film review: WHIPLASH

Misnomer alert!

This is not actually a film review. Enough people have called out WHIPLASH's bright red tomato-praises that there's not much point at this point in me taking the time to point out its many fine points. You might as well just read the superlatives on the film's poster and take my word that, yes, they're justified. WHIPLASH is compelling from the first frame. Brilliantly shot, brilliantly acted. Brilliantly sound-designed, brilliantly edited. Beautiful. 

With all that as a given, then, I'd rather spend my time here reviewing what the film's about. 

First, though, I can't resist mentioning something that caught my attention right at the start, and that is that the director / editor / cinematographer had this intriguing little habit of doing all these intimate little close shots: a finger brushing hair behind an ear, the spit-valve on a wind instrument being emptied, and cetera. They did it a lot, and because every single frame of a movie costs barrels of money, we can assume that a great writer/director like Damien Chazelle had a reason for shooting this way. Most filmmakers cut in close, but Chazelle does it all the time. Why?

A few minutes later, it came to me: drumming (ohyeahiforgot - it's a movie about drumming. why haven't you watched it, yet?) is an extremely tactile thing. The sticks, the skins, the cymbals—it all depends on touch.  I think it's to emphasize the tactile sensuality of drumming. The deft touch. Also, it's sexy.

Moving on. 

WHIPLASH is a movie about drumming, but it's also about art-making. 

WHIPLASH is a great movie about art-making, and so it asks perhaps the biggest question that faces anyone who (like myself) aspires toward artistic greatness:

What is and isn't worth sacrificing in the quest for artistic greatness?

[SPOILERS BELOW—Wait... you still haven't you watched it, yet?]

WHIPLASH asks this question but does not answer it in an direct, didactic manner (duh), because that is not how art works. Instead, it shows us a young man, Andrew, who gives absolutely everything he has to be the best. It shows Andrew's teacher, Fletcher, using any means at his disposalviolence, whateverto get Andrew to become the sort of legendary jazz drummer that Andrew wants to be. 

Things accelerate. Things degenerate.


Fletcher is obviously a borderline psychopath. 
Andrew is obviously not right in the head.


After giving up a girlfriend, sabotaging family relationships, and basically sacrificing himself body, mind, and soul to jazz percussion...

He does it. 
He achieves artistic greatness. 

In a Fletcher/Andrew showdown worthy of better metaphoric comparisons than I can muster right now (perhaps a tribute to this film's greatness), Andrew manages to achieve the sort of transcendence that we (which is to say, those of us with an art-vocation) are straining to attain. 

So there you have it.

Fletcher is right. Great artists are formed in a crucible of abusethe sort of abuse that drives them to inhuman levels of focus, in a desperate need to prove the nay-sayers wrong. Andrew, the artist, is willing to give everything. Absolutely everything. To throw off family, friends, and any semblance of a life outside of his art. He does all this and it all pays off in the end because...

...except, wait. 

Andrew doesn't do itdoesn't achieve that level of greatnessuntil he's had a good long time of reflection. He gives up the drums completely. He attempts to reconnect with his ex-girlfriend, and realizes what he's lost. He thinks about what his life means. About, perhaps, the meaning behind the art he hopes to make. Therein lies his success, his spirithis salvation. 

WHIPLASH suggests that the insane sacrifices are worth it.
WHIPLASH also suggests that they are not. 

It leaves us not with an easy answer, but a tension. 

And as with all tensions, there's no formula to attain it. Life is too infinitely complex and there are too many variables to be able to plot a perfect course between work and rest.

I know Andrew's pain. 

I know that if I want to be great at something (anything), I have got to do a LOT of it. I hope, like Andrew, that if I work hard enough and long enough and with enough focus, I will one day be able to create something great. I am willing to make those sacrifices. I willingly lay the available moments of my life down on that altar. But I have also learned—as Andrew maybe learns—that it is possible to take that too far, and in so doing to miss out on the spirit of the thing you were trying to do in the first place.

The joy of creation.

The pleasure of communication and community.

The passion of love.


Speaking of making stuff, I've got a short story collection, a book of visual art, and a YA novel available for sale over on My Amazon Page. Feel free to support the bejeebers out of me.


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