The Reactive Consequence of Force: Whiplash as Cultural Critique

Miles Teller as Andrew Neimann in Whiplash Miles Teller as Andrew Neimann in Whiplash

(Spoiler below)
Will you listen? Let us first understand whiplash as a reactive consequence of force…but one that weakens with repetition.

Further on Whiplash (The Dystopian Perfection of Whiplash), the movie starring J.K. Simmons (Daniel Fletcher) and Miles Teller (Andrew Neimann). I have decided it was intended to show us how the world has gone wrong, and continues thus, under the tutelage of the White European Autocratic Authoritarian Male.

So, don’t let the brutal nature of the film, the non-reality to its purported subject (the study of jazz/music via studio band conservatory education), dissuade you from seeing a valuable and clear lesson.

Miles becomes the Energizer Bunny* of drums after months of humiliation, terror, and physical duress (this is called “practice” or “study”).

Here’s how I came to this conclusion (a kind of spoiler).

In the final scene, rightly praised as a tour de force of editing–shot over two days apparently, Miles is humiliated but then “overcomes” that experience to unleash a powerhouse performance in the face of that denigration.

The movie is full of suggestive action within a very formal structure. For example, Miles was raised by his father who, it’s implied, is a failed writer while being an educator which is further “lessened” to being a high school teacher. The mother has left. So, Miles’ father is a weak failure (and womanish–like a mothering teacher-babysitter–sorry, remember, I’m “reading” the movie) and Fletcher is a seething cauldron of intimidating and successful male power–physically and emotionally tyrannical–though his “world” of influence is admittedly small, the entirety of this world is small and so his influence is oversized (in fact he humiliates another instructor by invading his classroom, taking the podium, and poaching students–this is where Andrew is “chosen”).

In the final scene, the set-up, and it is a set-up by Fletcher intended to humiliate Andrew, is that Andrew has been invited to sit-in with Fletcher’s professional band in a venue where industry power players will be in attendance and who can elevate a career or end it. Both Andrew and Fletcher have fallen from grace–Andrew is thrown out of school for attacking Fletcher (rightly!) and Fletcher is fired because of a suit brought against him for emotional abuse leading to a student’s suicide and Andrew actually offers an affidavit as evidence of this abusive method. Accidentally (!) Andrew walks past a bar where Fletcher is playing piano and they end up talking and seemingly reconciling and the invitation is offered.

Andrew is assured they’ll be playing standards he rehearsed in the studio band that he knows intimately. On stage, Fletcher announces they’ll be playing a new one, an original, and Andrew is sunk. He doesn’t know it, and he doesn’t know how to fake it. And during this Fletcher walks over and gives him the Fredo kiss–I know it was you who testified against me. Andrew walks off humiliated. His father, who is in the audience, has hurried backstage and meets him at the stage door and hugs him. After a few seconds, Andrew turns and walks back to the stage, removes his jacket, sits back at his kit and begins playing “Caravan.” In essence he takes over the stage, takes over the conducting, and takes charge of Fletcher’s band, saying two different times, “I’ll cue you in” (and “fuck you” to Fletcher once). But he is not doing anything unique or original or soulful. He is performing an act of aggression–which seems like a kind of revenge, but instead is an offering to his god.

Andrew has turned away from his weak, loving, caring (failure) father, to embrace the ways of the tyrant. Play harder, play faster, play with and through pain, ON MY TEMPO…no changes, no personality…in other words, no soul, no jazz. Which is to say there is no conversation, only marching orders.

And in fact, Andrew failed at “jazz” earlier by being stymied by the unexpected. He succeeds only as told, only as molded, only as trained. This is the American Military, not a Jazz Band. This is the warrior god come calling.

Oh, and I would argue that nearly the only necessary characters/actors in this film are father, son, leader…hmmmm.

And as a movie using jazz as its backdrop (the only original American music created by Black Americans), this movie is bone-white. Another political point and/or cultural critique? I’d say so.

****

Now for a better lesson in Jazz, and in what I’m hoping will lead to a theory of democracy (or already exists as one), take a listen to this Radio Open Source podcast with Donal Fox (Donal Fox: Bach to Monk).

What it makes clear is that the “fixed” is frozen and ultimately a dead letter (see Melville’s “Bartleby the Scrivener“–a study in copying and freedom) which is ungenerative.

*I should point out that this example comes to me courtesy of John Cusack’s film Grosse Pointe Blank, where the main character is an assassin who relates to his shrink that he dreams he’s the Energizer Bunny. The brilliant Alan Arkin plays the shrink and clues him in that he’s a soulless automaton doing the wind-up work of murder for hire.

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Douglas Storm is a host and producer for Interchange on Bloomington, Indiana's community radio station WFHB. "Why then do you try to 'enlarge' your mind? Subtilize it..."

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