To Praise or to Push?

 | 

“No two words are more harmful in the English language than ‘Good job.’” So says Terence Fletcher (played by J.K. Simmons) when asked why he humiliates and browbeats his students. Fletcher is the menacing, profanity-spewing, name-calling, face-slapping, chair-hurling, off-balancing dictator of the Shaffer School of Music, who also happens to be the most sought-after band coach in the most sought-after music school in New York — which, as everyone knows, is the same as saying in the world.

Fletcher uses tactics more common to a football coach or a drill sergeant than a musician. Members of his elite studio jazz orchestra cower beneath his scrutiny, stammer uncertain responses to such basic questions as “Were you out of tune?” and avert their eyes in terror as he surveys the group. Yet these are among the most skilled young musicians in the world! And not one would willingly yield his spot in the group. They have struggled and practiced all their lives just to be selected by this tyrant.

If someone does have the talent and the drive, does he need the humiliation? Won’t he drive himself to achieving his best work without the terrorizing?

Andrew Nieman (Miles Teller) is a student drummer who has been tapped for the studio band by His Greatness, Sir Fletcher. But to maintain his spot, he must compete every day, every practice, every song, with the drummer he is trying to replace and with the drummer who is trying to replace him. This constant competition drives him to practice until his hands are bloody, his body is dripping with sweat, and he is as utterly exhausted as a marathon runner. And still he doesn’t measure up. The taunting, jeering epithets rain down on him from the pompous coach, daring him to quit, daring him to fight back, daring him to prove that he is the best.

This kind of pressure is typical in sports and elite military training, but if applied in the music world, it causes the viewer to contemplate the balance between encouragement and abuse. How much is too much? If “good job” and “self-esteem” can lead to complacency and mediocrity, won’t constant humiliation lead to discouragement and giving up? Fletcher would say that anyone who gives up never had the talent and the drive in the first place. But if someone does have the talent and the drive, does he need the humiliation? Won’t he drive himself to achieving his best work without the terrorizing? When is it time to push? When is it time to praise? These are important questions that every parent, teacher, and coach should consider.

Miles Teller certainly pushed himself to greatness for this role. A drummer in high school, he returned to training as he prepared for filming and practiced four hours a day, trained with a professional jazz drummer three days a week, and played until his hands were blistered and bloody (that’s Teller’s blood on the drum and the sticks in the film). His Andrew is timid around his new coach, just as the other band members are, but there is an extra spark in his determination to maintain the drum stool. He will not give up, no matter what. Teller’s scars (he suffered major cuts to his face and body when he was thrown through the window of a car as it crossed three lanes of traffic and then flipped eight times), though never mentioned, become a subtle metaphor for the psychological scars Andrew has suffered at the hands of family members who only value “manly” pursuits such as football and girls.

J.K. Simmons usually plays the gruff but lovable father types — the curmudgeon hiding his heart of gold — so it is terrifying and refreshing to see him in a role that is so completely vile and demonic. Fletcher revels in his power, his control, and his absolute belief in his own rightness. He is the perfect match for Andrew in this contest of wills as they battle for the same goal: to develop Andrew into a musician who will be remembered long after he is dead — the next Buddy Rich or Charlie Parker.

As good as these two actors are, the music is the true star of this film. As Andrew takes a solo and builds it to a climax, his body sweating, his hands bleeding, his face “a look of agony” (to quote Dickinson) so focused that nothing can distract him, the performance becomes a sensual experience, almost erotic, and it practically explodes off the screen.

It’s even more impressive that a director so young could draw so much from his main characters.

Whiplash was written and directed by 30-year-old Damien Chazelle, who filmed it in 19 days of shooting and completed the entire work in just ten weeks. As a film festival director I always caution filmmakers not to rush post-production just to meet a festival deadline, but in this case it worked: Whiplash won both the Audience Award and the Grand Jury Prize this year at Sundance. It’s also worth noting that when Chazelle couldn’t get funding to make the whole movie, he made a short version, won the Jury Prize for best short narrative at Sundance (2013) and on the strength of that win was able to secure funding to make the full length feature later that summer. Sounds as though Chazelle has a bit of Andrew Nieman’s dedication and persistence himself.

Whiplash is one of the best films I’ve seen this year. It’s even more impressive that someone so young could draw so much from his main characters, one of whom is a relative newcomer and the other is a seasoned pro who might have felt that he had nothing to learn from someone so inexperienced. Instead, Simmons threw himself into this character and could be practicing acceptance speeches in the next couple of months.

“Good job”? Oh, yeah.


Editor's Note: Review of "Whiplash," directed by Damien Chazelle. Bold Films, 2014, 107 minutes.



Share This


Putting the Art in “Art Film”

 | 

What We Talk about When We Talk about Love (1981) is one of Raymond Carver’s most significant short stories. Four characters — two couples — sit around a kitchen table talking about — well, talking about love, in all its manifestations, but never actually communicating what they mean in a way that the others can understand.

Birdman (or The Unexpected Virtue of Innocence) stars Michael Keaton as Riggan Thomson, an aging actor best known for his cinematic superhero alter ego, Birdman. The film could just as easily be titled How We Act When We Act as Though We Aren’t Acting. It’s a forgivably self-indulgent self-study of the art of acting, portrayed by some of the least celebritized actors in the business.

Like many celebrity movie stars today, Thomson is trying to shake off his stardom by treading the boards of Broadway. He has been pigeonholed by his fans as the Birdman and is trying to escape the character that seems to have taken up residency inside his brain. The Birdman talks to him in a voice that is strangely reminiscent of Batman, and seems to give Thomson kinetic powers. Thomson’s daughter in the film (Emma Stone) is often on the ledge of the rooftop, and Thomson is often on the edge of sanity. He sees and hears things that aren’t there, does things he doesn’t do — or does he? We really don’t know.

It is unnerving and suspenseful and anything but dead air. At other times your jaw will simply drop, wondering how they did it.

Keaton portrayed Batman in two Tim Burton films almost a quarter of a century ago, so it’s easy to make a connection between him and the character he plays in this film. Keaton is a fine but reclusive actor, choosing his projects carefully, and mostly choosing not to work. Yet he has said in interviews that Riggan Thomson is the least like him of any character he has played — and he has played a lot of unusual characters, including Batman, Beetlejuice, and the Multiplicity clones.

The film is set in the St. James Theater on 44th Street, where Thomson is writing, directing, and starring in a “serious” Broadway play based on the Carver story. Art imitates life imitates art as characters break character within the play and actors occasionally break character within the film, making the audience intently aware of the difficulty of both filmmaking and playmaking.

Director Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu wanted to film this movie in the way a play is made — live, uninterrupted, all in one take, mistakes and all. After discussing the project with stage and film director Mike Nichols, he realized he would need to settle for several long takes of 15 minutes or more rather than one two-hour take, and it was a good compromise. The camera work is stylized and unsettling without calling undue attention to itself. Instead, it recalls the unsettled and stylized state of Riggan Thomson’s fragile mind. For example, the camera climbs the walls to get from a sidewalk shot to a rooftop shot, preparing the viewer to accept Thomson’s ability to reinhabit the Birdman’s power of flight — for real. Or as real as acting can be. At one point the camera just sits in a hallway, waiting for Keaton’s character to come into view. Perhaps Inarritu intended it this way. Perhaps Keaton was late for his entrance. Either way, Inarritu left it as is, instead of editing it out. It is unnerving and suspenseful and anything but dead air. At other times your jaw will simply drop, wondering how they did it.

In the Carver story, light plays a significant but subtle role; the room is light while the four friends are talking, but light gradually leaves the room as it becomes apparent that they will not be able to articulate sufficiently what love is. They can talk about love; they can feel it individually when it happens; they can share stories that seem to express it, but they can’t explain or define it for someone else. They talk about stories and examples that seem to prove what love is, but they discover that language is insufficient to express what they mean. In the film, music seems to take the place of light. The film’s soundtrack alternates between lush symphonies by Mahler, Ravel, Tchaikovsky, and Rachmaninoff and a cacophonous interpretive jazz drum piece created brilliantly by Antonio Sanchez. The music is one of the best components of the film, conveying the changing moods of the character as he soars and frets, yet insufficient for expressing what Thomson is really experiencing.

Birdman is not a mainstream film. It’s not even a standard indie film. If you’re looking for an absorbing plot or wacky entertainment, this isn’t it. But it’s a fascinating piece of art and well worth watching.

How do you act when you act as though you aren’t acting?


Editor's Note: Review of "Birdman (or The Unexpected Virtue of Innocence)," directed by Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu. Twentieth Century Fox, 2014, 159 minutes.



Share This


Talking to an Empty Chair

 | 

I keep hearing some people say that Clint Eastwood’s hilarious skit at the National Republican Convention was in poor taste. I am reminded of Marshall McLuhan’s famous quip that "good taste is the last refuge of the witless."

Indeed, I found it comical watching media insiders, even conservative ones, agonizing over Clint Eastwood's "disrespect" to President Obama as he mimed him telling Mitt Romney to perform an anatomically impossible act.

This is disrespect? To the president who by proxy or surrogate has accused Mitt Romney of schoolyard bullying, murder, lying, felony, dog-whistle racism, and income tax evasion, and who ran a video that showed Paul Ryan pitching granny into a ravine? When did we get so finicky and reverential about the president, particularly this president, who was tutored in the political graces in the corrupt down-and-dirty precincts of Chicago?

The insider campaign wonks who are expert in the art of manipulation claimed that Clint interrupted the touching emotional sweep of the painstakingly choreographed narrative leading up to Mitt Romney's acceptance speech. Mika Brzezinsky, co-anchor of "Morning Joe," said that Clint's shtick was "absolutely disgusting." And even Ann Romney claimed she "didn't know it was coming."

Such sensitive souls!

Governor Scott Walker said that Eastwood's speech made him “cringe,” and Roger Ebert added that he found Eastwood’s performance “sad.” But as the cameras scanned the convention floor I didn’t see anyone cringing or sad. What I saw was the uproarious laughter of an audience previously about to die from an assault of cloying sentimentality. The majority rose to their feet in cheering approbation, and many were laughing so hard they seemed on the verge of crying, if not rolling in the aisles. I have a hunch that many of these embarrassed and shocked TV newsmen were secretly laughing up their collective sleeves as well, and will wake up in the middle of the night and burst out with geysers of uncontrollable laughter.

There was a subtext to Eastwood’s funny, roguish skit: it covered some pretty deplorable behavior of President Obama and his dysfunctional administration; it was, in fact, a serious bill of indictment. But what Clint Eastwood really brought to the proceeding was some much-needed irreverence in a too carefully scripted presentation. It's called comic relief.




Share This
Syndicate content

© Copyright 2017 Liberty Foundation. All rights reserved.



Opinions expressed in Liberty are those of the authors and not necessarily those of the Liberty Foundation.

All letters to the editor are assumed to be for publication unless otherwise indicated.