This past weekend, I managed to squeeze in time to watch two movies. (This is an unusual occurrence, as a husband and as a parent of three kids.) The latter of those movies was Christopher Nolan’s “Interstellar,” which struck me in the gut for reasons that are probably largely unique to me, and maybe I’ll talk more about that later. But the first of the two was the oh-so-compelling music drama “Whiplash,” and it gave me SO MANY FEELINGS that I felt the need to first parse my thoughts for a day or two, and then come back and write this down.
First: This essay is probably self-indulgent nonsense, and you’re none the worse, and perhaps better off, if you just skip it entirely. The internet is a big place full of more interesting things.
Second: This essay is filled with spoilers about the movie “Whiplash,” so if you haven’t seen it yet, please do just skip this entirely. If you’ve seen it, then I’d be most grateful to engage in a conversation with you about it in the comments, because I am SO ANGRY about this movie, and specifically about the message sent by the final 60 seconds of it. Teachers, at every grade level, I’d especially appreciate your input.
The overview: “Whiplash” is the story of a boy, Andrew, who has a passion for playing the drums, specifically jazz drums. The walls of his bedroom are lined with posters of Buddy Rich; he tells the girl he is with on an awkward first date exactly who is playing each part on the jazz song currently spewing through the overhead speakers; he carries with him charts of the songs he is trying to master.
Andrew is a golden boy. He has his challenges, but it’s not taking anything away from those challenges to say that nothing is ever going to be really all that hard for him. The details of his parents’ life aren’t fully elaborated but sketched out in little bits: mom isn’t around, dad is a writer, certainly no Hemingway but doing okay, and they all are living a comfortable existence in the big city. Andrew will not have to take on any student loans to pursue his musical education.
And yet, he is passionate. He throws himself into it with the fervor of a true artist. He doesn’t act like anything is being given to him. He cares about his art.
Another thing he cares about is getting into the “studio band” at his school, the prestige band, run by a man named Fletcher. Through the events set in motion by an opening “Meet Awkward” scene, Andrew finds himself in the studio band room, and begins to learn about his new teacher.
Within the first 20 minutes in the band room, Fletcher commits an act that is surely a fire-able offence in any classroom, anywhere, in any civilized place: he slaps a student. Then he does it again, and again, and again. Not to mention threatening that student with violence, and throwing a chair at his head.
Moments before, Fletcher has spent a supposedly tender moment with Andrew in the hallway, letting him know that everything was going to be just fine, coaxing out some details about his family. Back in the band room, he unleashes those family secrets in front of everybody, in excoriating detail, the way an abusive father hurls invective at a child who just didn’t see it coming and just doesn’t deserve it.
The key word in the previous paragraph, I believe, is “abusive.” This movie highlights abusive behavior and, I believe, celebrates it.
There is a trope at work here, and I utterly hate it. It is the notion that Abuse Is OKAY If It Gets Results.
The other great example of this genre is the Morgan Freeman movie “Lean On Me,” in which principal Joe Clark is celebrated for being a blowhard bully who tramples on everyone around him, but by God, once all the dust (that he has kicked up) settles, things are marginally better than before.
Go to hell.
There are tens of thousands of educators who spend all day, every day, making children better, and none of them ever lay a finger on a single child. None of them employ psychological warfare to cut a student down in front of his/her peers. None of them make it all about them and their own personal failings (which, in the case of Fletcher, the failed Charlie Parker wannabe, that’s what it’s all about).
Put your baseball bat down, Joe Clark, and get the goddamned chains off the fire exits. These kids were placed in your care, you arrogant fool – you are not a drill sergeant and they are not your recruits.
In talking to people about “Whiplash” (and “Lean on Me,” for that matter), one phrase kept popping up: “Well, yeah, he was rough, but he got them to do their best! He got them to change!”
Ike got Tina to change, too. He got her to shut up and do what he wanted (for a while, at least). That’s not funny, it’s not noble, and it’s not worthy of praise.
And here’s where we come to the very end of “Whiplash,” and why my heart was so very broken by it. I watched the movie, compelled by such expert filmmaking and such an excellent and interesting story, and I was just hoping against hope that Fletcher would not end up being the hero. And for a brief moment near the end, it looked like he wouldn’t be: At the climactic performance, Andrew finally comes into his own and takes the reigns, and HE IS THE BANDLEADER. He is, for all intents and purposes, Buddy Rich. And it is magnificent! Like nothing I’ve ever seen! Fletcher recoils, like the little emasculated serpent that he is, robbed of his ability to lord it over people younger and smaller than him.
This is a great scene. The drum solo is remarkable, and while I don’t know whether the actor Miles Teller is actually playing the drums, it certainly looks like he might be. Even if you have no love in your heart for jazz, you surely felt your hands and feet pulsing and throbbing along with the insane closing beat that Andrew was pounding out with all of his heart, blood dripping onto the cymbals.
After that beautiful moment of redemption and awakening, when Andrew finally realized that he didn’t need to be bullied around any longer, Fletcher raises his bandleader hand, and with an exchange of glances, Andrew cedes control to him, Fletcher takes control once again, brings everything in for a landing, and it’s no longer Andrew’s band, as it rightfully should have been. It’s Fletcher’s band, and everyone is the worse for it, despite any cheers the audience might give. When the audience gives their inevitable applause, they are applauding Fletcher and HIS band.
This last 60 seconds or so deflated me, and removed any love I have for an otherwise excellent film. Because the ultimate message, when the credits roll, is that Fletcher’s abuse was justified, because it got results. That’s a horrible message to send, no matter the genre or the subject matter.