October 13, 2015 by jmw
*Warning: Spoilers Ahead*
Last week I finally got around to seeing the film Whiplash. As a mediocre drummer myself I found the generous footage of jazz drumming downright jaw-dropping. Furthermore, as a male, I found the film’s intense dynamics of performance and pressure to resonate deep within me. The film’s lack of female roles leads me to believe that director Damien Chazelle was indeed exploring the dynamics of male psyche and relationship. And while the film achieves this in spades, I can’t help but wonder if the smallness of one particular role is actually the truly brilliant revelation of the film.
In one of the most intense dialogues, ironically set against the relaxing environment of a scotch-soaked jazz club, we hear what could be the thesis of the film’s antagonist, jazz band teacher Terence Fletcher: “There are no two words in the English language more harmful than ‘good job’.” Fletcher, whose insatiable demand for excellence drives one musician to suicide, proceeds to explain that his pedagogy is to push students so hard that they will become one of ‘the greats.’
I think this pedagogy is characteristically male and, for me, it rings true. Though I was never verbally or physically abused in order to improve my performance in a task, the social and psychological pressures were sufficient to leave me feeling as though my work or performance was never ‘good enough.’ From advertising to movies, the myth of greatness pervades our culture; and I’m inclined to believe that it has always plagued the male psyche. My life aspirations may be small compared to some men, but I have experienced the very real pressure of becoming “great.”
In what has become a classic essay on the human condition, feminist theologian Valerie Saiving argues that, because all human beings are born of women, men are born into a less familiar world (i.e. whereupon learning that they are “not woman” but “man,” they are whirled into a journey of discovering the meaning of “malehood”). Therefore, men need to prove their value and identity through accomplishment. I think this can be supported by a number of great myths in which the male lead must journey and battle to establish his identity of greatness.
This struggle is embodied by the drummer savant Andrew. But the film is not about the journey of jazz drumming nor the struggle of the musician in general (though I presume many musicians resonate with this film). The struggle that I perceive at the heart of Whiplash is the struggle of the male psyche between conditional and unconditional love.
The film features three main roles: a son, a father, and a teacher. Most of the film revolves around the relationship of Andrew and Fletcher, young man and teacher. But scattered throughout the film are numerous small yet significant scenes between Andrew and his father. In almost all of those scenes we witness a father’s unconditional love for his son. It is never about drumming or performance, it is simply about father and son.
This contrasting struggle plays out in a big way in the final scene and I hope viewers do not fail to notice. The final frames of the film leave us feeling the relief of joy and a sliver of hope. And while this might be genuine, don’t let it fool you into thinking that the film’s end is meant to justify Fletcher’s pedagogy. Instead, I think that it is meant to demonstrate the triumph of unconditional love over the drive for conditional love. After all, Andrew’s concluding performance was an improvisational solo, which means it was not pre-scripted and loaded with expectations. The final performance was no longer “instrumental” action (for an outcome) but was rather “expressive” action (the end in itself).
How this comes about is, I believe, the film’s most brilliant revelation. Consider again the final scene. After what seems like the deathblow to his music career Andrew leaves the stage only to find that his father is there to embrace him unconditionally. Out of that embrace is born Andrew’s final solo.
Was it one last attempt to prove himself? Or was it something different? We do not know for sure, but we cannot dismiss the consistent presence of a faithful father loving his son unconditionally. And it is that quiet balance to the violently loud presence of Fletcher that makes this film such an interesting exploration of the male experience.