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.

Cock Cock Cock Cock Cock (On the Oscar Nominations 2015)

American cinema, Blogpost

This is the unedited version of an article that otherwise appears on The Conversation.

Here goes:-

In order to suck one’s own cock, I guess one needs a cock in the first place. In some senses it is logical, then, that awards ceremonies, along with other systems of self-congratulation, have a touch of the priapic about them.

However, in the spirit of a recent essay on ‘masculinity in crisis‘ over at Souciant, Hollywood this year seems strongly to be about penises. Don’t get me wrong – penises can be beautiful things, even if often also the cause of much embarrassment to their owner (for being too small, for shrivelling up at the wrong moment, for arriving too early at a meeting with a vagina, an anus, a mouth, or whatever other orifice and/or implement it cares to encounter).

A good number of the films nominated at this year’s Academy Awards are pretty good films. Hell, technically, they’re all excellent. That is: yep, they’re penises, and they demonstrate that they work like penises do.

But it all seems like a lot of penis to me. Best Film nominees are about learning how to grow a penis (Boyhood, Whiplash), having a massive penis (American Sniper), trying to retumesce a flaccid penis (Birdman), having a vagina-liking penis that most people think is an anus-liking penis (The Grand Budapest Hotel), having an anus-liking penis that has to hide the fact that it likes anuses (The Imitation Game), having a fully working penis that most people think is a crippled penis (The Theory of Everything), and being a famously cocky civil rights campaigner (Selma).

All the fiction directors – including the ‘foreign’ ones and the ones working in animation – have penises. All the writers – original and adapted – have penises. All the cinematographers have penises. All of the composers have penises. All of the sound editors have penises. Five out of the six nominated editors have penises.

There is one documentary directed by someone with a vagina (CitizenFOUR), but it is about someone with a penis. There is also a documentary about someone with a vagina (Finding Vivian Maier), but it is directed by someone – two people, in fact – with a penis. What is more, this film is really about someone with a vagina who was too afraid to show their work or come out as an artist in their lifetime – perhaps in part because they did not have a penis (and therefore trying to become an artist was a bit fruitless; still, at least a penis is there to rehabilitate her now).

Of course, there are some vaginas nominated in the categories reserved for actors with vaginas. Among the Best Actress nominees, one is a murderous bitch (Rosamund Pike in Gone Girl), one has early onset Alzheimer’s (Julianne Moore in Still Alice), one is an antisocial loner (Reese Wetherspoon in Wild), one a woman who is rejected by most of the men she works with since they’d prefer a bonus to her having a job (Marion Cotillard in Two Days, One Night), and one is the foil to a genius whose own doctorate and motherhood duties play second fiddle to a man who ends up dumping her for a woman who’ll give him a handjob while looking at Penthouse magazine (Felicity Jones in The Theory of Everything).

Compare to the men – and we have a hero (Bradley Cooper in American Sniper), two geniuses*** (Benedict Cumberbatch in The Imitation Game; Eddie Redmayne in The Theory of Everything), a harmless madman who becomes hailed as a genius (Michael Keaton in Birdman, with this being a ‘woah! he’s still got a penis’ nom), and a bonkers rich recluse who eventually kills someone because his mum is a bitch (Steve Carell in Foxcatcher, with the ‘woah, he actually has a penis’ nom).

And the supporting actresses are nominated mainly in roles that are vaginas supporting penises (Keira Knightley in The Imitation Game, Emma Stone in Birdman, Patricia Arquette in Boyhood), with Meryl Streep as a witch (Into the Woods). Maybe only Laura Dern in Wild, playing Reese Witherspoon’s mother, manages to evade being the penis-crutch that most vaginas are expected to be. But, you know, the title alone suggests that independent women are ‘wild’ and dangerous and not to be trusted.

I saw Boyhood and thought that Patricia Arquette was the best thing in it and came out of the film thinking that instead of Boyhood the film should be called Motherhood (or at the very least Texas). But no – it got named after the penis and the vagina is overlooked again.

Even the nomination of Meryl Streep seems more obligatory than worthy – especially when someone like Octavia Spencer made me cry within three minutes of being on screen in the massively overlooked Fruitvale Station (which, admittedly, would not have qualified for these Oscars because it had a – limited – US release date in 2013, even if released in the UK only in June 2014).

But the point remains… The man from Hollywood, he say hail the cock. And fuck the cunt. This is our world.

*** I am intrigued about how these two nominations are about specifically scientific geniuses, and the reverence that scientific geniuses receive, which stands in some contrast to artistic geniuses, perhaps. If the universe is mathematical, then working out formulae that best describe it is inevitable over time – because one must find the formula for A.I. (Turing) and/or the big bang/black holes (Hawking). In other words, if not these men, then someone would have worked out how to do what they did – even if these men were in the ‘right’ place at the ‘right’ time to work it out. Contrast this to a work of art: if Picasso had not lived, his art works would not exist, while someone would have worked out what both Turing and Hawking worked out at some point in time because all they are doing is maths (no disparagement intended). Given the irreplaceable nature of Picasso, but given that logically Turing and Hawking are entirely replaceable, why do we celebrate scientific genius (this year, anyway) more than artistic genius?