Get Buddy Rich or die trying: Whiplash, music and masculinity


I’ve heard reports that in some cinemas, audiences have reacted at the end of Whiplash by bursting into spontaneous applause. The punters at Manchester Cornerhouse are a bit too cool and detached for that kind of thing. Instead, as the credits appeared, I turned to C and we both made that facial expression where you drop your jaw and raise your eyebrows, in the universal language of Holy Fucking Shit.

At this point I should say that while I will try not to include spoilers in this post, just to be on the safe side if you haven’t seen the film you should probably just stop reading at this point, pop out to your local fleapit, catch up, then return and read on.

Ah. You’re back. You might want to brush off those popcorn crumbs down your shirt.

Whiplash really shouldn’t be quite as good as it is. For anyone who failed to follow the instructions above, it is basically your off-the-peg challenge movie. Flawed but talented outsider has to overcome the odds and hurdle a few obstacles to fulfil a dream, while negotiating a fiery relationship with a brutal but brilliant teacher. The context here is jazz drumming, but it could be almost anything – it’s the King’s Polyrhythm; Rocky with Paradiddles.

As has been widely acknowledged, the movie rises above the herd through breathtaking performances, notably from Golden Globe-winning J.K. Simmons as the tutor Terence Fletcher, but there is so much else to admire in the script, the cinematography, the editing and of course the music. But you don’t come to this blog for movie reviews.
Whiplash is, above all, a movie about men and masculinities. In a script where not a word is wasted, this is made clear early on, as the only female musician we see on screen is instantly booted out of the frame with one of Fletcher’s famously acidic, crushing put-downs. From that moment on, the band is a boys’ club, run with all the brutality of a military bootcamp. Fletcher’s vocabulary is relentlessly misogynistic and homophobic; he is not just trying to make his students into musicians, he is trying to make those boys into men, on his own terms.

Norman Mailer said masculinity is not something given to you, but something you gain, and you gain it by winning small battles with honour. He was a boxing fan, but he could easily have been talking about this movie. The comparison to Rocky above was not entirely flippant. Whiplash is a film about male rivalry, competitiveness, the determination to beat the other guy (whether the other guy is another drummer vying for the stool, or the battle-hardened old pack leader himself.)

The other day I was playing one of my favourite albums, a live performance by three virtuouso guitarists, John McLaughlin, Al Di Meola and Paco de Lucía called “Friday Night in San Francisco.” I was trying to figure out what made this recording sparkle so much and suddenly it hit me – they aren’t just accompanying each other as a trio, a band, so much as battling with each other like gladiators. While I’m sure they have the utmost respect and greatest friendship for each other, their music always has an undertone of combat, whatever astonishing improvised run, riff, lick or trill one of them might play, another bounces back, determined to best it.

At the risk of going out on a limb here, I think this is a distinctively masculine trait. While of course women at the top of any field can also be viciously competitive (just ask Tonya Harding), I think if a movie was to be made about a female musician, or athlete or ballerina or whatever, it would be more likely that the battles would be internal – against her own limitations, personal sacrifices and emotional compromises than it would be about competitiveness with a rival. Whether that can be attributed to hormones and biology, to socialisation, or merely the ways in which we impose our expectations and prejudices upon those we observe… well I shall leave that question hanging. Feel free to pick it up in the comments below.

Returning to the comparison between Whiplash and Rocky, there is one notable difference between the two films – there is much, much more blood in Whiplash.

Blood is the dominant motif of the film. It is not enough to want to succeed. it is not enough to try to succeed. It is not enough to drive oneself past the point of exhaustion, past the point of sweat, past the point of tears. If you do not bleed, you will not succeed, the film seems to say – get Buddy Rich or die trying. Those who have seen the film will know what I mean when I say that nearly dying is not enough – you nearly died? So what. Pick up your broken body, drag yourself back to your kit and don’t forget your drumsticks. [Taps nose knowingly]

This point is spelled out in the script with the (true) story of Charlie Parker. At 16 years old, the saxophonist tried out for a gig with the bandleader and drummer Jo Jones. After initially impressing, the rough-edged and largely self-taught teenager went adrift in his playing. In a flash of anger, Jones hurled a metal cymbal at him from across the room, screamed his disgust and threw Parker out the room, laughter and mockery from other musicians ringing in his young ears.

He could have given up, but Parker instead resolved to prove Jones wrong, went away and practised harder than ever. A year later he returned as the musician who would reinvent jazz music for the latter half of the twentieth century, as the man they called Bird. As the Whiplash script also notes, by the age of 34 he was dead, a broken body ravaged by addictions and the pressures to succeed.

That is the dreadful, cruel question left hanging by Whiplash. What price genius? Can we produce extraordinary human accomplishments without pushing people beyond any reasonable limits of endurance to body and spirit? Whiplash left me unsure of the answer to that question. I refuse to feel guilty for the pleasure I take from Parker and Coltrane, Hendrix and Cobain, Holliday and Joplin, but perhaps now feel a little more appreciation for the sacrifices demanded by  their gifts.

Comments

  1. StillGjenganger says

    Cool article

    At the risk of going out on a limb here, I think this is a distinctively masculine trait.

    Fits with my limited experience in the definitely unbloody world of academic research. With other men you always have this half-conscious idea of relative status, be it only a division in awesome, respected and lightweight. And a continuous eye on the status each claims and whether he can defend it if pushed, which gives you your small battles to win. You definitely do not evaluate women on the same scales or compete with them in the same way, and I rather doubt that the women do it among themselves either.

    Can we produce extraordinary human accomplishments without pushing people beyond any reasonable limits of endurance to body and spirit?

    Probably not, across the board. Extraordinary talent and extraordinary concentration might often be enough, but a willingness to push yourself beyond all reasonable limits should increase your chances of success quite significantly.

  2. chirez says

    I would have thought that the truly extraordinary must by definition come from ultimate sacrifice.
    If you chart human achievement as a curve, the farthest reaches must by necessity only be attained by those willing to burn everything for that one extra inch.
    If it were otherwise, there would be someone else who was willing, and that drive would take them further, while leaving them with even less.
    A more interesting question is, does genius necessarily suffer?
    On that score I would probably argue the negative, there’s nothing inherently self destructive about genius. Simply put, extraordinary people do not fit into the world, which subjects them to stresses ordinary people can never imagine. If we make a world where people can be whatever they were born to be, without fear or judgement, those stresses will weaken, and our genii will be more able to live happy and productive lives.
    Even then, only those willing to sacrifice everything in pursuit of the bleeding edge will ever have a hope of reaching it.

  3. Jan says

    In a film about a female musician, athlete or ballerina, the battles would be psychological and invalidated by all around her or all around her victims. If she won through by having integrity while the other women in her field tried to take her down the threat from them would not be taken seriously either by the movie or by the audience, and if she won through by being the biggest/most ruthless abuser she would still be considered a hero because her mistreatment of others would not be taken seriously.

    Part of this is real-world:
    If a woman complains of psychological abuse by other women it’s assumed she’s part of the problem, that it’s women being their usual bitchy selves to one another, rather than a case of a predator on the loose. If a man complains of psychological abuse by a woman, well, obviously it’s going to be him at fault somehow, usually by not being enough of a man for his manliness to create some kind of force-field around his psyche (I don’t know how this bullshit is supposed to work).

    But it’s also artistic:
    Psychological abuse can be very very difficult to depict in fiction, due to its subtle and time-consuming nature. It’s difficult to even see from outside sometimes. Which is not to say that attempts haven’t been made; as I say the idea of women being intensely psychologically aggressive is a very enduring cultural trope and yet despite its ubiquity somehow the effects of it where it does happen are brushed under the carpet. I’m guessing people prefer to watch women being cruel to each other than to watch a traumatised victim try desperately to put their lives back together; it’s probably more entertaining (yes, the bitter tone of that is intentional). Again, much of that is a general rather than gender issue: a war film is usually more interesting to people than a film about a soldier readjusting to civilian life.

    Anyway. I have witnessed healthy and respectful competition between women, and of course women’s sports including martial arts/boxing/etc do exist and hopefully are not wall-to-wall with psychological saboteurs, so if a film were made about a woman’s professional struggles with work/artistic rivals it would be good to see a bit of realistic representation of non-abusive inter-female competitiveness. (There probably have been films about this, and maybe I’ve missed Ally’s point somehow and am arguing with a point he never made, I don’t know, I’m not checking either thing because I’m brain-fogged (and consequently also very grumpy and uncooperative) right now.)

    /venting

  4. xyz says

    At the risk of going out on a limb here, I think this is a distinctively masculine trait.

    Counterpoint: Black Swan. Where blood also happens to be a motif. 😉

    BTW I find that film to be so accurate to a certain type of female experience that I was, shamefully, a little amazed it was written and directed by a man.

    Whiplash sounds fascinating, thanks for the review.

  5. D506 says

    My experience is that women often seem to be taught that certain forms of competition (namely: open or outright aggressive competition) are simply “Not For Them”. Openly insulting or bragging is wrong. Fighting is wrong. Hitting on the same guy someone else is into is wrong.

    By contrast, my experience is that men are taught that competition is fine but must be limited or proportionate. Fighting with your brother is fine, but don’t seriously hurt each other. Insulting each other is fine, but you don’t joke about his mother dying. Competing for the same girl is fine, but you don’t go for your friend’s ex.

    The result seems to be that women often approach competition subtly, but take things way too far. Fights and slights lead to rumors, insults, sabotaging relationships, etc which send each other crying themselves to sleep, cost one another friends/boyfriends, make someone quit the soccer team, etc. Men on the other hand seem happy to get into a fight (verbal or physical), have it out, dust each other off and go get a beer. Of course, when men with their general “violence and insults are generally okay” worldview goes too far, people end up dead.

  6. Ally Fogg says

    Jan – vent away, that was a really interesting comment.

    Funnily enough, I was just thinking that the only equivalent films I could think of about women were both ballet films (and obviously distant cousins, thematically) The Red Shoes and Black Swan. I was about to post that when I saw the comment from xyz!

    As you can probably guess, I had both films in mind when I wrote the OP, hence the passing reference to ballerinas.

    I absolutely love Black Swan, but I think it is a very different kind of film. I always thought of it as being more about metaphors for good girls versus bad girls than being literally about dancing, There’s so much magical / ethereal stuff going on. Also, while there is obviously competitiveness between the the two dancers, I think it was more about their personalities than their dancing abilities. It was about one girl who was free-spirited and wild against the other who was repressed and uptight. And of course there was the whole sexuality stuff.

    Then again, it is a while since I’ve seen it so I’d like to watch that again and bear it in mind. If anyone tells me I’m wrong about any of the above I’m not going to argue!

    In light of Jan’s point, I think The Red Shoes is maybe a more direct comparison. What that suggests to me was that if Whiplash had been about women, everyone would have been falling in love and breaking their hearts left, right and centre and it would have ended in a tragic, heartbroken suicide! I don’t want to give too many spoilers, but again the comparison to Whiplash is really pronounced. Suffice to say the exact opposite happens.

    Jan

    Psychological abuse can be very very difficult to depict in fiction, due to its subtle and time-consuming nature. It’s difficult to even see from outside sometimes. Which is not to say that attempts haven’t been made; as I say the idea of women being intensely psychologically aggressive is a very enduring cultural trope and yet despite its ubiquity somehow the effects of it where it does happen are brushed under the carpet. I’m guessing people prefer to watch women being cruel to each other than to watch a traumatised victim try desperately to put their lives back together

    That’s interesting, because it is actually a very accurate description of Whiplash (albeit with men, obvs)

    I’m trying to imagine how a typical film maker would make Whiplash with women. I’d be pretty sure the tutor would be shown to be jealous of the younger woman, jealous of her youth, her talent, probably her looks. She would probably crumble in tears at the end and announce her redemption. Again, that’s really not how it plays out with the dudes.

    I’d be pretty sure there would be less violence inflicted upon the younger woman in that film too (both by the protagonists and by the director, if you know what I mean). I don’t think audiences would be able to bear watching a woman being put through what poor Andrew suffers in the film!

  7. Jacob Schmidt says

    After initially impressing, the rough-edged and largely self-taught teenager went adrift in his playing. In a flash of anger, Jones hurled a metal cymbal at him from across the room, screamed his disgust and threw Parker out the room, laughter and mockery from other musicians ringing in his young ears.

    I have it on good authority that opposing this sort of behaviour is misandry.

    Can we produce extraordinary human accomplishments without pushing people beyond any reasonable limits of endurance to body and spirit? Whiplash left me unsure of the answer to that question.

    Isn’t that sort of the wrong question? The specific dysfunctions noted here seem rooted in competition. Whether or not we do need to be pushed beyond reasonable limits, it doesn’t establish that competition is the only or best way to do it (likely it will be different for each person, but even then I suspect that competition is less useful in general).

    If a woman complains of psychological abuse by other women it’s assumed she’s part of the problem, that it’s women being their usual bitchy selves to one another, rather than a case of a predator on the loose. If a man complains of psychological abuse by a woman, well, obviously it’s going to be him at fault somehow, usually by not being enough of a man for his manliness to create some kind of force-field around his psyche (I don’t know how this bullshit is supposed to work).

    I have yet to see blame placed on men for women’s psychologically abusive behaviour, barring instances where the blaming party is friends with the woman in question.

    It’s something of a paradox (but not really): I see people readily accept that a given women is a nasty, horrendous bitch; where every dysfunction is really her fault. But people don’t take it seriously. I suspect it’s because women being nasty and manipulative is simply accepted as “the way things are.”

  8. xyz says

    Ally, that’s an interesting reading. I have read a few things about Whiplash and would of course need to see it to really get a handle on it. However I absolutely see Black Swan as a film about dying to self (in a profoundly disturbing way) and becoming a monster of sorts in order to achieve technical mastery of an art. The ultimate goal IS the performance, and once it’s over all the work, sacrifice and distortion of self is for naught.

  9. nrdo says

    Aside from certain sports, ballet and a few other areas, it’s just vastly less common to have a group of women competing in a public pursuit without men (usually a preponderance of men) in the mix. Consequently, I think it’s really hard to say, without a lot of speculation, how the process would play out.

  10. bruce bartup says

    Is the urge to excellence insanely mainly manly? Stripping away issues of competitiveness, which is’nt so much man-mad as it is dick-head risible, does that self-destructive urge to excel reside solely in the male?

    Is art a form of sexual display? Some scientists, I believe, have thought as much Is ‘small art’, say the art of birthday greetings in written form – a matter of excellence or of sufficient communication of the time and skill taken, to render ‘Happy Birthday’ into something original and personal? Is small-art Art? Or is Art a transcendant god over the merely decorative mortal ‘small – art’?

    Many people have spoken of a desire for honour in excellence. Ally quoted “Norman Mailer said masculinity is not something given to you, but something you gain, and you gain it by winning small battles with honour.” Someone else said something like ‘Honour is a thousand burdensome daily tasks, performed well’. Falstaff said ‘Honour is a mere scutcheon” Rob Roy said ‘Honour is a gift man gives himself’ amongst many others. Which are all ducking the real question – what is the damn stuff?

    Here’s an different take on it: Honour is self-aware virtue expressed in outwardly visible excellence. As I think the ancient Greeks would have it ‘Arete’? That is I think this is what they meant (I’m a poor scholar to no scholar at all so – apologies for offending). To me, for a human, excellence as the Greeks (maybe) knew it is what we would today call love. Whether of an performing-artist for an audience or of a writer for her/his words or of a machinist for the metal that s/he works, love.

    I recall a British comic of the alternative days, Hovis Presley, who turned his back on fame in favour of playing small venues, even bus queues. I think I understand his actions now. To Mr Presley, playing to your own cheersquad is – dishonourable. A comedian should be able to make anything funny to anyone. Including misery to the miserable, and death to the dying, especially to strangers who have never heard of you. To me H. Presley is an example of love as excellence, excellently lived.

    Excellence is a gift to be given, not a prize to be wanked over.

    Is excellence male? – ask your mother. That is, is motherhood as ‘blind-love’, high-esteem of a tiny demanding stranger, dischargeable without excellence? If not then excellence is primarliy female, and by transmission, male. If we are sensitive and receiving the signal.

  11. says

    To illustrate your point, a film about a woman in a competitive athletic environment is Million Dollar Baby, but the twist of course is that we believe the journey to be the female boxers but it turns out to be the coaches. The redemption at the end is Clint Eastwood’s and Hillary Swank (spoiler alert!) is literally sacrificed for it.

    At the risk of going out on a limb here, I think this is a distinctively masculine trait.

    Um, Im not sure what you mean by this.

    If you mean competitiveness then I’d like to point out that the best football match Ive seen in the last couple of years, and I’m not a football fan but this one had me riveted, was the Olympic semi final between USA and Canada’s women’s teams. It was hammer and tongs physical but in the kind of brush yourself off, shake hands and get on with it attitude that would embarrass the men’s game.

    If you mean male trait in films then yeah, suppose so.

    I don’t really go along with the tortured genius thing. Yes all your examples had very special talents but did they die as a result of them? For every Jimi Hendrix there’s a John Williams, for Charlie Parker a Stephane Grappelli. I think your examples tend to play into the “they only did drugs to cover a psychological problem” concept (be that the pressure from the industry) that denies that drugs are fun but can be dangerous, like yachting .

  12. sheaf24 says

    Butts,

    To illustrate your point, a film about a woman in a competitive athletic environment is Million Dollar Baby, but the twist of course is that we believe the journey to be the female boxers but it turns out to be the coaches. The redemption at the end is Clint Eastwood’s and Hillary Swank (spoiler alert!) is literally sacrificed for it.

    What redemption?

  13. mildlymagnificent says

    Ally

    Norman Mailer said masculinity is not something given to you, but something you gain, and you gain it by winning small battles with honour.

    At the risk of going out on a limb here, I think this is a distinctively masculine trait.

    That brought to mind Steve Biddulph’s view that one thing fathers have to do is to set up their relationship with their sons appropriately. At. Some. Point. a son must defeat his father. Not in the let-the-little-kid-win style we use when teaching littlies to play a card game or a sport. But the son must literally win something-or-other in a real contest of skill or strength or whatever with his dad.

    In his view, fathers who don’t allow this to happen naturally are doing their sons a great disservice. I can’t remember how he goes on from there (I no longer have all the books we used to keep as parents’ resources at our tuition/ teaching centre) but I’d expect that he’d see this as a boy growing into a young man who’s forever looking for that “winning feeling” that he never got legitimately as part of his growing up.

    I’m not altogether thrilled with Biddulph’s views on families and relationships, but I was struck by this idea.
    http://www.raisingboys.com.au/

  14. nrdo says

    The impact of fathers on development is definitely important and deserves focus, but I don’t see any reason to restrict the thinking to father-son relationships. On the topic of musical genius, I’ve recently been listening to some recordings of Patricia Kopatchinskaja who is reputed to have been encouraged by her musician father to challenge classical convention and is now regarded as one of the top living violin virtuosos. (Her playing transcends, in my humble opinion, that of many historic male celebrities)

    We don’t know to what extent her approach was shaped by psychological strife or the desire to succeed against rivals, but it’s clear that a parent provided the right mix of challenge and nurturing to help their child become “extraordinary”.

  15. Lucy says

    I see a new film genre opening up: we could have extreme bird watching, record collection ordering, object oriented programming, metal detecting. Men driven to the edge of a nervous breakdown by their need to classify and specialise the best. We’ve already got the specialised cooking covered by TV.

  16. Lucy says

    Well if you have to die of something, jazz drumming is a good contender.

    I’d be driven to an early grave too if I had to listen to that percussive masturbation all day.

  17. Ally Fogg says

    Jesus Lucy, do you have to advertise your spectacular ignorance and rudeness on Every. Single. Thread?

  18. bruce bartup says

    I’ll try that same thought I put before, but from a different angle.

    Ally concluded “That is the dreadful, cruel question left hanging by Whiplash. What price genius? Can we produce extraordinary human accomplishments without pushing people beyond any reasonable limits of endurance to body and spirit? Whiplash left me unsure of the answer to that question. I refuse to feel guilty for the pleasure I take from Parker and Coltrane, Hendrix and Cobain, Holliday and Joplin, but perhaps now feel a little more appreciation for the sacrifices demanded by their gifts.”

    It is not genius, nor extraordinary accomplishments that are being celebrated. It is abuse, Abuse based on deception, deception based on a young hunger not for excellence but for success. The dream of success for a working person is capitalism cashing in on your own sorrows and tensions and yearning for recognition. Human recognition, that capitalism itself took away.

    Put it this way – ‘Whiplash’ is ‘Seven Years a Slave’ only this time we’re on the side of the overseer not the slave. And slavery is being praised for its economic not its artistic merit. Enjoying Joplin and Fitzgerald should make us all feel guilty. Their torture is not a gift to us, nor for our satisfaction. Nor was their gift necessarily a torture to them. That torture occured because they were, ‘taken up’ by sales. Enjoying the music of someone who has been taken and tortured is shameful, just as enjoying your tea with sugar should have shamed another age of Britons.

    Listening in at your local jazz club however, need not shame anyone. Especially if you then decide to play, and play for the people, not for fame.

    A thirst for success has no proper part in a man’s character – a man is not a dupe. Success is not excellence – any more than sugar is love. Art is not a commodity, that is to say, in the modern world as recorded music or film it absolutely is a commodity, and equally absolutely should not be. And success has become part of what a man is – but should not be. How can Ally not see this?

    We gave up thinking that genius and insanity are correlates some time ago. Why are we now, apparently, thiniking that genius must involve suffering? How many free passes is capitalism going to get before everyone names the monster?

    Names of some people famous for non-striving for success who had excellence (Glenn Gould, Van Gogh, John Clare, R J Mitchell, Tim Berners-Lee. And even then, sought or un-sought, success chewed them all up, before or after death.

  19. Ally Fogg says

    bruce

    based on a young hunger not for excellence but for success.

    I profoundly disagree with this. One of the remarkable things about Whiplash is that Andrew is apparently entirely uninterested in success, in the way we usually measure it under capitalism. He is not interested in making money, fame, women, any of that. What he is striving for is excellence, or perhaps achievement. It’s about self-actualisation. He dreams of leaving a legacy, the way Parker did, which I suppose is a kind of celebrity, but there is absolutely nothing self-indulgent about it. It really is achievement for achievements sake – directly comparable to climbing an impossible mountain, or whatever that might be.

    And I think that desire is a very human trait and goes far deeper than capitalist socialisation.

  20. Lucy says

    “Jesus Lucy, do you have to advertise your spectacular ignorance and rudeness on Every. Single. Thread?”

    Sorry wrong end of the stick. Pretend misogynist teachers killing kids to jazz drum the best = clever, polite subject. Noted.

    See its always really hard to tell without the stats.

  21. bruce bartup says

    Ally,

    thanks for that. I know I am struggling to express this and that my use of English must be unpleasant to a professional writer.

    However, to support my case, this film is ‘product’ that is fictional. The character of Andrew need be no more real than a happy hooker or a heroic cowboy. He is perfect ‘meat’ because he is a ‘pig that wants to be eaten’.

    Your reaction in favour of the film and disagreement with my perspective and my high levels of suspicion are equally profound it seems.

    So given that we are discusssing a fiction, why do I as a non-prominent citizen feel so much one way and youas a competition winner feel another? Is it because I rejected any form of competition that I could not win at an early age (ie all of them). Or was it because I used the word ‘dupe’? If so perhaps that was clumsy of me,

    Perhaps I could try another tack, for example – What would sound personal success, achievement or excellence look like? Leaving a legacy, as you say, I agree. Or as I would put it, making a contribution to humanity. But that contribution would have to be unsigned, without memorial or award (so the gift can be trusted) so ‘legacy’ doesn’t quite sound right, there’s too much ‘heroic ancestor’ baggage in it. Such success would also not be self-actualisation I think, that doesn’t quite have the right tone of something outward, something shared. But whatever definition you choose ‘good’ success certainly would not result in extremes of physical or emotional pain. That is not necessary anymore than ‘dangerous male jobs’ are necessary. A film myth cannot prove otherwise.

    You say the desire to leave a legacy or make a contribution is a deep one, I willingly agree, and I have named it – love. But how has capitalism used that desire? That need to express love of society and to be recognised in love by return? We have turned it to competition and thus the only winners are striving beyond their sustainablle capacity. If a talent goes through hell to succeeed in competition then we are all in hell. Either through the pain of losing – or the hell of winning.

    I have nurtured young careers. I would never stoop to the kinds of tactics that the mentor uses in this film. I would have no respect for anyone that would. And I would fear the effect on a professionals practice if ever abuse of this kind became the norm. We strive quietly, without fuss or harm, we pay attention to the subject, to our training, to ourselves and each other. We do not practice torture. At least we don’t in my tiny sub-branch of science/engineering. Yet.

  22. Holms says

    So all pursuits are bad unless it is one of Lucy’s, cool. Am I permitted to have in interest in astronomy, or is even that too patriarchal of me?

  23. Ally Fogg says

    Bruce

    But whatever definition you choose ‘good’ success certainly would not result in extremes of physical or emotional pain. That is not necessary anymore than ‘dangerous male jobs’ are necessary. A film myth cannot prove otherwise.

    That is certainly true, but I think the more difficult question is the oher way around – can extremes of physical and emotional pain result in “good” success?

    I think a lot of the answer, ethically speaking, comes down to informed consent. In Whiplash, the students are all young adults and it is made clear right from the start that they are all desperate to be accepted into the group – despite knowing Fletcher’s reputation and what is likely to be involved – because they believe the benefits are worth the costs. It is a very different matter in the case of, say, the little children at Chinese circus schools or the types of thing they used to do to young gymnasts in Soviet Russia, where they are far too young to consent to that kind of treatment.

    I have nurtured young careers. I would never stoop to the kinds of tactics that the mentor uses in this film. I would have no respect for anyone that would. And I would fear the effect on a professionals practice if ever abuse of this kind became the norm. We strive quietly, without fuss or harm, we pay attention to the subject, to our training, to ourselves and each other. We do not practice torture. At least we don’t in my tiny sub-branch of science/engineering. Yet.

    Of course. But I don’t think this is a criticism of the film, because I don’t think the movie really fully endorses the methods involved. You are always meant to think (or feel) that what we are seeing – whether effective or not – is at a deep level, simply wrong. Fletcher is not a hero. At best he is an anti-hero, but in many ways he is an out-and-out villain.

    I think there’s a really key moment in the script when he admits that after everything he had done, everything he had put his kids through, he never did produce a Charlie Parker. After everything, he had failed.

  24. bruce bartup says

    Ally,
    The key moment is surely the very end. Fletcher clearly is pleased that Andrew has out grown hm and feels his methods ‘worked’ and Andrew is left broken. Any film that puts an audience in sympathy with the monster, leaves the question in any doubt, risks the wrong answer being taken. As i believe you have, hook, line and sinker. I take it as plausibly deniable audience manipulation.

    Consider what other ‘questions’ might be left open. Should adults be free to take dangerous jobs, or work unsafe hours, or do sex-work, or qualify from college by using performance enhancing drugs, or work for a non-living wage, or enter a brutal sport to support their families? Or should we smilarly examine the morality of cops taking sex as a bribe, or indulging a little brutality on the the mexico border, or selling phony peicillin in Vienna? Perhaps the morality of Sophie’s Choice itself might need re-telling with ambivalence.

    Such questions can (have) made good box office and great films (spot the titles in the above list for three seconds of quiz time fun). But each time the choice is presented as ambivalent when the producers of the film know the answer from civilisation must be a resounding ‘NO!’ is a controversialist tease and damaging to the whole.

    The real choice is being hidden in this case, it is Fletcher’s Choice, it is the job-creator’s choice, the ringmasters choice, the gang-masters choice, Adolf”s Choice. Informed consent to cosmetic surgery, brutal policing methods, sex-work, or being defrauded is irrelevant when the party you are contracting with has all the power, no compunction and violent or exploitative intent.

    Take Isaiah Berlin’s two freedoms, freedom from and freedom to. Freedom to engage a monster mentor, produce abusive on-line comment against women, or cross a picket line compromises the freedom of others to succeed without suffring, speak on-line as a feminist, or earn a iving wage.

    And I guess we willl never agree on the capitalistic nature of this film as propaganda. Because of the cumulative deadenig effect of alll previous ‘masculine’ propaganda. Oh well.

  25. StillGjenganger says

    @Bruce Bartup 26
    Well, what you offer is freedom to follow the party line, and only follow the party line, because we all agree that that is the best for everybody – do we not? That is not a matter of balancing one freedom against another, but of limiting freedom because you think the costs are too great. You can argue that the sum of human happiness would be greater that way, if that is what you think, but it would be more honest to call it by its right name. As, for instance, the Chinese government does.

  26. bruce bartup says

    StillGjenganger,
    No. A moral or ethical imperitive to maximise freedom for everyone does not compel a free man to act in a certain way. Only a moral free man would be influenced. And only influenced, not compelled.

    So that lets some of us off. Capitalists for example, and the Chinese government. In those examples these twin evils are free to act immorally, at the price of being seen to be doing so.

    In the case of Whiplash: Fletcher, being immoral and Andrew being stupid/naive, poorly socialised and self-centred would be free to do jazz their way. Only the question of whether they were doing right would disappear. As would any box office for a film made on that basis.

  27. StillGjenganger says

    Ok, so the pressure would be moral rather than physical. But it is still pressure, to the extent that it makes any difference at all. And it is still a matter of reducing freedom because you think the cost is too high. Calling it “maximise freedom for everybody” is false advertising.

    Just a couple of examples:

    If the freedom to engage a monster mentor compromises other people’s freedom to succeed without suffering, then doing extra homework compromises other people’s freedom to succeed without studying.

    As for sex work, one Irish ex-prostitute, a witness to the Irish parliamentary report on criminalising the buying of sex, commented that she had hated being a prostitute, but in her situation (alone, run away from family and carers, …) it had been her only way to live. She was not angry with her punters, since they were the ones who had made it possible for her to survive, but with all the people who had been able to help her but had not done so. Take away her freedom to do sex work, and what do you give her instead?

    Your reasons may be good, they might even prove sufficient – I would also ban performance-enhancing drugs, in studying as in cycling. But whichever way you cut it this is about reducing freedom, not maximising it.

  28. bruce bartup says

    Influence upon conscience is the same as pressure upon psyche? Are you an amoralist?

    Your examples :
    doing extra homework, or trying or practising is not abusive to the individual – therefore it is morally right
    being a john is occupying an abusive position, any one in a prostitutes position is a vulnerable person, therefore sex-work, but not sex workers, are morally wrong.

    The sex-work example is a good one for my point. Restricting the abusive john’s freedoms (Morally and I would push for legally too in this case) increases the chances that the vulnerable person will find her way to some responsible help. Sustaining someone in that condition is not doing them a favour.

    It is still freedom maximising.

  29. StillGjenganger says

    @ Bruce Bartup 30

    Are you an amoralist?

    No, I just notice that introducing a new social norm saying that it is immoral to pay for prostitutes has about the same effect as making it a criminal offense and fining people for it. It serves to convince people to stay away from prostitutes when they would otherwise have frequented them. The purpose is the same, the effect is the same, and the same people campaign for both. If it quacks like a duck, …

    Doing extra homework has exactly the same effect on the freedom of third parties as ‘hiring a monster trainer’. If this was really about maximising freedom, the two would be judged the same.

    Restricting the abusive john’s freedoms (Morally and I would push for legally too in this case) increases the chances that the vulnerable person will find her way to some responsible help.

    Really? To my mind it increases the chances that the vulnerable person would fall back on a way of making a living that she finds even worse: Unemployment on the streets of Lagos (for a poor Nigerian woman), theft or drug dealing (for a European drug addict), … Do you think that the vulnerable person is able to see what her choices are and opt for the one she prefers, or do you think that wise well-meaning people like you must make her choices for her? If you want the vulnerable to find some responsible help, would it not be better to offer some help that they would want to take, instead of closing off the alternatives?

  30. bruce bartup says

    @ StillGjenganger 31

    Reconciling an old question using old ideas, is not introducing a new norm. Maximising freedom is an old norm Freedom meaning positive and negative freedom has been around since 1958 at least.

    The behaviouaral change is the same the motive is tellingly different. In one case to avoid censure/sanction in the other to do the right thing. I’ll grant that in my personal preference it would be both, but for you it is only the desire to do right.

    Homework, or having talent, or engaging a normal teacher at equitable opportunities with others does not abuse the student. Therefore these are ‘fair’ tactics as the competitiors need not abuse themselves if they wish to compete. This is not about equality of outcome. But any abusive conduct, as only a slave would put up with, condemns competitiors to suffer as a slave, in effect to be enslaved.

    Who are you to say what a person does with their freedom? An prospective sex-worker could do anything. I’ll keep my fath in freedom, and hope she /he will prove to be a moral person also (moral: attempting to do good and avoid harming self or others : benificence and non-malificence.) At least I’ve given her a society which sets anexample to her for guidance not imposition.

  31. StillGjenganger says

    @Bruce32
    To see paying for sex as inherently exploitative is a new idea – as are other things like gay marriage – regardless of what basic philosophical principles may be said to underlie it. ‘There is nothing new under the sun’, but that does not mean that all ideas are old.

    The behaviouaral change is the same the motive is tellingly different. In one case to avoid censure/sanction in the other to do the right thing.

    In practice the difference is somewhat reduced. Granted, people do have their own internal moral codes that they will stick to regardless of what people around them think. But those are only part of it – and unlikely to change much over an adult lifetime. A lot of morality is a matter of sticking to what you feel is acceptable to the society around you. Which is why changing the publicly accepted norms is an efficient tool for changing people’s behaviour without necessarily changing their inner convictions. As witness, for instance, the various campaigns for ‘enthusiastic consent’ etc.

    Therefore these are ‘fair’ tactics as the competitiors need not abuse themselves if they wish to compete. This is not about equality of outcome

    I could actually agree with that. But still, banning this practice (by moral pressure or by law) leads to a better outcome, but the total freedom is reduced, not maximised.

    As for sex workers, preaching to them to convince them to act morally is a perfectly honest activity (if unlikely to effective). But if you want to give them freedom and trust them to use it wisely, you need to give them more and better choices, not fewer. Taking away the choices you do not approve of, is at worst coercion, at best substituting your decisions for their own. I certainly reduces freedom instead of maximising it.

  32. bruce bartup says

    @StillGjenganger 33
    You are unfortunately involving language in a way that obscures rather than illuminates the central matter. So I’ll bring it all back in so that you don’t get me chasing more and more slight misunderstandings of the same point.

    If one is a good person moral matters are binding. But this does not limit freedom. It is the person’s free choice to be good. If you want to widen the debate after you have accepted this, that’s fine. But there’s to be no selective mis-remembering what was accepted. Personal morality is not an imposition on personal freedom.

    What I’m proposing with regard to Whiplash is that it is hiding a choice not to be good (Fletcher’s choice), behind a ‘free’ individual choice (Andrews). Thus Andrew’s treatment is abusive, the movie is capitalist apologetic propaganda, – We’ve all been had about what is masculine. To risk the word again we’re dupes.

  33. StillGjenganger says

    @Bruce Bartup 34

    If one is a good person moral matters are binding. But this does not limit freedom. It is the person’s free choice to be good

    That only holds for such morals as have been freely and individually accepted. In practice a lot of our morals are a matter of internalising the opinions of the group and society we are part of. Not ‘I will not do this because it is bad’, but ‘I think this might actually be OK but I will not do it because I will not risk appearing as a bad person in the eyes of my neighbours’. And that does limit freedom, because it puts your action under the control of something that is not your free choice, and that can (and frequently is) manipulated by outsiders.

  34. bruce bartup says

    The choice I am talking about is to be moral. As opposed to being knowingly immoral. Fletcher chose to be immoral, against his own standards, in exchange for a hope of producing one of the ‘greats’. A Faustian pact if you will. That should deal with matters relating to the film.

    Morality is personal. I can’t see how it could be anything else. If some people are influenced in their choice of morality or in the way they develop a sense of right and wrong as they go through life, that is their free affair. I am not their mummy. It is not my business to go cleaning around their brains with a hoover removing all personal influences. The only thing I can reasonably ask of them is to make some kind of social contract with me (for peace, order goodwill etc.), that they acknowledge whatever has been found to be absolutely true about what is good and bad, and to explain their morality and practice for the edification or illumination of the community of interest. I think that is about all I could ask and all I could reasonably be expected to be worried about.

    Of course if they said they intended to actively pursue a course of action in biasing and fooling other people, like the makers of the movie did (ie didn’t say but did do) then I might have something to say about it. Either to them and to others. So I just have.

  35. WhineyM says

    Watcha Ally. Well to this piece I would say witness Ana Vidovic

    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=BEJ8ZGTaxgw

    who I’d argue is a better guitarist than those three chumps in your clip put together. 🙂

    And then also behold the calm serenity with which Laura Snowden tackles this intense
    & technically demanding duo:

    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=F_oKhBH8EAE

    So, speaking to this theme, ‘music and masculinity’, is a load of testosterone-driven posturing
    required to make a genius guitarist/muscian? Quite obviously not!

    Though I’ll admit, it is kinda weird that you get more blokes playing electric lead guitar than female; no idea why that should be.

  36. Noah Dunn says

    “I refuse to feel guilty for the pleasure I take from Parker and Coltrane, Hendrix and Cobain, Holliday and Joplin, but perhaps now feel a little more appreciation for the sacrifices demanded by their gifts.”

    I really don’t think Cobain’s musical ability demanded a sacrifice of his mental health. The only things he sacrificed for his talents were time and effort (the necessary ingredients to develop any rich talent). What your saying is only true if his drug-addiction and depression fueled his creativity – infused him with a kind of semi-mystical ‘X-factor.’ But this is both unsupported by evidence and contradicted by other biographies. There are heaps of ‘extraordinary’ achievers who don’t die young, or abuse drugs, or develop mental-illness; I’m sure you can think of your own examples. The same could be said for the others on your list.

    With that said, the demands of time and effort needed – absolutely required – to develop into a Charlie Parker are probably too much for many people; not because people are so stupid or so hopeless – but because they are bogged down with jobs, family, responsibilities; it’s hard to put in the required practice when you have three kids, a significant other, a job and a house to clean, etc. Not to say it’s impossible; it’s just more difficult.

  37. says

    Not really interested in the gendered nature (or otherwise) of competitiveness in any particular field. But something else did stick out…

    The other day I was playing one of my favourite albums, a live performance by three virtuouso guitarists, John McLaughlin, Al Di Meola and Paco de Lucía called “Friday Night in San Francisco.” I was trying to figure out what made this recording sparkle so much and suddenly it hit me – they aren’t just accompanying each other as a trio, a band, so much as battling with each other like gladiators.

    Arrgh, no. I hate that record for almost exactly the same reason. To me they’re just wanking on stage, showing how very very very good they are. I like virtuosity, but not when that’s all it is. And they’re so goddamn smug about it. I just want to get up there and slap them about the head with a wet fish. Dreadful, dreadful music. Sorry 😉

  38. says

    Can we produce extraordinary human accomplishments without pushing people beyond any reasonable limits of endurance to body and spirit? Whiplash left me unsure of the answer to that question.

    Are you kidding?! Things like that happen almost all the time — they just don’t happen in movies, because those stories just aren’t “dramatic” enough to make a movie that sells tickets. Does anyone really believe every good musician got there by a Seal Team Six boot camp? Case in point: “The Imitation Game,” which couldn’t handle Alan Turing’s real accomplishments without making up so much shit as to put the movie somewhere between “fiction” and “plain damn lies.” (No, Turing did NOT fail to report John Cairncross for spying — he never even MET Cairncross! If you can’t do a movie about Turing without making him a traitor, then stick to zombie movies instead, you can’t handle reality.)

  39. johngreg says

    Raging, there is a great deal of distance between extraordinary human accomplishments (the critically important word being extraordinary), which is rather specifically what Ally is referring to, and every good musician (the critically important word being good), which is rather specifically what you are referring to.

    And what does your comment regarding the Turing movie have to do with a hill of beans in Gondwanaland? In regards to Turing, and the Turing movie so far as I know, the point that Turing’s was an extraordinary mind still falls, though loosely, into Ally’s post, but Turing’s being gay is, in this topic, rather irrelevant, even in light of your, ahem, professional and oh-so elegantly eloquent art criticism

  40. johngreg says

    Whoops on me!

    Raging, I meant to refer to Turing’s meeting or not meeting Cairncross, etc., not his being gay.

    /tsk tsk tsk

  41. cantataprofana says

    I watched Whiplash on Monday – I’ve never seen a film that was simultaneously so brilliant and so skin-crawlingly unpleasant. Apologies in advance for length, but I’m a regular lurker here and this film affected me so much I really wanted to comment…

    The music scenes were amazing in parts. I’ve got a soft spot for modern big-band jazz (like the title track) and I genuinely enjoyed the attention to detail – for instance JK Simmons had obviously worked out how to conduct a bit (including a decent 7/8) and, horribleness aside, the rehearsal sequences were technically pretty accurate and the associated dialogue made sense. I’m pretty sure that Miles Teller’s drumming wasn’t technically amazing (any drummers are more than welcome to correct me) but the film always managed to combine sound and vision so that any mismatch between the pristine soundtrack and the footage of the drumming was masked (e.g. lots of shots where you can see a drum/cymbal, and the movement of the stick, but not the stick actually striking the drum/cymbal). Plenty of music films gloss over those kind of details or get them wrong and consequently put me off.

    But I can barely overstate how uncomfortable Fletcher made me, and judging from the reviews I’ve read, I’ve actually reacted a lot more strongly to his abusive behaviour than many, Ally included. I think the main reasons are (1) Jazz doesn’t have to be like that to be excellent; and (2) Excellent jazz generally *isn’t* made like that in my view. In other words, it’s not only abusive behaviour, it’s entirely unnecessary, even if your goal is excellence for excellence’s sake.

    Some ideas to back this up:

    That story about Bird getting a cymbal thrown at him: not only is it apocryphal (apparently the cymbal was, at most, thrown on the floor), all it shows is that Jo Jones had a short temper. Believe me, if you play like crap, you won’t need thrown cymbals to make you realise it – I’ve certainly played my trumpet at jam sessions where the silence was deafening.

    That scene where Fletcher makes Neyman start a piece over and over again, constantly telling him off for rushing or dragging: that is simply terrible musicianship, and not just because he misses the obviously more productive approaches of, say, giving the poor kid a longer count-in or getting him to relax and feel the tempo by letting him play a few bars more. No, Fletcher also fails to explain the other 4 possibilities for getting tempo wrong: namely beginning early / late, and getting faster / slower. Listening to this sequence, Fletcher was simply mis-diagnosing what Neyman had done wrong in some cases, and at one time asking Neyman whether he was rushing or dragging, when the answer was neither: he came in early. So frustrating to watch! And in real life, of course, a Fletcher character would never be challenged on this, having become an unquestionable authority, his own little religion. So much wrong in that one scene for me.

    The film’s key sequences are about the loud, up-tempo, over-the-top show-off side of jazz, which is far from the only way to do it. Buddy Rich personifies that approach and so makes an appropriate choice for Neyman’s hero. But so much of jazz is introverted, or loud and up-tempo while remaining soulful. I know plenty of fans who don’t really go for the big-band format much precisely because it’s too showy for them. And, despite my fondness for big-band sounds, I definitely do not like Rich’s stuff for the same reason.

    It’s also all about a certain modern big-band orchestration and its perfect execution. Many jazz fans, me included, specifically appreciate jazz for its roughness, soul and unpredictability in the form of improvisation. Fletcher is after absolute perfection, which is in my opinion answering the wrong question. If you want perfection, go hear your nearest orchestra (a choice from at least 3 here in Manchester!).

    All that didn’t stop me from thinking it was an awesome piece of cinema, but I wondered how badly it would reflect on the jazz world for people who aren’t fans (yet?!). It wound me up so tight I needed a stiff drink afterwards to get me to sleep.

  42. cantataprofana says

    Oh, and I forgot… one of the creepiest moments for me was when I found myself nodding along with Fletcher when he berated “Starbucks jazz albums” or some such. Being made to agree with an abuser felt quite uncomfortable!

  43. Holms says

    #45 Chingona
    No, he said competetiveness is a male trait. This does not acumen, expertise, nor even ambition, though they can be synonymous in certain contexts. I would argue that competetiveness is ambition plus aggression, and that aggression is demonstrably male.

  44. johngreg says

    cantataprofana, I was a professional touring musician (not jazz, though) for 15 years, and I agree with every one of your points.

    I think that Ally, not being a musician, misses a lot of what is not only wrong in this movie, but what is little more than apocryphal shadow play and myth building Hollywoodisms.

    I cannot think of any other way to describe the Fletcher character other than psycopathic abuser. There are so, so, so many more and better ways to get good performance out of musicians (including “extraordinary human accomplishments”).

    When I first took music lessons, back in the early 60s, it was still at that time quite common for the piano teacher to hit kids with a ruler, and quite hard too, across their knuckles every time they made a mistake. Draconian. Fletcher is just a psychotic extension of that.

  45. cantataprofana says

    Thanks Ally. I normally just read the blog and think “yup, what he said”…

    johngreg, I’ve never been a professional, but I’m a keen amateur. I don’t get to play my trumpet much nowadays (supply of trumpeters generally outstrips demand) so the odd jam session at Matt&Phred’s in Manchester is about the most I do. Instead I sing in a choir – turns out if you’re a bloke who can sing *and* sight-read music, you can pretty much join any choir you want, save for the highest standard professional choirs.

    Now there’s a subject right up Ally’s street – the decline of men singing in choirs…

  46. mjl2009 says

    I think _Whiplash_ is a story of capitalism and the middle class and its fears, and only consequentially a story of men. The film assumes that – as an author who I can’t find now put it – there is only ‘a limited amount of esteem to go around’ any group of males. This is a poisonous fiction, a fiction written by the kind of toxic leader memorably described by psychoanalyst Donald Meltzer as the ‘faecal phallus’. Terence in his black tee shirts and stinking moods is this kind of shithead, ruling the dark, rectal claustrum (Meltzer’s term for a psychological sphere of miserable gang dynamics) of the rehearsal studio. The psychology of _Whiplash_ can be seen as that of late capitalism as processed by the middle classes: its main message is, ‘Desire it until you’re a psychopath’; or perhaps merely, ‘Love Big Brother’. I wonder if anyone agrees that the sister film to _Whiplash_ is Haneke’s _The Piano Teacher_: this presents a woman displaying the faecal-phallic relation of dominance over her students, but as a female she is tormented by the contradictions this position forces her to live out; in its thrall she destroys herself. _The Piano Teacher_ is a curious complement of the events and relationships of _Whiplash_: this time Walter, the young student with whom teacher Erika becomes obsessed , has everything by right, and without apparent effort, that she has suffered, sacrificed and scrimped for; and so on. As in many films, what is being said in _Whiplash_ at a deep level lies on its surface, in plain sight: the argument at the dinner table with its impossibly sharp dialogue dividing all the males in a family, is a key, as is the idea that jazz, a free musical form, should be at its best when absolutely institutionalised, entrained and disciplined. Finally, the fable of ‘Bird’ is repeatedly misread as if it proved the point of what Terence demanded; when it is patently a story of eccentric and self-motivated, rather than slavish and externally enforced, excellence-seeking.

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