Nov 07

“Whiplash”: Teacher’s Abusive Style, Student’s Perfectionism

I’ve seen the trailer for Damien Chazelle‘s highly acclaimed Whiplash several times in the theater. Although I’ve decided it’s probably not for me, a review of the reviews is still in order.

AN INTRO OF SORTS TO WHIPLASH

Betsy Sharkey, Los Angeles Times: “Fear. Passion. Blood. Sweat. Tears. Pounding through the beat of a drum. Screaming in the crash of the cymbals. Fast, furious, raging perfection in bleeding hands, broken sticks, broken relationships, broken lives. Debris surrounding transcendent greatness. Ecstasy within the agony.”

Brian Tallerico, rogerebert.com, explains the plot basics:

A young man named Andrew Neyman (Miles Teller) is practicing late at night at his New York music school, one of the best in the country, when his drumming catches the ear of the infamous Mr. Fletcher (J.K. Simmons), the most important teacher at the school and the conductor for its most important jazz band. Fletcher pauses, listens, barks a few orders at the young man, and moves on, seemingly dissatisfied with what he heard. Andrew had his chance, that one brief moment many of us have to impress the people who can change our lives, and he didn’t cut it. He goes back to his routine class band, telling his dad (a wonderfully genuine Paul Reiser) that his opportunity to move up probably passed him by.

THE TITLE

David Edelstein, Vulture: “The title Whiplash is dead-on. That’s what it is; that’s what it gives you.”

THE TRAILER

Before you watch, a warning: a strong aspect of Whiplash is Fletcher’s intense verbal, emotional, and physical abuse of Andrew, purportedly to coax excellence out of him.

QUESTIONS ASKED

Brian Tallerico, rogerebert.com: “How far are you willing to push yourself to succeed? How far are you willing to push someone else to force them on the path to success?”

Rex Reed, New York Observer: “The question is: how much should one talented but sensitive individual be willing to suffer for his art at the hands of one brilliant but terrifying bully?”

Betsy Sharkey, Los Angeles Times: “The question Chazelle poses is whether psychological pain is the price of greatness. Does it take emotional scarring and physical extremes to push the talented to reach extraordinary heights?”

ANDREW AND FLETCHER

David Edelstein, Vulture:

[Fletcher’s] behavior is monstrous, but the question hangs: Does Andrew at this point need a ‘bad’ father? Andrew’s real dad (Paul Reiser) is a soft, mild presence, a man who watches black-and-white movies and sprinkles Raisinets on his popcorn. He loves Andrew unconditionally—which is just what we want from a parent, right? The absence of such unconditional love fuels billions of hours of therapy and is the root of a thousand unreadable memoirs. But to go to the next level, does an artist need to fear being shamed?

ANDREW

Tomas Hachard, NPR: “What Chazelle stresses about Andrew is his obsessiveness. And what he really nails about obsession, about those people who work tirelessly at a specific goal, is that their struggle is not about achieving success rather than failure. It’s about demonstrating genius rather than mere talent.”

FLETCHER

Brian Tallerico, rogerebert.com: “Simmons perfectly captures the drive of a man who believes his abusive degree of pressure is the only way to produce a diamond.”

IN CONCLUSION

Elizabeth Weitzman, New York Daily News: “The story arc is too predictable, the near-complete absence of women a bit disconcerting. The movie skitters towards its audacious premise — endorsing misery as creative motivation — without having the nerve to commit fully.”

Peter Debruge, Variety: “…ultimately about a rivalry not between Andrew and his instructor, but between the promising teenage drummer and himself.”

Richard Corliss, Time: “… Chazelle provides a potent metaphor for artistic ambition as both a religion and an addiction. You go through Hell to reach your goal, and maybe Hell was the best, most intense part of the process.”

Jun 20

“A Birder’s Guide to Everything”: A Summertime DVD

The film is far from a melancholy wallow, but it does examine the ways we cope with loss and the conflicts that result when one person’s healing process is faster or different from another’s. David aspires to be a watcher, a birder who truly communes with nature through the act of seeing. A Birder’s Guide to Everything encourages us to bring the same sense of attunement to each other — to recognize the humanity in everyone we see. Joel Arnold, NPR

According to IMDB, the plot of this year’s A Birder’s Guide to Everything, now on DVD: “David Portnoy, a 15-year-old birding fanatic, thinks that he’s made the discovery of a lifetime. So, on the eve of his father’s remarriage, he escapes on an epic road trip with his best friends to solidify their place in birding history.” David is played by Kodi Smit-McPhee.

Joel Arnold, NPR, elaborates on the simple plot:

David’s possible discovery of a living Labrador duck, a North American species thought to be extinct, sends the guys to Lawrence Konrad (Ben Kingsley), an enigmatic titan of the birding world. Konrad confirms that David’s shaky photo could be a Labrador, but the excitement of that meeting is tempered by the painful reminder that Konrad knew David’s mother, an unsung birding hero who passed away a year-and-a-half before. David is still grieving, a process not helped by the fact that his nonbirding dad (James LeGros) is getting married in just a few days — to his mother’s nurse.

Significantly, David and his dad have never processed the death of his mom.

While amateur ornithology helps David avoid dealing with important emotional issues, the trip helps him with escapism from the wedding—in which he’s supposed to be the best man. Accompanying him are best friends and co-birders Timmy (Alex Wolff) and Peter (Michael Chen), along with a girl new to the bird club, Ellen (Katie Chang).

Stephen Holden, New York Times, regarding the teens’ characterizations in A Birder’s Guide to Everything:

David and his friends are well-drawn portraits of innocents at an excruciatingly awkward age. Timmy, who affects a transparently bogus machismo, is really a scaredy-cat. After the discovery of a bag of what might be crystal meth under a seat of the car, he panics and imagines that they are being followed by a gang of gun-toting drug dealers. These adolescents are still young enough to be afraid of the dark.

How do you survive the humiliation and embarrassment of being 15 and desperate to be a grown-up? Through patience and the instinctive realization that you’ve reached an awkward transition and that the worst will soon be behind you.

And Sheila O’Malley, rogerebert.com: “‘A Birder’s Guide to Everything’ doesn’t forget that teenagers are not just obsessed with sex and peer-popularity at school, although those ‘types’ may dominate popular cinema. Nerds and geeks are usually the sidekicks in coming-of-age films, but here they take center stage. They are not handled patronizingly. Nobody is mocked for being smart, for having their nose in a book, for wanting to acquire knowledge.”

In birding terms, David is a “lister” who “strives to be a watcher,” viewers find out. As explained by O’Malley, “Watchers are the ones who actually learn how to see, whose obsession drives them into transcendent layers of sight, where the delineation between the bird and the watcher becomes irrelevant. It is a place of one-ness with your passion, with nature…Watching will include not only the birds through his binoculars, but his father, his lost mother, his new stepmom, his friends, himself.”

You can see the trailer below: