Director: Damien Chazelle
Writer: Damien Chazelle
Cinematographer: Sharone Meir
by Susan Bartley
‘There are no two words in the English language more harmful than "good job"’ - Terence Fletcher
Similar to most debut novels, most first independent films are autobiographical. Director Damien Chazelle is someone who was on track to become a professional jazz drummer and acknowledged he didn’t have the chops to compete at the highest level. He instead wanted to focus on film and writing while at Harvard. It’s safe to assume he’s Andrew (Miles Teller) in the story, willing to do whatever it takes to survive, and that the pursuit of both professional jazz and film are similar; both requiring vast amounts of study and practice. While a phenomenal film, Whiplash espouses a very twisted and narcissistic worldview; in which it’s better to abandon any and all relations in pursuit of one’s craft in order to be remembered.
Most revealing is at the dinner scene, where in a sudden and strange eruption we hear how Andrew regards both Division III football and a Class Presidency as meaningless endeavors. His musical pursuits are far more noble and respectable. He is determined to do whatever it takes to be remembered - not to create great art, but to be remembered for creating great art. He wants to be the guy at the table who’s being talked about; not the guy at the table talking. His endeavors are more honorable because it creates legacy; people will talk about him.
The issue is that Andrew never overcomes his own narcissism, which Fletcher pushes over the top in his classic monologue, instructing that it’s better to receive no praise at all than any form of compliment. After Andrew decides to scale back his percussion, calling the girl he dumped who now has a new boyfriend, he decides to play in the concert and give it all he’s got. And so in the end, Andrew is the same person as he was at the beginning. His aspirations are most important and no one is going to tell him otherwise.
Many have argued that J.K. Simmons was a villain and I completely agree. I also think Andrew is. His worldview is frighteningly self-centered, even willing to ignore the physical abuse he suffered because it gets him all the closer to being remembered. I couldn’t help thinking that although his praise of Charlie Parker is spot on, most people probably have no idea who Charlie Parker is, let alone the instrument he played and why it mattered. Thus, with such gross ignorance in mind, what makes Charlie Parker greater than a Division III football player who scored the winning touchdown for their school, or a class president who enacted a policy that could benefit the student body? Personally, given that the final performance was for some obscure upper class jazz competition, I’d assume that more people would care and notice the football game than some rebellious drumming (at least in a pre-YouTube age, though both would probably make the rounds).
Ultimately, art matters for those who appreciate it. The writers and filmmakers I admire are probably proud that I’m discussing their work far more than them as individuals. Andrew doesn’t seem to have the same reconciliation. He will go on, hoping to be remembered, and talked about at dinner tables. Inspiring or not, such a world view is pretty twisted. Typically, we watch stories about those committed to their crafts, striving for the perfection that could only produce great art - from Frankenstein (the novel more than the film) to Factotum (2005). For some, this selfish disregard is necessary to get to where they need to go. I just wish Chazelle showed Andrew consider that perhaps a balance was the better approach, whether achieving it or not. In the end, he got everything he wanted, but what did he really learn?
BELOW: Even after being assaulted by the man, all's forgiven because it was about making him a better drummer
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