Wednesday, May 24, 2017

Best of the Decade: Whiplash (2014)

Everyone's pretty unanimously in love with La La Land. I mean who can blame them? It's so charming, well paced and directed, containing some of the most electric on screen chemistry we've seen in a while. It blows up the idealized vision of what Los Angeles can offer an aspiring artist in the entertainment industry. It was a love letter to all the movie and music industry is, and a seeming opus for young director Damien Chazel.  Yeahhh, this is not his best movie. I don't even think it even comes in the realm of debate, to be honest. That's not a knock on La La Land at all, there's plenty to love, and it doesn't do a whole lot wrong as a film. But my god, what a movie Whiplash is. I don't think I've ever seen a movie like it, I really don't (ironically the closest movie that I can think of is Birdman which came out the same year, and took home the Academy Award for best picture). Every single person I've shown this movie to has audibly "wowed" at the end of the movie. Some will credit that to the flawless 15-minute final act of the film, but to me, the film had to really work and earn itself (hm a theme) to get to that point. What did this movie do to me as a viewer? What was it's lasting message? As I laid it out in my last post, it's not just about the objective story, its twists, and turns, and how substantive it is. It's about what the movie made me feel afterward. And this movie made me feel a lot. And I think I figured out why.

Whiplash follows jazz drummer Andrew Niemann (played by Miles Teller), a Freshman at the fictional Schaffer conservatory, the number one music conservatory in the country. Right away from the first shot in the first scene, we see him slaving away at his drumming practice, alone at night in a practice room. In strolls in Terrence Fletcher (played by J. K. Simmons), who, without words, we are able to discern he's the head honcho of the conservatory. He observes Andrews skills and asks him to play a rudiment. Andrew sounds like he can do it, but it's not to Fletcher's liking. The rest of the movie follows Andrew earning a position on the jazz combo and trying to prove himself to Fletcher who relentlessly berates him and his other members on perfection.

Let me get some of the formalities out of the way here. Acting: fantastic; Cinematography: top notch; Musical Score: lol what do you think; Color Pallette & Set Designphenomenal. I would talk about each of these in detail, but this isn't a standard review, more of a reflection, and a lot of what I will be talking about is greatly represented in these different areas. From here on out this is a review with spoilers, you know the drill, go see this film if you haven't!

Okay so going back to that first scene, I think this is the perfect stage setter for the rest of the film. We get a sense of Andrew's character because of his obsessive desire to be the best jazz drummer since Buddy Rich. We also get a sense of Fletcher's character, as we can tell he's a perfectionist, who will strictly and aggressively get what he wants, but at the same time, does not let on initially to his behavior.  You see by the level of skill hinted in Andrew and by the level of aggression hinted in Fletcher that you're in for a wild ride. The rest of the film plays out as such, almost at the rhythm of a fast paced drum solo (yeah not almost, exactly like a fast paced drum solo).

So what is this movie really about at its core? What did it make me feel so intimately? This movie is about obsessing over being a master at your craft. It's about understanding that if you want to get to the top of the top, you have to push yourself, or be "pushed beyond what's expected of you". That's actually a direct quote from Fletcher in the movie, and boy does everything click when he says it.

Let's try and understand both characters a little better. The whole time you're just writhing in your seat, seeing Andrew go through literal fucking hell to maintain his position as lead drummer in Fletcher's jazz combo. From having the position be constantly up for grabs, making critical small mistakes that lead to his beratement, and even limping over from a car wreckage just so he could make his performance on time only to be unable to play due to injuries, you resent Fletcher the exact same way Andrew does. Why on Earth would Fletcher be so cruel and heartless? Well, he's not. We see plenty of scenes of him showing genuine emotion, granted only momentarily, that cue us as the audience into seeing a human side to him. Then, after he's been fired, and Andrew's dropped out of the conservatory, they meet serendipitously at a jazz bar where Fletcher tells an allegorical tale of Charlie Parker's first big time solo, and how even though it was pretty good, he had a symbol immediately thrown at his head because it wasn't the best he could do. He then said how Charlie worked his ass off for a year straight so that when he came back he gave "the best fucking solo anyone had ever heard." What this story does, besides beautifully foreshadow the film's ending, is sum up Fletcher's motivations this whole time. He wanted to produce a Charlie Parker, and he knew exactly what it took to make one. This also hinted to Andrew and to us that he was on the path to becoming one (before unfortunate and unforeseen plot circumstances).

Andrew, on the other hand, is obviously the perfect prodigy for Fletcher's criteria. We see how badly he wants it, we see how hard he works, and we see how it affects his personal life. He condescends to his whole family, and his girlfriend about wanting to be the best and what it takes to get there. Normally you would think that "oh, this character's an asshole", and not be able to sympathize or relate to him at all. But if you know what it takes to be the best, you really can't blame him. His lack of empathy and emotion for anything other than drumming is not sociopathic, it's passion and obsession driven (which I guess could be considered sociopathic, but you know, he's successful I guess). So, we have two characters who both exhibit unfavorable qualities that would normally be shunned, only to find out their motives justify their actions. The parallels between the two characters in an unconventional manner really deepen this relationship between student and teacher. Other than literally the last 2 minutes of the film, there is no touching moment between the two, there's not really any reconciliation. It's all business at all times for these guys. And that's how it has to be.

So this whole idea of pushing beyond what's expected of you I can relate to. I was on a swim team for 9 years, and especially when things got more competitive in my high school years, there was a whole lot of pushing-you-to-the-limit. As a kid, I really didn't understand why things needed to be so much harder than clearly many of us were capable of at times. I don't think I ever wanted to be the best swimmer ever (if you know swimming, you know that unless you're showing promise that's a very unrealistic standard to uphold), but I would always try to be my best. That started at age 14 when I began to swim under my favorite and most formative coach, Jeff Klotz. While Jeff and I had a more light-hearted relationship comparatively, he was always pushing me beyond what I thought I could do. I would be so anxious at times going to practice because I knew I was going to get torn apart, just like the day before, and just like it would be the day after (swimming is a 6 day a week thing). Despite this, I found myself improving well beyond what I thought I could do, leading me to make time cuts I felt were so out of my realm of ability. LONG FUCKING STORY SHORT, I felt a spiritual parallel between Fletcher and Andrew, and Jeff and myself. Nooo I'm not saying I did nearly anything as intensive or was subject to that or any amount of abuse. I'm not saying I worked as hard or was as driven as Andrew was. I'm saying I felt the same feelings of anxiety from swimming under Jeff (Jeff if you're reading this, I love you and when I say anxiety I don't mean the deeply emotionally scarred kind of anxiety so don't worry) when Fletcher was pushing Andrew in the film. It was weird, I never felt that feeling anywhere else other than the context of the pool. But here I was watching a movie about drumming excellence feeling like I had to wake up at 5:30 the next day for morning practice. Deep down I always knew what Jeff was trying to get at with me with his methods, but it wasn't until this movie that I could put into actual concise words what he was really trying to do with me and all of his swimmers: to push us beyond what was expected of us. That's incredibly special to me, and that's also a huge indicator of authenticity in a film.

Oh best believe Chazel was subjected to something like this at one point in his life. Whether it be for his movie making skills, his musical ability, or both, there's no way he was able to tell this story like this and not have it happen to him. That also brings the film to a new meta level as well. The movie is a byproduct of all that work, stress, and effort he probably was exposed to at a young age. It certainly shows, this is a "Charlie Parker solo" level film in my opinion. With this under his belt, I think the next natural next step for him was obviously a film like La La Land, which, again, was executed very well probably due to, again, all this work he put in. But Whiplash is Chazel telling the story of all the hard work he's put in. He makes us feel the pain and stress he must have endured. All the extra dramatic moments are likely just manifestations of his emotions and feelings of working so hard to be so great. And it worked, it really worked.

The last thing I want to talk about is the finale. Oh man, it's so energetic and satisfying. You just get to see Andrew go off on the drums in a way we weren't allowed to see all film. Up until this point, we would see parts and bits of him playing that were either scolded by Fletcher and stopped, or plain cut away from. This was the first full performance we get to see, his big solo moment. And what's even better is that other than a line or two, no dialogue is really spoken. We only see how the characters feel through their eyes. Andrew get's his moment, Fletcher get's his prodigy. In my opinion, it's the perfect finish to a flawless movie.

Whiplash is one of those movies I can pop in whenever and watch. I don't get tired of it, it's still just as exciting and stressful as it was for me the first time. If you haven't inferred already, this is what makes a classic film. If someone can relate so much of themselves to a movie in an authentic manner, and gain some insight at the end of it, it's going to create a meaningful emotional connection between the audience member and the movie. This is known as identification and is one of the 11 motivators that explain why people are fans of what they're fans of (I'm fresh off two cog sci finals sorry). I have no more to say this is just one that I can't emphasize enough is a masterful film. Like I said, I don't this there is a movie like this, and it excites me that there is still a lot more to come from Chazel (he's 32 !!). Whiplash will always be special to me though, and I have certainly brought along its lessons with me ever since that first watch.