A few days ago I watched Whiplash, and I came out sweating. I discovered then that I have a habit of gripping things when I’m watching something that makes me anxious; after the movie, I had cold spots on my thighs and neck where my sweaty hands had been pressing. The movie fixed me in my seat and I could not leave. Because a movie doesn’t wait for you while you stand outside wringing your hands or getting fresh air. It plays on. With some movies, it’s okay if you miss parts, and those are the movies that don’t make you anxious. With Whiplash, the scenes cut sharp as an incision and nothing is predictable. You must stay.
Whiplash (directed by Damien Chazelle) evokes anxiety because it’s a story of ambition. The movie’s lead, Andrew (Miles Teller), is not much older than a student . He is an awkward, friendless nobody who has trouble even making eye contact with people. Whiplash is the story of Andrew’s transformation into the cruel, still friendless, temporary core-drummer of the best studio band in New York (‘and therefore the world’). He becomes cruel because he has so much to lose. The higher your ambitions, the harder your fall.
Whiplash drives home the overwhelming power of chance to disregard our greatest achievements. Andrew’s tenuous position in the band hinges on the most minute, everyday things that no talent of his can control. On the day of an important competition, Andrew’s bus breaks down, making him late and setting off a whole string of events that end with Andrew getting kicked out of both the studio band and his prestigious music school. Terence Fletcher (J.K. Simmons), the band’s conductor-from-hell, teaches Andrew never to rely too much on anything—not his own talent, not Fletcher’s approval—straight from day one. He leads Andrew into a false sense of security when he pats him on the shoulder, looks him in the eyes, and says, ‘You know you’re here for a reason, right?’ This is the scene immediately before Fletcher throws a chair at him for being ‘not quite [his] tempo’. There is no reason. To be ‘one of the greats’ means beating out chance itself, beating out life itself in all its unpredictability; your greatness must withstand everything. In setting Andrew an impossible opponent, Fletcher ensures that he never rests a minute secure in his position. Andrew’s tense struggle to transcend life inevitably leads to ruptures: a shot of Andrew darting a manic glare at the camera, a shot of him yelling profanities down his phone, a shot of blood on drumsticks. The anxiety is extreme.
Terence Fletcher is clearly of high importance. He is a looming figure, muscles bulging beneath black t-shirts and veins showing tightly against his forehead. He makes no sense, yet his physical and mental abuses are felt so deeply by his students. He is chaotic, he is unreliable: one minute you see him crying over the death of an ex-student, and the next he’s making you play five straight hours of drums until your hands have cracked all over your drum set. He plays a paradoxical role in motivating the drummer; Andrew wants so much to be worthy of him, yet he will only ever be worthy of Fletcher when he moves past the point of wanting to be worthy of him. Transcending. Regardless, Fletcher remains an overwhelming force of anxiety throughout the movie and there’s never any resolution to him. Even at the very end, when Andrew gives his most explosive performance yet, we see a close-up of Fletcher’s eyes as he watches, and the lines around them rise, suggesting a smile… but the camera never pans out to confirm it.
Chazelle seems to make obligatory attempts to address the moral ambiguity surrounding Fletcher and his methods, but they never amount to much. He allows Fletcher a scene to explain his ‘misunderstood’ teaching, a scene that includes the movie’s most quoted line: ‘there are no two words in the English language more harmful than “good job.”’ Andrew, after a few seconds, asks, ‘But is there a limit?’ He wants to know if it’s possible to push a person so far that they crack and give up entirely. Fletcher ends the conversation by saying that a true great ‘would never be discouraged’. That line of reasoning could be used to justify just about any degree of abuse, and indeed the movie seems to hint that the suicide of one of Fletcher’s ex-students is due to the student not being tough enough to not ‘be discouraged’.
Still, I don’t regret watching Whiplash because of the sheer novelty of the experience. I don’t remember the last time a movie made me this anxious. Some critics have classified it as a thriller, but the most heart-stopping action that goes on is that a guy plays some drums. A guy plays some drums and tries to go to the very limits of his own life, and then some. Great ambition is magnetic and I’m drawn to how far Andrew will push himself, maybe because I’ve never pushed myself in the same way and I want to know what lies beyond. My anxiety builds up. The climactic final scene is rapturous, but they cut to the credits straight after. The glory is all Andrew’s, and only his to know. I had only watched.
Editor’s Note: Whiplash will be showing at the Gulbenkian in Canterbury between 25th February and 1st March. You can find further details and book tickets here: http://www.thegulbenkian.co.uk/events/cinema/2015/February/2015-02-whiplash.html