here on the film tightens to mostly close-ups and extreme-close ups, many of which are static, and some fairly rapid cutting. Everything gets locked in and, aside from some early moments of relief with perfunctory side characters, namely Andrew’s dad (Paul Reiser) and his brief girlfriend (Melissa Benoist), it mostly focuses in Andrew and Fletcher, the shots emphasizing the claustrophobic and inescapably brutal nature of their relationship.

The first hour is an arresting and sometimes tiring watch, and full credit to Chazelle and Teller’s performance –an actor I’ve never had anything particularly positive to say about before – for embracing Andrew’s trajectory into insufferable jerk. If it eventually errs on the side of the histrionic, it came by it honest, and when it flirts soon after with becoming a tedious message movie about bullying it admirably zigs where you’d expect it to zag in a way that is completely true to the main characters.

I emphasize “main” there because everyone else is merely a prop to demonstrate the heartlessness of Fletcher or the increasingly obsessive ego of Andrew. This is not a subtle film, and when Andrew breaks up with his girlfriend it feels less like a palpable change in character and more of a signifier of what we’ve seen elsewhere, largely due to the fact that the relationship is so underdeveloped it has no emotional resonance. Likewise the father is meant to be a sage role model and a paragon of the virtues of the simple life but as there is nothing else to him, he does not represent a credible alternative for his son. Which is not damning, considering this is a film about a determined drive rather than difficult choices.

In the end, it gives in to the romantic perspective that the true genius of an artist comes from their utter disregard for everything else in their lives and giving in to the torture of perfection. If this film isn’t as damning as Black Swan for the same conclusion, it never fully embraces it’s ending as a victory. The fantastic use of a whip pan in the climax is ambiguous in its thrills. The connection – and respect – it suggests is as tragic for the audience as it is exciting for its characters. It’s honest and enjoyable, and though it’s probably as much about jazz as Black Swan was about ballet, it doesn’t really matter. The pursuit of perfection is a destructive one, and though Whiplash in the end might suggest it is worth it, there’s enough acknowledgment that it might not be to avoid vindicating the action of Fletcher and, crucially, Andrew.

-M

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