Despite acknowledging that “Birdman”’s triumph at this year’s Academy Awards was well-deserved, my personal pick was and is still “Whiplash,” directed by Damien Chazelle. Perhaps I adore this film since its producer is Jason Blum, a Vassar alumnus who visited to present this masterpiece at his own alma mater last October. Perhaps my burning passion for music helps me empathize with Andrew Neiman’s struggles and desires. Putting aside all the “perhaps,” describing “Whiplash” as an excellent artwork is far from an overstatement.
“Whiplash”’s protagonist is Andrew Neiman (Miles Teller), a first-year student at the Shaffer Conservatory who is obsessed with becoming a great artist. Seeing his potential in jazz music, conductor Terence Fletcher (J.K. Simmons) invites Andrew to join his studio band as an alternate drummer. Contrary to Andrew’s expectations, Fletcher is extremely abusive to his students, using future success as an excuse for his troubling ethics. Owing to his hard work and a mysterious incident, Andrew is eventually promoted to become the core drummer of the band.
Before an important jazz competition, Andrew gets into an accident and enters the stage with bloody hands. He fails to finish the assigned piece, “Caravan,” resulting in his dismissal from the band. Frustrated, Andrew attacks Fletcher in front of the audience. He is later expelled from school, but is able to testify against the abusive conductor, who is eventually fired as well. Nonetheless, Andrew’s passion for music motivates him to join Fletcher’s independent band afterwards, and drama rises again.
What makes “Whiplash” appealing at first is its contemporariness, found in the major theme of education. The film depicts a battle between two pedagogical ideologies: Should we be brutal and push students to the limits, so that they can overcome all obstacles to achieve greatness, or should we be tender in the process, using softness and encouragement to generate motivation? In other words, is it the result—the destination–or the process—the journey–that is privileged; is it Andrew’s desire to make a name for himself, or his physical and psychological endurance that should be prioritized? Although psychologists have concluded that the latter is a more effective educational strategy, it cannot be denied that many of the world’s most renowned talents came from martyrdom. Being insulted and punished can transform itself into immense motivation, helping an individual transgress their own boundaries to become Someone.
What is wonderful about “Whiplash” is that the film navigates skillfully along a delicate borderline between the two ideals, but never stumbles. It showcases both sides without giving a definite conclusion. It bends to a particular one at times; it tumbles at times; the tension is seemingly released at times; but a stable state is never achieved. “Whiplash” constructs a fluid spectrum of emotions. On one extreme of the spectrum is Fletcher, who is constantly pushing and chastising, but has a justifiable reason for his act. In the middle of this spectrum is Andrew, who has to make a decision every now and then, struggling to balance between his true self and the image of a perfect other self. The other end of the spectrum transgresses the silver screen, locating itself in each audience’s own educational ideal. That being said, judging Fletcher’s behavior depends wholly on the viewers, based on their own willingness to adopt this teaching style.
If you believe that all things in life happen for a reason, you might understand Fletcher’s methodology. In the end of the film, Andrew succeeds in giving an impressive performance of “Caravan,” taking absolute control of the band from the conductor. The audience is speechless, undoubtedly struck. This can be considered Andrew’s first step in becoming a star–an icon of greatness that he has been dreaming of. However, if he had quit Fletcher’s band in the first place, if he had stayed content with a comfortable life, if he had refused to collaborate with Fletcher after the scandal, if he had never practiced “Caravan” for the prior jazz competition, would he be able to nail the piece that day? Everything is built up from the start, as bricks in constructing a house. Fletcher might be a terrible person, a brutal instructor, but there are conspicuous remnants that he left and we can see on present-day Andrew. The same principle can apply to daily life—if you are willing to go through much pain—we might have a chance to earn what you deserve. This rather problematic idea must have disturbed and haunted many people who are working in the educational realm. At the end of the day, applying this tactic or not, is a personal choice.
Apart from the content, the aesthetic of “Whiplash” is also very impressive. I would describe its screening not as an ordinary film screening, but a real viewing experience. J.K. Simmons’ acting is incredible. Imagining myself as another member of the band, I feel disturbed and intimidated by his aggression. A large number of close-ups of his face, showing his wrinkles, a signifier for experiences, and the sharpness in his eyes, representing strictness and determination, incite audience connectivity. The editing—my vocabulary at this point becomes powerless—is majestic and spectacular. There is a tight relationship between visual cuts and the music rhythm, which is essential to a musical film. I feel absorbed into Andrews’ drumming, as though there were an imaginary world whose temporal existence lies neatly between his two beats, the well-crafted precision that stems survival. His whole performance then becomes a vulnerable series of labyrinths and escapes–a meta-embodiment of his own difficulties. Slices of life, thin as they are, are cut out skillfully by the hand of the artist. The sound and the editing touch every pulse of my senses. This is not an easy job–not many films can do what Whiplash has mastered–the art of subtlety. Beautiful things can be found anywhere–those are external impacts.
Given its contemporary narrative, visceral quality, fantastic editing and sound mixing, “Whiplash,” without doubt, is one of the best films I have seen recently. I’m looking forward to another impressive artwork from Jason Blum, the pride of Vassar, my inspiration.