I managed, over the course of a week, to watch Whiplash. It’s a strong Oscar contender, and the trailer is amazing for its tightness, and its focus. It tells the story of a student drummer enrolled in a facsimile of Julliard, whose teacher pushes him beyond the limits by sheer abuse. That isn’t me hand wringing, by the way. The trailer itself makes it absolutely clear, from the first lesson, that J.K. Simmonds’ teacher does not follow the Socratic method.
Why so long?
As I said, it took me a week to watch it. The structure of my day means I work, come home and do housework for half an hour, and then pick up Little Man. When he’s home, he is the priority, not films, so other than the Daily Show over dinner, nothing else gets watched. It means I saw Whiplash in about twenty minute segments per day, until we were done. That may have influenced my reaction to it, because I’ve a few thoughts that aren’t really being reflected elsewhere, as far as I can see.
The movie’s question
The movie sets itself up to ask a certain question; is this teaching method acceptable if results are obtained? If it works, is it forgivable? One of the ways it asks this, is by concerning itself with the Mens Rea of the Teacher. Does he want this student, Andrew, to succeed, seeing in him some worthwhile spark of greatness? Or does he merely enjoy abuse, unable to step away from his tactics no matter what it does to the student?
Here is the spoiler part my title speaks of. At one point, the teacher Fletcher gets a phone call after class, a phone call that leaves him distressed. At the next class that evening, he reveals that a student of his, who had gone on to great things, had died in a car crash. He then goes on to give the lesson, and what a lesson. Driven even more angry, he compulsively makes each drummer pound the drum until they reach the speed he demands. He holds up the lesson until they get there. The lesson started at 9 pm. Fletcher is a man possessed in that class; each student has their worst fears yelled at them while they sweat and bleed on their sticks. Our hero is told that his mother left him as a baby because of the aura of pathetic he conveys, and that he will amount to nothing. Somehow, though, he does it. He reaches the required tempo. The other students are now called back in, at 2 am, and when they do finally get to leave the building and go home, our hero seems to have aged ten years.
Miles Teller (left) and J. K. Simmons in “Whiplash.” Credit Photograph by Daniel McFadden / Sony Pictures Classics / Everett
What happens next
The next day, our hero somehow makes it to the performance, despite suffering a car accident and near hysteria due to his panic at not being on time. Fletcher, unimpressed, pulls him out from the drums (he was dripping blood) and Andrew throws himself on him, fighting and kicking in rage. He is pulled off the stage; he is thrown out of the school. He takes up a job in Starbucks to pay the bills, and puts his musical aims in the closet. He is then contacted by the family of a former student, and things take another twist.
The student who died in a car crash, didn’t die in a car crash. He in fact took his own life. And he took his own life on foot of mental problems that started when Fletcher was his teacher. That was the telephone call Fletcher took. That was the detail that spurred him on that night. And what a reaction! To learn that you have driven a young student to suicide, only to be compelled to cause more pain, more agony. I have caused death, he has thought. I will continue on, but even stronger.
Andrew is asked to tell of his own experience in an effort to get Fletcher fired, and he does just that. But he agrees when Fletcher asks him to play in his own band months later. The final scene is both nightmare and dream, really, Fletcher, it seems, knew all along it was Andrew who helped get him fired, and orchestrated him being on stage, in Carnegie hall, without proper notes so as to shame him. Horrified, Andrew leaves the stage, but then turns back on his heel and goes back to his drums. He starts a set that leaves everyone gasping and as you can hear here, guides the rest of the band into Caravan. Fletcher is furious, but maintains his role on stage. However, the excellence of Andrew is compelling; he gives a virtuoso performance, and Fletcher is spun back into being his teacher once again. The movie ends with the Mens Rea of Fletcher being confirmed, in the final second, as being that of the teacher; his belief in Andrew is confirmed, he was about the spark of greatness all along.
Why this is more dangerous than 50 Shades
This movie is a fantasy. It is about accepting abuse from someone in the belief that they are somehow about your own best interests, that they will make you better, and you will just have to put up with this if you wish to be considered good enough. Fletcher is a teacher who will drive students to suicide, and consider them weak, rather than back off. He wants greatness but he doesn’t want to learn himself. He seeks to teach, but not to care, and the movie frankly agrees with him. Andrew becomes amazing at his art. And he does that after months of inactivity, a dream coming true right in front of our eyes. Andrew’s pain and agony is not important, what is important is where he ends up. And his emotional state is not part of anyone’s concern. Again, and I’m boring people now at this stage, women are delicate flowers, men get to suck it up, and round and round it goes. Andrew, in his way, gets the same message as Anastasia Steele, that the abuse they suffer is worth it in the end, but there is very little concern about his life out there. Andrew is under Fletcher’s thrall completely by the end of the movie, and so everything is … worked out? If the music is good enough, it is worth it.
I’m unconvinced. Whiplash is a fantasy, not reality, and it ignores the consequences of what it proposes, like a good movie.