Friday, January 30, 2015

173. US director Damien Chazelle’s second feature film “Whiplash” (2014): The ultimate Svengali levelled

I saw a drive in him” —Terence Fletcher in Whiplash, referring to his former student Sean Casey 
The next Charlie Parker would never be discouraged” —Terence Fletcher in Whiplash

A quick assessment of Damien Chazelle’s Whiplash would be that the film is about a music student carving out a drumming career in a jazz band. Another would be classifying the film as a tale of a musician’s long and winding journey to acquire recognition by the critics who matter.  Others would only remember the film as one that forces the viewer to hate and cringe at the actions of an inhuman mentor, a perfectionist, who wrecks the lives of young creative diligent minds by physical and verbal abuse, all for his own goal in life. While all these are justifiable perceptions of the film, young Damien Chazelle’s script and film offers more than the obvious.

The film’s opening sequence is of the camera (the viewer’s point of view) entering a darkened corridor at the end of which the student Andrew Neimann (Miles Teller) is religiously practicing on a drum and cymbal set.  Concentrating on his music, he is oblivious of all else around him.  The lighting and camera movement innocuously provide the prologue for what is to follow without a word spoken. Chazelle’s poster of the film too captures that very mood. The spotlight is on the drummer.  And that is what could mislead the viewer. The film is equally about what is not under the spotlight, the shadowy part of the space, surrounding the drummer.The film is as much about the various characters (the teacher, the father and the lover) in the film who directly and indirectly shapes Andrew to what he becomes ultimately.

Fletcher (Simmons) (right) exacting what he wants from the drummer

The prologue over, from the darkened closed doors emerge a man in black Terence Fletcher (J K Simmons) like a cat’s stealthy entrance, followed  by a defining staccato conversation and the removal of his jacket (denoting that he is at work), and an equally dramatic exit slamming the doors only to reappear again apologetically to retrieve his jacket. Most viewers will be transfixed by the overpowering presence of the man in black (Simmons), but a keen viewer will note the effect is totally orchestrated by the scriptwriter and director Chazelle. It is not Simmons who has grabbed your attention; it is Chazelle who is really shaking up the viewer, with the lighting, Fletcher’s clothes, the quiet entry and the loud exit. Chazelle by getting Fletcher to remove his jacket for such a short time has told the viewer that the man takes his job very, very seriously.

Whiplash is more than a movie about music; it is a lovely work exploring the ultimate Svengali bringing out the best of drumming in a wannabe using insults, intimidation, skulduggery and psychological manipulation. While Andrew takes the spotlight, Fletcher is the less assessed ogre lurking in the shadows.

Developing the Charlie Parker in a first year student with  'a drive"

The viewer is manipulated by Chazelle to hate Terence Fletcher, who does everything to ensure his jazz ensemble is the best of the best. He spots the “drive” in a former trumpet player Sean Casey when the rest of the Schaefer School of Music faculty was telling him “Maybe this isn’t for you “ (who the viewer never gets to see on screen), picks him for his ensemble just as he does Andrew the drummer, to push them to the limits psychologically and physically to bring out the best. Sean Casey ultimately becomes the first trumpet at Lincoln Center.  Only Casey dies shortly after “in a car accident” according to Fletcher.  Casey’s Svengali—Terrence Fletcher (Simmons)—is sorry and provides a eulogy for the departed in a touching manner by making his entire ensemble listen to a CD of Casey, with the name Sean scribbled on it, playing. Evidently, Fletcher had recorded Casey’s musical output and kept the recording with him. There is a human side to the beast, who spits out venom at his students, and yet spots the real potential talent, shapes that, and makes them famous. Much later in the film, we learn that Sean Casey did not die in a car accident but hanged himself. Fletcher can lie as well. The spacing and timing of the two differing bits of information about Casey's death provided to the viewer is clever. The original details that Chezelle provides work as an antidote to the evil sketch of Fletcher elsewhere in the film.  The revised information on Casey’s death makes the viewer to reappraise Fletcher and his tactics. So are the innocuous yet brilliant lines written by Chezelle and mouthed by Fletcher “I never really had a Charlie Parker.  But I tried. I actually fucking tried. And that’s more than most people ever do.” The man in black is not all black. He too has a talent to spot the Charlie Parkers of the future and chisel them into a live Charlie Parker. And he does transform Andrew into a Charlie Parker, Andrew’s ideal musician.

Who is this Charlie Parker mentioned again and again in this movie? Charlie Parker is a legendary jazz saxophonist who often combined jazz with blues, Latin and Classical music. The recurring references to Parker in Whiplash relate to a real incident involving Parker, the jazz saxophonist. Apparently a real drummer colleague of the teenage Charlie Parker named Jo Jones threw a cymbal at the floor near Parker’s feet because Parker didn’t change key with the rest of the band (according to Wikipedia) , just as Fletcher threw a cymbal close to Andrew’s head in Whiplash. In real life that incident apparently inspired Charlie Parker to practice inordinately until he became a legend in music. In Whiplash, Charlie Parker is first mentioned over dinner by Andrew. Then you hear Fletcher wishing he had a Charlie Parker to mentor. And finally you see Andrew transform into a Charlie Parker not with a saxophone, bit with the drums. Again, if one looks at the film closely it is the brilliant screenplay that comes out trumps.

Light and shadows effectively used by Chezelle

There are aspects of the Svengali’s manipulation that one has to conjecture from what is not shown in screen.  One of them relates to the mysterious disappearance of the musical notes folder of the drummer Fletcher decides is better than Andrew. Fletcher tells the band never to lose the notes.  Then director/scriptwriter shows Fletcher noticing Andrew sitting by the drummer turning pages for the drummer. This is followed by the mysterious disappearance of the folder. One can only surmise that it was Fletcher who ensured the disappearance so that Andrew could play without the notes.  If the viewer takes the incident to be happenstance, one is missing out on the brilliance of the screenplay (Chezelle) and editing (Tom Cross) in Whiplash.

It would be short-sighted to view Whiplash as a duel of egos between the mentor and the mentored. Whiplash is more about levelling of the egos between the two. A keen viewer will note the camera perspective that allowed Fletcher to tower over ensemble players throughout the film  making a defining change in the  point of view  at the end when drummer  seems to be looking down at the conductor Fletcher, and finally having both Fletcher and Andrew  appear at the same visual level, each appreciating the other. So much is said in the film without the spoken word—in a movie where spoken word seems to be overarching at key moments. Are the words of Fletcher, “Not my tempo” more memorable in the film or the door opening precisely when second hand of the clock moves to 9 o’clock? There are invisible aspects of Fletcher the Terrible not so subtly brought on screen by the scriptwriter/director. The reconciliation between the tormentor and the tormented, the mutual admiration of each others talent and the manner in which the unusual ending shows the gains of the lies, torture, and manipulation that helps another Charlie Parker arrive on the music scene are laudable.

The Svengali in black merges with the shadows

Ironically Whiplash is competing with one another film at the Oscars that deals with another obsession of another character, that of the real life Alan Turing the mathematician turned inventor of the world’s first computer in The Imitation Game. In both films, a flat tyre delays two different characters to make the films interesting. In both films, the love interests are peripheral to the tale but add considerably to the character development. In both films, the protagonists are loners in school with no friends. Only Whiplash does it all with subtlety, an aspect bereft in the competing film. But then most audiences do not appreciate subtlety.

The shadows/lack of lighting gains importance in the final drum sequence as in the prologue as lights seems to go off before Andrews drum solo takes centre stage.  Fletcher is shadowed out, the ensemble is not lit, and slowly the drums are lit by the spotlight.  Then follows the amazing solo by Andrew which at times are not heard (by the human ear but heard by the mind’s ear) but only seen (a brilliant exhibition of sound mixing in the history of cinema and deserving of the Oscar nomination). First, Chezelle shows us the sweat drops on the cymbals and later a few drops of blood.  Fletcher is shown lending a helping hand to set Andrew's cymbals right. Fletcher takes off his jacket during the solo as in the first scene of Fletcher in Whiplash.  Fletcher is in business again, he has spotted the real Charlie Parker.  Such importance to details make Chezelle’s work truly amazing. The final body language between Fletcher and Andrew is one of mutual appreciation. A Svengali is sometimes needed. Somewhere in the shadows, Andrew’s dad’s visage changes from concern for his son’s physical agony to one of celebration. What a film! It is one of the finest films from USA in a long while with incredible attention to scriptwriting, editing, sound mixing (that includes patches of near silence) and cinematography.  The contribution of Simmons as Fletcher is overarching in this lovely film. Chezelle deserved a nomination for direction as well, despite the Oscar snub.  One wishes the 30 year old Chezelle, with just two feature films behind him, proves to be a Charlie Parker of cinema.

P.S. Whiplash is one of the author's best ten movies of 2014 and the only one from USA.  The film won 3 Oscars-- Best Editing, Best Supporting Actor (for J K Simmons) and Best Sound Mixing. It has won the Golden Globe award and the BAFTA award for Best Supporting Actor for J.K.Simmons who plays Fletcher. At BAFTA, it picked up awards also for editing and sound. At Sundance Film Festival it won the Grand Jury Prize and the Audience award. 


Murtaza Ali said...

Sir, it's easily one of the best critiques of an indie film that I have read in a long long time. The technical details as well as the nuances and subtleties that you have touched upon in the above analysis give the movie a whole new dimension. It's amazing how manipulations with the camera angles, lighting, music, etc. can create such a definitive impact.

Unfortunately, it's also something that most reviewers don't pay much attention to. As a viewer I am tempted to revisit the film right away. I really enjoyed it how you compared Fletcher (J. K. Simmons in a performance of a lifetime) to a modern day Svengali. Also, I must say that after having read your review I can now appreciate Chazelle much better, both as a director as well as a screenplay write. Chazelle's use of the shadows and camera visualization reminds one of Orson Welles.

Like in Citizen Kane, the camera looks down on the weaker characters from an elevated plane and looks up at the stronger characters from a lower plane. Also, it comes across as a pure stroke of genius if one sees the disappearance of the musical notes folder as an orchestration on the part of Fletcher (just like he lies about Sean's suicide). Not to mention, the brilliance of the accident sequence and the sheer power of the thrilling finale. I too hope that Chazelle becomes the Charlie Parker of cinema.

In the end I would like to seek a small clarification about the ending. Why did Fletcher want to humiliate Andrew in the end? Did he really want to seek revenge? Or, was he merely continuing with his quest to find the next Charlie Parker? If it's the former then can one attribute what Charlie achieves in the end (with that remarkable solo) as the ultimate triumph of music (like how a feeling of hatred gets changed into one of admiration as Andrew outdoes himself and even Fletcher's expectations)?

Jugu Abraham said...

My reading is that Fletcher initially wanted to exact revenge. Perhaps he hoped at the back of his mind that the revenge could lead to the emergence of a Charlie Parker. And when he does see the brilliance of a Charlie Parker in Andrew, the anger and the revenge factors are rapidly replaced by camaraderie, Andrew needs Fletcher and Fletcher needs Andrew, for their own respective targets in life.

Matthew Bailey said...

Lovely review and analysis. Finally saw this just last night. Thinking on it more this morning. J.K. Simmons has been a highlight in many films for a very long time. But always just not enough screen time. Kudos for the casting.

joe abraham said...

Great analysis! saw this film at the Kottayam edition of IFFK couple of months back. Reading your review now, brought back the 'feel' i had after watching the movie.