art, artist, black swan, dahlia, dahlia schweitzer, hollywood, masochism, movies, pedagogy, pollock, sadism, save the last dance, whiplash
My feelings about Whiplash are complex, but one feeling isn’t. I hated it. I hated it with a passion. If I had seen it in theaters, I would have walked out. And here’s why:
Whiplash glorifies a specific aspect of the artistic process — the grueling, bloody (literally), and masochistic drive to be better than you are, to push harder than body and soul should allow, in order to achieve greatness. The implication being, of course, that if you haven’t made it, it’s because you didn’t really want it. If you haven’t made it, it’s because you didn’t bleed enough.
Gene Fowler has a famous quote I think of often: “Writing is easy. All you do is stare at a blank sheet of paper until drops of blood form on your forehead.”
That quote is clever because, of course, it’s not really true. Blood doesn’t actually form anywhere on your face. But in movies like Whiplash and Black Swan and Pollock and every other “artistic struggle” narrative, the idea is that you must be tortured by your art in order to be a real artist. If you’re not dying, if you’re not bleeding, if you’re not being driven mad, you’re lazy.
I can buy that — to a point. As an artist (formerly, currently, forever), I’m well aware that genius/talent is only a very small fraction of what brings success. What brings success, as I’ve seen over and over, is hard work and dedication. It’s going back to the drawing board every single day and never giving up. We know this. We know that if it was easy, everyone would do it, etcetera, etcetera. And we know that you’ve got to be just a little crazy to be that kind of person.
And that’s fun to watch. It’s one of the fun parts of The Imitation Game. Alan Turing knew what had to be done — and the only reason he got it done was because he showed up. Every day. Even when they told him it couldn’t be done, he showed up. And as the years passed, eventually, one day, he proved them wrong — but only because he didn’t give up.
So in this respect, Whiplash is nothing new. In this respect, Whiplash would be the same ordinary artistic triumph narrative (see Save the Last Dance). Except it’s not, because there’s more. In Whiplash, the implication is that Andrew would have been good but only averagely so if it had not been for the pushy and domineering role of his teacher, Fletcher. In Whiplash, Andrew’s glorious (and bloody) triumph is a direct result of Fletcher’s sadistic teaching style, which is little more than some of the most twisted psychological mind-play I’ve ever seen.
Fletcher pushes the kid physically (until his sticks drip blood) and mentally (until Andrew seems on the verge of a breakdown). Fletcher slaps Andrew in tempo, throws chairs at his head, and uses personal (and tragic) information about Andrew’s past to humiliate him publicly in front of the other students. Ever the noble professor, Fletcher even tells Andrew that there are no two words in the English language more harmful than good job.
I’m not sure where I would have walked out of this movie if I hadn’t been lucky enough to be watching a screener from the comfort of my home, but that could have been a good time.
I’ve been on all sides of this dynamic. I’ve been the insecure and tortured artist convinced my work was worthless, left in tears in university parking lots after being told by faculty that I was a waste of their time. I’ve been publicly humiliated in front of my fellow students so intensely that they still seem traumatized by it years after the fact. I’ve contemplated dropping out and giving up and walking away and getting a “day job.”
I didn’t, of course. I’m still here. I’m still doing what it was I signed up for. I’m doing it because it’s what I do, and I can’t imagine doing anything else — but am I a better writer and artist and student because of the pedagogical bullying? No. There has never been anything constructive about that kind of treatment.
What makes me a better writer and artist and student? When I’m treated like an adult by my professors. When I get compassion (when I need it), when my ideas are treated as valid and interesting, and when my work is challenged. Not destroyed — challenged.
I’ve also been on the other side. I’ve been a college teacher for the last six and a half years. I’m not a total pushover, but being a sensitive artist myself, I know what a difference it makes to believe in my students. I’ve been told, by some of my students, that I’ve been the first person to believe in them. i’ve been told that I’m the first person to encourage them. And I’ve seen firsthand the work that encouragement produces. I’ve talked to the proud parents who cannot believe their child wrote that or created that or thought of that. I’ve looked at their beaming faces and known that this is why I do what I do.
And I’m not going to throw a chair at a student (and not only because, in real life, that would get me fired and probably slapped with a lawsuit). I’m not going to demand that any student work until their hands bleed — and then work some more. I’m not going to mindfuck my students into giving me just a little bit more. That’s not what teaching is about — and that’s not what being an artist is, either.
If you’re going to make it as an artist, you’re going to have a drill sergeant in your head, anyway. You’re going to have that little voice that tells you you’re not good enough and you’re lazy and what have you done today. You are going to compare your work to everyone else — anyway. There’s no need to glorify the masochistic elements. They are just a necessary evil to be domesticated and controlled. And it’s reckless and dangerous and just plain stupid to imply that that kind of behavior is what it takes to be an artist.
Director Damien Chazelle told The Dissolve his view on practice and artistry:
If you’re going to play music or do any art form, just as a hobby or as purely a source of enjoyment, then yeah, you should enjoy it. But I do believe in pushing yourself. If you actually take the idea of practice seriously—to me, practice should not be about enjoyment. Some people think of practice as “You do what you’re good at, and that’s naturally fun.” True practice is actually about just doing what you’re bad at, and working on it, and that’s not fun. Practice is about beating your head against the wall.
Okay, sure, practice should be hard work. Practice shouldn’t necessarily be purely fun. BUT to imply that artists don’t enjoy their process is misleading at best and fucked up and perverse at worst. Being an artist — especially being a successful artist — requires discipline and commitment and repetition. You’ve got to keep going back. But to imply that suffering is an essential and non-negotiable part of the artistic process is dangerous.
Don’t be misled by the jazz. It makes Whiplash feel more sophisticated and impressive than it really is. Without the jazz, this movie would be uncomfortably similar to a story of a young marine being cruelly abused and humiliated by his drill sergeant, complete with the ruthless physicality and offensive homophobia. Only in that movie, the drill sergeant would eventually pay the price (maybe even court martialed), whereas in Whiplash, the final triumphant scene seems to redeem all of Fletcher’s cruelties. The clear message of the final scene is that this would not have happened, Andrew would not have been here, were it not for Fletcher.
I’m unclear why so many people loved this movie, why so many declared it one of the best of 2014. I’m unclear why so few negative responses exist. For me, it was nothing more than a deeply troubling portrayal of the kind of masochism and sadism that, somehow, is not only socially acceptable but glorified in our society. And, worse than that, is acceptable in the classroom as well as considered an essential component of the artistic process. No, this is not how you teach. No, this is not how you become an artist.
It is not merely that this is a film about bullying. This is a film that makes bullying look good. This is a film that turns bullying into pedagogy. And this is a film that makes the artistic process actually hazardous to your health. Being an artist is difficult enough. There’s no need to add blood.
Steve Evans said:
Film appreciation is subjective, so your dislike of Whiplash is as worthy of respect as my opinion that it’s probably the best film of the year — certainly more important than Boyhood, Birdman, and other Oscar contenders.
What makes Whiplash a masterpiece is its focus on one aspect of excellence that is entirely specific to music and sports: the mechanics. Andrew knows he’s a great artist. He has the artistic brain of a genius. His problem is neuromuscular: Fletcher never once question his feel for drumming; he points out his inability to keep time. Andrew is like Itzhak Perlman with arthritis, Michael Jordan with a torn ligament.
A writer or, in general, an intellectual never has to face that problem. Their only limitation is in their brain. Shakespeare never once thought “If only my fingers could write faster.” But musicians and athletes need their muscles to agree with their brains. The best drummer in the world who lacks eye-hand coordination amounts to nothing.
Whiplash is about the frustration of a would-be genius who’s willing to lose his soul to overcome a handicap he feels has been unfairly imposed upon him. Like Beethoven’s fits of rage as deafness set in.
Moralizing and lecturing is the mark of inferior movies. But Whiplash lets the viewer decide whether Andrew’s dehumanization (by the end, he’s become Fletcher) must be understood in context or abstracted away (and, hence, condemned). It’s a hell of a question. That it’s a thriller should not distract from the fact that it asks the big question. I see this at work in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. It’s as easy to condemn Andrew’s trajectory as it is to condemn Israel’s bullying. Truth is, it’s not black and white. It’s this appreciation of complexity that makes Whiplash great art.
Dahlia Schweitzer said:
I saw very different things in the film. How interesting!
Finally a review that feels exactly the same way as I regarding this presposterous movie. I walked out of the theater 40 minutes in after realizing this is how the rest of the movie is going to be – narrow and sadistic. I HATED this movie so much that I called Fandango today and requested a refund. They’re working on it.
My movie going life will forever be changed by this film in the sense that I will never again be able to look at the Tomatometer or reviews the same way again. I felt such a sense of relief once I walked out of this film. The torture was over. My blood pressure returned to normal. I was able to listen to music I like again in the car – music with imperfections.
Dahlia Schweitzer said:
Thanks for writing! I was also floored by all those rave reviews. I have no idea WHAT movie they saw — but it wasn’t the one I did!
Bravo to you! I agree 1000%.
Dahlia Schweitzer said:
Lucas J said:
Fletcher is seperating the wheat from the chaff. I’m glad someone is doing it.
But not everyone can be like Fletcher because the ones who aren’t willing to sacrifice everything to become the best will crash, and they need a different kind of teacher.
I had a teacher that did the same, but he had not as high expectations as Fletcher. He gave us one assigment; to draw perfect images while standing up for 6 hours a day. One of the girls in class sat down after a few days, and the teacher asked why? She had a very aching back. He simply said, if you don’t want to do the assignment, get out! And she did.. And for her it was probably bad. But it motivated me even further. Every time our drawings wasn’t perfect he said we sucked. That as well motivated me even more. I wanted to get to his level. I wanted to draw better. I wanted to do the assignment, I wanted to prove to him that I was good. My aching back and the filfthy words flying at me was what made me get better. If he had let us sit down, take more breaks, say we are doing just fine, good job, I would not have improved nearly as much as I did. I would have thought it was good enough and moved on.
I was at school to get better at drawing, so the way he taught was great for me. Clearly, it was not good for everyone, as one girl left (and multiple other students had left earlier years). We are all different have have different ways of learning.
This movie has motivated me a lot to become a better artist. You do whatever it takes to fulfill your dream. Andrew did it, and now I will try to do it. My journey will probably not be as painful, but I will do whatever it takes! Just like Andrew. We all need to sacrifice something if we want to get better. If you want to become the best, you’ll have to sacrifice a lot.
Em Annett said:
I’m relieved to see a review which identifies the fallacies, cruelty, and sick point of view of this movie. It reminds me of the way that abusive parents would say “I HAVE to beat my child. It’s for his own good. He will turn out a better person for it.” It’s the same dynamic exactly.
Of course, the true reason for abuse is psychological. With bullying it is the child who was humiliated and bullied him or her self, usually by abusive parents, who then picks on a younger or smaller child and makes THAT child’s life Hell.
The true reasons for teachers humiliating and degrading their students, or ANYONE doing likewise under any excuse, is due to their OWN sick psychological condition.
I also am dismayed by the high rating this film received. It shows how sick society still is. If this were a film about beating kids, and at the end they tell us that the child became an ‘outstanding’ student due to the treatment they recieved, society would be outraged. But only because we as a society no longer believe that children need to have the evil beaten out of them. Not that long ago it was common for children and women to be abused, it was considered the ‘right’ of the husband, since they were his property, and babies and children were considered to be born bad. “Beat the devil out of them.”
It wasn’t until 1900 that the first society to protect children from cruelty was formed, just after the first one to protect animals was created. We are like savages who are coming to our senses regading all kinds of abuse, only a few decades ago it was legal to rape your wife, for instance. Apparently we have not advanced far enough to recognize and abhor a movie which tells us it’s ‘for our own good’ and will make us ‘great artists’ if someone kicks us around and humiliates us enough.
Also we never see the flip side presented-my friend had a mean nasty piano teacher as a child. So they stopped the lessons, and he never tried piano again. A teacher in college told a friend of mine that they weren’t good enough in art, and so he told me the other day ‘I don’t have an artistic bone in my body.’ Another friend was told in school by the choir teacher that she ‘couldn’t sing’. To this day she won’t join in and sing ‘Happy Birthday’ with a group of people. Abuse scars people-and some of them proceed to dischard what happened to them by doing the same to others-or defended it as having been ‘good for them.’
I know a guy who’s Mother beat him regularly. He is in denial about it. You know what he says? “It was good for me. You have to be tough in this world.’ He is also mentally ill and has problems with paranoia.
My brother tells me that the terrible way that Beethoven’s father treated him is what turned him into a great artist. How horrible is that? Should we then discuss if it was a good thing or a bad thing that he abused his young child?
Sick sick sick…..
Dahlia Schweitzer said:
Oh yes! Thank you for such an articulate response. So glad not to be a voice in the wilderness. It is great to hear your arguments and experiences! Thank you so much.
I like your text, it’s a good idea to express something else than total admiration for this, it have been overdone.
I actually liked that it showed what abuse is and not in a dumbed down or moralistic manner. I lived this kind of abuse but not this extreme and I enjoyed to see it from the outside, in a movie.
I think the last scene of the movie glorifies the abuse (because the ending of a story holds the key to it’s ideology, you can show anything you want but you have to tidy all up at the end. I got this thought from “A pervert’s guide to ideology”) and that is sad because it could have been super badass , or be longer and show the consequence of giving up and doing what your abuser wants you to (the emptiness, the depression that ensues).
I would not go as far as to say that jazz music is used to cover up a sick message, I think it briliantly accompanies the film and helped bring it forward in popular culture. I would say that the ending, “the lesson”, tainted my apreciation of this movie.
I apreciated the movie up until the end. It’s the end that “fail to condemn” all we have been exposed through the film. I actually liked to see this situation because it helped me think about a similar situation I lived when studying drama in high school.
I also agree that a work of art should not be super moralistic but the artist should always be aware of what message he or she intentionally or accidentaly deliver to society. It is hard, in the final scene to not understand anything else other than that obeying your abuser instead of revolting “may be good” for you. That maybe is the problem, that message is total non-sense and not safe to spread. The ending could have been cathartic instead of verging on a masochistic puritan fantasy.
UPDATE: Fandango did give me my refund for this movie. LOL
I despise this movie because many will walk out thinking of “making it” as an artist is akin to winning a battle or a football game along with all the destruction that goes with those enterprises. Surely the director is far too young and inexperienced with a superficial knowledge of the arts. He even admitted he was more influenced by football and war movies for this film than by a music or art related film. This movie is an example of Hollywood unable to make a film that’s not so black & white and over the top. Had this been a non-Hollywood or non-American film, it would have been much more nuanced without clear answers and not so one-note. Other than Star Wars (which was awesome), I barely watched any Hollywood movies in 2015, and my film watching experience has been tremedously rewarding as a result.
First, I’d like to post a critical analysis of the bloggers viewpoint. I appreciate and understand the fact that you do not agree with the message or agree with the film. That is your choice. As one person above said, film is subjective. You view it how you see it, just like everything else. What I believe is not what you believe. However, I will offer a bit of background: I played a sport at one of the highest levels one can play, as well as attended a liberal arts university. I majored in history and am a teacher at a small, multi-cultural school. This movie presents a message that would be incredible valuable to my students. They MUST see that in life, you have to earn things, and push yourself farther than you think you can go. This sense of, “not hurting feelings, or pushing people too hard,” is part of what the issue with our society is. No one is pushed, so they sit back and receive entitlements and handouts that further our debt and drain local and state economies, as well as federal.
This film is not necessarily a critical assessment of the artistic process as much as it is a representation of some of the issues facing our society today. J.K. Simmons’ character pushes Niemann beyond what he himself thinks is possible. As an ex-athlete, this is what is necessary. You have to learn to push your body beyond what you perceive as your limit because your mind has control over your body. If you tell yourself you can do one more sprint, for example, you will do it. If the teacher had told Niemann, “good job,” when it wasn’t, what is that teaching him? He needed to practice, so he told himself he would do whatever it took. And he did. In the process, he learned what it was to really earn something, like the respect of someone who pushed you beyond what you thought you were capable of. I know I am ranting, but again, if you look at this as a reflection on our society, and more particularly, our young people, you may see it a little differently. Our young people need motivation. Not to the extreme given in the film, but at least this form of motivation. Our kids are soft, and getting softer. Our young people graduating from college do not get jobs, do not get healthcare, and do not care to live anywhere other than their parents home. I am speaking in generalities, however I see this every day. If these people continue to be unmotivated, our country will suffer. And those out there will argue that, “they just need to be motivated differently.” Well, here is my argument against that: Figure it out. Life is not all roses and butterflies. It is hard work and discipline, providing for and loving your family, and living under a guiding moral compass in the belief that trusting what you are doing is right. We all know what is right and what is wrong, people need to figure it out. This film teaches us to follow that inner drive, as well as listen to guidance and motivation, albeit negative motivation, to acheive something meaningful and long-lasting. That is what this film is about, in my opinion, and in this way, it mirrors life.
Dahlia Schweitzer said:
As a teacher, I still stand by my review, but I also agree with everything you write (and write very well, I may add). I detest the special snowflake trend, and I agree that our kids are getting softer. So thank you for articulating that so well.
Thank you for your reply! Nice to engage in productive dialogue. More is needed today. Rather than taking extremes, finding more common ground is pivotal in our society of extremism and polarization. Thank you!
Dahlia Schweitzer – totally agree! The scene early on where Fletcher humiliates the student who he says playing out of time, berates him about his weight and then throws him out of the room saying he’s thinking about a happy meal instead of what he’s playing, then proceeds to tell the rest of the group after he’s left that he wasn’t even out of time and belittling him further, awful, and it only gets worse. Not to mention the countless homophobic slurs and rhetoric, can see what they’re trying to do with this film but it’s not inspiring at all it’s quite the opposite.. Genuinely dumbfounded that so many people found it amazing..
gregory richardson said:
So many things make it one of the worst films of all time…..but the clincher is the final tune, Caravan, …..the drum solo is ok up til about a minute,…..then it degenerates into 5 minutes of crashing and thrashing boredom……and the conductor ,….insread of having the band come back in and play the last 8 bars, just ends it with a big crash….end of movie……..worse than The Room and Plan 9 from Outer Space combined….rant over