BIFF 2014: Whiplash

Bergen International Film Festival 2014: Since his debut just a few years ago, Miles Teller, has done a handful of brilliant roles (See The Spectacular Now) but with Whiplash, he outdoes himself.

In 2013, Damien Chazelle wrote the screenplay for Grand Piano, in which a young pianist (Elijah Wood) is set to perform “the impossible piece” at his comeback concert, but as it turns out, a certain someone is ready to kill him if one note is out of place. Now Chazelle is back (as writer/director) with Whiplash, a movie about ambition, passion and an intense relationship between jazz-drummer, Andrew Neyman (Miles Teller) and his teacher, Terence Fletcher (J.K. Simmons). Grand Piano was somewhat enjoyable, but mainly forgettable, while Whiplash is something as rare as an intense jazz-thriller that will push you to the edge of your seat.

As I said above, the movie follows the ambitious jazz-drummer, Andrew, a student at one of the most prestigious music academies in America. His current goal is to be accepted into the highly coveted jazz-ensemble of the infamous teacher, Mr. Fletcher. He is merciless in his tutelage, projecting an indescribable ferociousness towards his students at every moment. As they push themselves to their limits, he is there to push them beyond said limit, whether its by the means of physical violence and dominance, or phycological  abuse.

Whiplash

Such a character could easily become a stale caricature, whose only purpose is shock value, but in the hands of J.K. Simmons, Mr. Fletcher steers clear of all this. While one could be excused to think legal actions are in order as a result of his abusive teaching style, we – as well as Andrew – are constantly drawn to him. He tells the apocryphal story of how Jo Jones threw a cymbal at the head of Charlie Parker when he was off beat, thus forcing Mr. Parker to practice, hone and refine his skills, which eventually leads to him becoming the jazz legend he is today. While such a story – as fictionalised as it is – does not excuse abusive behaviour in and of itself, its difficult to disagree wholeheartedly when Mr. Fletcher says the two most dangerous words in the english language is, “Good job”. Disagree or not, the fact still remains that modern society is inherently too focused on encouragement. We are in a time of constant praise, where everybody gets a medal for participating or even showing up. Before when teachers said “You can’t fail this test if you show up” it was meant as motivation, a way for you to relieve yourself of stress and fear, but today, its fact.

Andrew Neyman also becomes real in the hands of Miles Teller. Andrew is ambitious as few, with multiple aspirations, and a resilience unlike most people of his age. He is defined by his ambitions, putting his whole heart into it every single day. As a result of this, and his talent, he comes of as a little cocky, but Teller manages to find the exact sweet spot needed to make the characters motivations understandable. You may not relate to him, but its become a poor trend in film/art criticism to demand relatability from the characters or narrative within the piece of art. As long as the motivation of the character is made clear to the audience, the movie has done its job, and whether you like it or not relies completely on your subjective opinion. A dinner scene in the movie examines the line between objectivity and subjectivity; When Andrew explains the prestigiousness and talent of Mr. Fletcher, someone asks “but thats just subjective, right?”. No, it is not. I am not a fan of Bach, but I would never be so bold as to claim his music, and what he did for music, is bad or worthless.

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While some, including Richard Brody over at The New Yorker, have presented some fairly accurate critique towards the musical capabilities of Whiplash, I feel he perhaps focused too much on the genre-definition from IMBD (which puts the movie as both “drama” and “music”). Not to say he misunderstood the movie or its intentions, because his article is not only enlightening for someone without too much pre-knowledge of jazz-history, but his points are  valid within his interpretation of the movie. However, for myself, Whiplash is not a movie about jazz music as a concept, but rather a study in character relationships, were the jazz – both the music played by the characters and the references made by them –  works as a backdrop to give the characters a purpose. A certain divine purpose that transcends realism to create a thrilling, cinematic experience.

Because a teacher like Mr. Fletcher would never be allowed to work in real life, at least not as undisturbed as he does here. Certain plot elements feels orchestrated, but it does so in a deliberate way thanks to the editing of Tom Cross and the cinematography of Sharone Meir. They put us on stage with Andrew and Mr. Fletcher, and pan and cross in line with the music, making it surprisingly tense. The whole third act is cut together to become a masterpiece were you simply cannot sit still while watching. You feel the music, you feel the ambition, the stress, the anger and the blood coming from Andrew, and it works perfectly.

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