Whiplash (Damien Chazelle, USA, 2014)

American cinema, Blogpost, Film reviews

There is a scene in John Cameron Mitchell’s somewhat overlooked Rabbit Hole (USA, 2010), in which mourning mother Becca (Nicole Kidman) talks with Jason (Miles Teller), the young man – a boy, really – responsible for the loss of Becca’s child.

In one scene, set on a park bench – just like the moment when Mark Ruffalo also did something extraordinary with the equally wonderful Laura Linney (whither Laura Linney, though?) in Kenneth Lonergan’s You Can Count On Me (USA, 2000) – Miles Teller became for me a real talent to watch.

A bunch of teen drinking movies later, and here he is playing Andrew in Whiplash, being given the hardest, probably unethical push by his jazz teacher, Fletcher (excellently played by J.K. Simmons – but the award nominations mean everyone already knows this), and then becoming the man, or realising the potential that he has had all along.

Spoilers: this film is really all about its stupendous, virtuoso climactic scene in which Andrew steps up and takes over from Fletcher in order to begin his own life.

That said, the film is entertaining throughout. Well paced, well acted, with an excellent script involving great put-downs from Fletcher, the film also contains some nicely conveyed moments of arrogance from Andrew (at a family dinner – maybe Thanksgiving), and, in a mildly original way, he does not get the girl because he has acted like a tool towards her earlier on in an equally arrogant way.

I came out of the film thinking that this was the first film among those that I have seen at the cinema in 2015 that I’d want to see again – mainly for that final scene, because I also feel that both Enemy (Denis Villeneuve, Canada/Spain, 2013) and National Gallery (Frederick Wiseman, France/USA/UK, 2014) are excellent (and I hope to blog about them when I get time).

And don’t get me wrong – Teller and Simmons are both fantastic, but that final scene is really about the drumming (apparently Teller himself, with some highly accomplished editing) and, for me, a reaction shot from Andrew’s father, Jim (Paul Reiser), when he sees/hears just how good his son really is.

People have been enthusing about Whiplash for a while, and not for any wrong reason. ‘It’s a music film shot as though it was a thriller,’ is what I remember hearing around the time it played at the London Film Festival (for reasons of ticket pricing and opportunity, I don’t go to see films at the festival that likely will have a major release at a later point in time).

But – here’s where we get to the meat of the blog – I am not particularly convinced about a student-teacher relationship as thriller being so original. I never really got what was that original about Låt den rätte komma in/Let the Right One In (Tomas Alfredson, Sweden, 2008), either. So I could be an ignoramus. But this kind of hybridising of genres is for me inevitable – someone would have done it at some point in time. What it is not is that original – i.e. of a uniqueness that one can never look at anything the same way again.

Let me clarify: Whiplash is excellent, but it is also conventionally shot, cast and played. What is more, about 20 hours after seeing it, other questions and doubts about the film come to mind.

Charlie Parker is referenced a lot in the film, especially the (incorrectly recounted) story about how Jo Jones threw a cymbal at Parker’s head one time, inspiring Parker to go away, practice and to become the legend that is Bird.

Two things: Charlie Parker was black. And Charlie Parker was a jazz musician – a form of music originating in America, and which consists not uniquely of black musicians, but regularly, or most often. Indeed, it is sometimes referred to as a form of black music.

So major critique number one is the fact that a form of music that has race at its core, or in its blood, we might say, becomes here a struggle between two white men. Sure, white musicians play jazz, and it might well be that in the contemporary era white musicians have over-run jazz, thereby making Whiplash something of an insightful film about the state of jazz today. But while we get to see black faces in this film, they are supporting roles – i.e. barely a speaking part – as the story becomes in the end the thesis-antithesis-synthesis of two white dudes.

It makes me think that more people should watch Fruitvale Station (Ryan Coogler, USA, 2013), which is a truly extraordinary film, or, failing that, something like Finding Forrester (Gus Van Sant, USA, 2000).

(In Andrew’s rise to greatness, the film also tells us that women are unnecessary, perhaps even a plain hindrance, for men, but I shall leave that critique for someone else to make. Perhaps it is significant that Nicole, played by Melanie Benoist, works in a cinema, and that Andrew watches movies there with Jim. With a missing mother, he maybe realises that Nicole is a stand-in mother – a cinematic projection – and that he does not need her; men can raise each other, as Jim and now Fletcher have done with Andrew; women are evil wastes of time, anyway, and best seen as objects on a screen and not as autonomous human beings…)

And now beef number two is that this is a film about jazz. And I am just not sure that formally the film reflects its connection to jazz, being structured and paced much more like a mainstream film – even if a thriller while being about music school – rather than the slightly offbeat, somewhat hard to get into, sometimes downright oppositional mode that jazz historically has been.

Here we have again a racial dimension: the form of this film is about as white as we can get. But more than that… For me, given cinematic form, jazz looks something like the movies of John Cassavetes, who dealt directly with jazz in Shadows (USA, 1959), which with the central character of Ben (Ben Carruthers) explores precisely with the issue of race and to which places and rhythms of life the colour of one’s skin gives us access.

I’d also like to refer to other Cassavetes movies like Husbands (USA, 1970) and Gloria (USA, 1980), in which you don’t have any idea where these movies are going to go from one moment to the next. This inability to read these films, their dangerous, improvised quality, in which everything teeters on the brink of disaster and in taking us to the edge makes us find beauty of the most fragile sort, that is what cinematic jazz is and feels like for me.

It is perhaps problematic – for this argument – that Cassavetes himself was white. But one feels like he’s risked everything to make every single one of his films, and that the freedom and fear involved in this produce amazing work. We get a sense of this happening for Andrew in Whiplash, but not necessarily for its director, Damien Chazelle.

‘The road to greatness can take you to the edge,’ pronounces the UK poster for Whiplash. Damien Chazelle’s film demonstrates great talent – but in the spirit of Fletcher, perhaps one ought to say that it is controlled, scripted (even if the film involved ad-libbing) and basically a safe if excellent film. Its ‘safety’ is demonstrated in its whiteness. Maybe Chazelle will next time produce something truly extraordinary; I hope that he does. Maybe he will be able to do so by engaging more closely with gender and colour. Maybe I shan’t go to watch this at the kino again.

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