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‘Whiplash’: Fear and trembling

by Craig Detweiler

What is the most effective way for a teacher to motivate a student? Some may advocate nurture and encouragement, while others adopt fear and trembling. Whiplash is the bracing flip-side to Mr. Holland’s Opus, an exploration of how cruel and demanding teachers may drive students to dizzying heights (if they don’t destroy them in the process). It is a feel good film about a feel bad teacher, Terence Fletcher, and his driven student, Andrew Neyman.

Whiplash depicts the hours of practice necessary to achieve genuine excellence, but it also questions the wisdom of such a single-minded pursuit. Andrew wants to be a game-changing musician associated with jazz giants like Charlie Parker or drummer Buddy Rich. As the most feared teacher at a Juilliard-style conservatory, Mr. Fletcher derides the cult of mediocrity, considering “no two words in the English language more harmful than good job.” Fletcher prods and tortures his elite jazz band to award-winning heights. Andrew’s hunger to stand out leaves him open to such abuse, practicing until blood spills on his drum-kit.

Whiplash arrives with the imprimatur of a double Sundance grand prize-winner. I was amongst the Sundance audience that nearly gasped when we realized just how young this remarkably mature director appeared. Writer and director Damien Chazelle draws upon his own conflicted feelings about his high school orchestra teacher. Chazelle crafts a nail biting narrative that unfolds like a claustrophobic play. He has limited interest in life outside the rehearsal room (just like his dueling characters). The editing and pace in Whiplash mirrors the relentless beat of Andrew’s drums. Chazelle pushes us towards a cathartic Carnegie Hall concert that becomes a high stakes shoot out.

Whiplash feels fresh and authentic, lean and mean.

The film is nearly overwhelmed by the bravura performance of J.K. Simmons as Fletcher. His maniacal methods rival cinematic drill sergeants like Lou Gossett, Jr. in An Officer and a Gentleman or Lee Ermey in Full Metal Jacket. He embodies the terrorizing possibilities of pedagogy.

Whiplash demonstrates how easily a teacher can abuse his power, going from shaping young minds to crushing their spirit. Fletcher evokes tears and frustration via his homophobic taunts. Yet, he considers his high and exacting standards preferable to an unhelpful pat on the back. We’ve seen coaches like Bobby Knight and Woody Hayes undermine legendary careers in frenetic fits. Is such sadomasochistic abuse necessary to motivate young men to championship levels? Simmons summons an Oscar worthy intensity that leaps off the screen.

As the insular Andrew, Miles Teller reveals shades of depth and character that were only suggested in The Spectacular Now and Divergent. His drive to escape the mundane life of his father and a potential girlfriend leaves Andrew dangerously alone in his pursuit. Whiplash is a vivid exploration of “What price glory?” Andrew is well on his way to logging the 10,000 hours of practice that Malcolm Gladwell deemed essential to world-class status in Outliers. For student athletes, musicians, and even filmmakers trying to earn scholarships and accolades, such a single-minded commitment seems inescapable. But is it sustainable?

As an ambitious young filmmaker (and former drum student), Chazelle rightly wonders if such crazy-making mastery is worth it. As a student at the University of Southern California’s famed film school, I was subjected to tumultuous teachers. Like Andrew, I had to literally dodge a chair hurled by my most emotionally unstable instructor. I survived, but my fellow students cleared the room in fear and trembling. Did she make us better filmmakers? I doubt it. But it warned us about how unbalanced a filmmaker could become in pursuit of artistic acclaim.

While Fletcher derides those who settle for mediocrity, the movie cautions those who sacrifice health and emotional stability in pursuit of fame. Whiplash leaves us breathless, exhausted, and exhilarated by the haunting characters (and their questions).

Craig Detweiler

About Craig Detweiler

Craig Detweiler is a filmmaker, author, and director of the Center for Entertainment, Media, and Culture at Pepperdine University. He is co-founder of The Windrider Forum, a traveling film fest designed to spark conversation, awaken compassion, and inspire change. Craig's cultural commentary has been featured on ABC’s Nightline, CNN, Fox News, NPR, and in The New York Times and The Wall Street Journal. Follow Craig on Twitter @craigdetweiler.

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