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12/01/2014 05:01 pm ET Updated Jan 30, 2015

Whiplash -- "Svengali Porn" -- An Essay

I remain, a week following the experience of Whiplash (the picture can't just be watched), flummoxed. Awash in critical praise, Whiplash has definitely hit a chord with many people, but I ask what the director, Damien Chazelle, was actually going for in his "masterwork." And I do say that with an irony both literal and figurative, as the actual plot (not just theme) concerns the high-jinx perpetuated by a music instructor who appeared to be out either to enhance or destroy the potential greatness possessed by a talented student.

The conductor, Fletcher (a wittily cast J.K. Simmons), has set his sights on the conspicuously gifted drummer, Andrew Neyman (Miles Teller). He proceeds to mess with Teller's head and hands so deeply that the drummer, in an effort to be the next Buddy Rich, endures more humiliation and emotional violence than "Pvt. Leonard 'Gomer Pyle' Lawrence" of Stanley Kubrick's military tale, "Full Metal Jacket."

Is this an homage to that picture, or merely a coincidence? Is this bombastic and dissonant film meant to be taken at face value, or perhaps more reasonably, as a stylized horror show -- a deeply dark satire -- a commentary on what lengths one lone artist (soldier, athlete?) would endure to achieve "genius" under the tutelage of a ruthless Svengali figure? Is there a sale on questions marks?

(As a former student of one of the most "esteemed" music conservatories in the world, I have personally witnessed and experienced the exquisite, Machiavellian tortures of "musical pedagogy" on a first hand level. Oh, the battles are brutal, and many of my colleagues and myself could attest that they have suffered PTSD that can last a lifetime. But the Chazelle either misses all that or decides not to deal with the layers, subtleties, and outright disinformation that bloom in these often toxic institutions. In other words, sometimes the faculty just fuck you up because they, themselves, are incompetent. But that story is one to be told elsewhere and more completely.)
So, are we offered inspired metaphor exampling the world of "gladiators," as Miles is driven into practicing regime that leaves his hands dripping with blood?

Fletcher is generous with his bashing -- taunting of a group of semi-diverse white kids --equally browbeating the Jewish, Irish and gay members of the band. He carefully does not include any of the black students. Is the filmmaker afraid to go there, or is he making a statement that African Americans already own jazz, so there is no need to rip any of them a new a-hole? Perhaps they are silent chorus, witnessing someone else's battle.

Three drummers are "lined up" - placed in direct completion -- informed that they must "earn their seat" by meeting unascertainable standards. The manically quick drills are exciting to watch, but once again begs the question, WTF?

The way the Maestro deals with the horn section is a pseudo-illumination... When he hears someone play out of tune, rather than pointing out the culprit, he asks a chubby (here comes Kubrick) little player if he is, indeed, the guilty the one. As the shy boy falters in his response, our tragic victim is forced to agree that, yes, it is he who is flat. After dismissing and advising him to procure a "Happy Meal," Fletcher gleefully admits that the bounced player was not the guilty party -- he just should have been insistent that he was accurate. Lovely.

Perhaps the most surreal scene in the movie had Miles and his father (the sympathetic antithesis to Fletcher, Paul Reiser) attend a Jewish family dinner that is metaphysically unable to have taken place in any word here or even in an alternative universe. Miles is asked about his residency in the greatest music conservatory in the world. As he is explaining his position, he is rudely undercut and devalued when his two jock cousins are more admired although they are second-rate football players. That is a real fantasy scenario.

In the penultimate climax (yea, we have more than one) our hero, driving recklessly to a band contest, is T-boned by a large-rig. Walking away from a serious crash, once again bloodied, to make a concert, and ultimately impress Fletcher, we hope that he has finally earned his seat. But, no, we are not there quite yet. The only believable thing Miles has accomplished at this point is metamorphosing into the super hero, "Drumkit Man." Perhaps they are already filming the sequel.

There is much talent displayed in this movie, for sure. Always an admirer of J. K Simmons, I could watch him read the proverbial phone-book. Miles Teller, a bit of an empty vessel as the embattled Neyman, has been said to do his own drumming. The movie is never boring, just harrowing.
Must such conditions exist to create great art? Or can God-given talent merely be nurtured to reach its predestined goal?

All I know for sure is this -- I fled the theatre sans desire to ever make another note of music again. Personally beat up and bloodied, my only inspiration was to go home and binge on some fried chicken, the favorite food of much extolled Charlie Parker, which coined him his moniker, Bird -- ironically not referencing the flight reached by his playing -- but merely by consuming copious amounts of fowl..