Whiplash: The Cost of Dreams
*Spoilers for the film Whiplash follow*
All of us, at some time or another, have had to grapple with the fact that we are not going to get exactly what we want in life, and instead of trying to bend the world to our will, we must find the courage and grace to accept the reality of life. Sadly that process usually requires us to discard our immaculate, fanciful dreams in favor of newer, more realistic ones. While it’s certainly a painful process, it’s what ultimately makes us human and guides us to be the people we are. You realize that you’ll never have a shot at going out with Channing Tatum or Scarlett Johansson, but it doesn’t matter, because the guy or girl in your chemistry class is pleasant enough to spend time with. Perhaps you won’t get that highly-coveted promotion, but the position you currently hold is paying the bills and offers you a chance to make something of yourself, so what’s the use in fretting over being passed over?
In essence, most of us do a good job at honoring the simple things in life, but every once in a while there comes that obstinate soul. The one who shouts, “No! I don’t care how long it takes or how much I have to sacrifice, I will achieve what I want in life!” The one who will stop at nothing to ensure that their dreams are fully realized. The one whom when life gives them lemons, they throw them back and ask for chocolate. Andrew Neyman and Terence Fletcher (played by Miles Teller and J.K. Simmons respectively) are two examples of such people, and the relationship they form in the 2014 drama Whiplash is at once mesmerizing, volatile, inspiring, and parasitic. In other words, it’s paradoxical on virtually every level, and it’s a wholly original twist on the classic apprentice/mentor narrative.
The story (at least for the first twenty minutes or so) is set up to be like any run-of-the-mill dreamer movie. Young Andrew is a freshman jazz student at the Shaffer Conservatory in New York. He idolizes the legendary drummer Buddy Rich and aspires to one day be as skillful, if not better than, him. He has a loving relationship with his father (played by Paul Reiser) who’s been his only parental figure ever since his mother ran out on the both of them. On Fridays they go to the local art-house theater to catch the newest indie/foreign film. But while the father is only interested in the movie, Andrew takes full advantage of the opportunity to see and speak to Nicole (played by Melissa Benoist), the pretty theater attendant. It takes some time, but Andrew eventually steps up to the plate and asks her out. She says yes, and the foundation for their relationship is established. And when he isn’t with either of them, he spends his time devoting himself to his third (or, one could argue, his only true) love: drumming.
Needless to say, Andrew has a lot of good things going for him. He has a doting father, a caring girlfriend, and a passion to pursue. By all accounts, he should be happy given that he has so many meaningful things in his life, but the fact of the matter is that he isn’t. If anything, the one thing that keeps him from feeling a genuine sense of contentment is his desire to be, as he puts it, “one of the greats.” And the only man who can help him do that is Fletcher, the Conductor of Shaffer’s most prestigious jazz band. After listening to Andrew practice a couple times, Fletcher invites him to be a part of his troupe as alternative to the core drummer.
Within minutes of his first day, Andrew finds himself both excited by his prospects and repelled by how the class is run. The classmates treat one another with little to no respect, and in due time, it becomes apparent that their coarse behavior towards one another stems from Fletcher’s abusive nature. As they begin warming-up, Fletcher notices that one of the trombone players isn’t playing well. He asks all of them to play a note, and when he discovers who the out of tune player is, he immediately berates him and removes him from the class. As the student departs, Fletcher reveals that he wasn’t the one who was out of tune, it was the student next to him. Still, in his mind, the student he kicked out deserved to be removed because he couldn’t tell that he was in tune.
During the mid-class break, he approaches Andrew and tells him that although he lost his temper, the purpose of the course is to teach students how to play well while having a measure of fun at the same time. Andrew nods, smiles, and discards the morning’s drama as being a minor slip up on the teacher’s part. When the class reconvenes, Fletcher allows Andrew to have a crack at the drums. The band plays, and for a while everything seems fine, until Andrew rushes a single note. Fletcher asks him to try again, but then Andrew drags it. Fletcher asks again; he rushes. Again. He drags. Again. He rushes. And so on and so on, until in a fit of rage, Fletcher hurls a folding chair at Andrew’s head, missing him by inches. He charges the young drummer and slaps him across the face, asking whether he’s rushing or dragging the slaps. Obviously, Fletcher is a hardass, and a cunning one a that. By the end of the period, he’s successfully managed to reduce Andrew to tears.
And yet he shows up for class the next day. He endures more of the same, and returns the next day. This is more than a football coach demanding that his players run some extra laps, or a math teacher asking her students to finish a set of complicated equations before they go to lunch. This is a man who punishes the slightest infraction with foul, caustic language and threats of physical violence while rewarding dedication and genuine skill with manipulative comments like, “You can be doing better,” or, “You’re not half as good as so-and-so.” How is it, then, that a man as wicked and vulgar as Fletcher can get his students to both stay in his class and strive for greatness?
The answers are varied and range between the biological, the psychological, and the emotional. In his novel Living a Life That Matters, Rabbi Harold Kushner suggests the idea that men have a drive towards competition and success that is comparatively higher than women because men lack the precious ability to bring forth life, so they in turn must find passions to devote themselves to in order to establish themselves as creators. This proposition has a lot of merit; if you look carefully, you’ll notice that Fletcher’s band is only comprised of males, so if we run with Kushner’s idea, the students stay because they’re willing to put up with any kind of treatment so long as they have a shot at giving their life purpose and meaning, in this case by being in Shaffer’s best band. But while that may account for the inherent distrust among the students, it seems a bit unsatisfactory to claim that that is the only reason that they’d allow themselves to be mocked and pushed to the point of physical exhaustion.
Perhaps it has to do with the apprentice/mentor dynamic, and how Fletcher more or less intimidates his students to the point where they find themselves wanting to stay in the class lest they incur his wrath. Because of his iron fist routine, many film critics have drawn comparisons between Simmons’ conductor and R. Lee Ermey’s merciless Gunnery Sergeant Hartman seeing as how both characters stripped their pupils of any individuality until they became loyal subordinates (Mark Kermode even went so far as to refer to Whiplash as Full Metal Hi-Hat). But while it’s certainly true that Hartman is unsparing in his malice, there is still a major difference between him and Fletcher.
In regards to the salty drill sergeant, the abuse was certainly present, but it was also a part of his job. Hartman’s aspiring Marines were going off to war, where they risked the very real chance of losing their lives, so it stands to reason that he’d want them to experience a heightened state of intensity and teach them that the slightest mistake can end in their death or the death of their comrades (frankly, I’ve never thought of Sgt. Hartman as a villain. An exceedingly cruel bastard? Yes. But not a villain). Moreover, it isn’t as though Hartman is the only drill sergeant to display such distasteful behavior in a film. From Jarhead‘s D.I. Fitch to An Officer and a Gentleman‘s Sgt. Emil Foley, the character of the tough-as-nails training officer has always been an iconic image of strict discipline and harsh authority. Even Marine Drill Instructors in real life are vicious and ill-tempered.
One could very well question whether or not such maltreatment actually manifests itself in combat proficiency, but that’s a completely different subject. The point, in regards to this piece, is that Drill Instructors can at the very least justify their actions on the grounds that they’re training adult men and women to enter the most dangerous places on earth. What’s the most dangerous thing a jazz band is going to do? Cross the street on the way to the local music hall? Think of it this way; if tomorrow a newspaper article revealed that a Drill Instructor called a recruit a “faggot” and slapped him across the face, you’d probably find it to be unseemly conduct, but typical of the environment in which it occurred. If, however, the story was about a jazz conductor who did the exact same things to one of his students, you’d be appalled at the instructor’s lack of decorum. Chances are there’d be an investigation, it’d hit national headlines, and mobs of people would form and chant for the resignation and possible arrest of the teacher. Basically, it’s a bit redundant to call a drill instructor mean. The same cannot be said about teachers. Therefore it’s difficult to argue that Fletcher simply hypnotized his students into staying with him precisely because his behavior was so nasty. If anything, we’d expect him to find his class completely empty one day.
So if we set aside the idea that men feel a desperate need to succeed, as well as the idea that Fletcher’s students suffered from Stockholm Syndrome, what is left to justify Andrew’s willingness to stay in Fletcher’s class? As it turns out, the answer may very well have come from Fletcher himself. Towards the end of the movie, Andrew, no longer a student at Shaffer, walks into a cafe where his ex-teacher is playing the piano (the two had a physical conflict which resulted in Andrew’s expulsion and Fletcher’s resignation). After the performance, Fletcher asks Andrew for a moment of his time, and the two discuss their tumultuous relationship. Andrew asks Fletcher why he was so callous towards his students, and Fletcher responds with this:
I don’t think people understand what it was I was doing at Shaffer. I wasn’t there to conduct. Any fucking moron can wave his arms and keep people in tempo. I was there to push people beyond what was expected of them. I believe that is an absolute necessity… There are no two words in the English language more dangerous than “good job.”
Andrew asks if there isn’t a line that can’t be crossed? Students need to be challenged, that’s a given, but if they are pushed too far, won’t Fletcher end up discouraging the next great musician from becoming the next great musician? Fletcher, adamant to the end, says no because the next great musician would never give up, no matter how badly he’s treated. Thus we realize something that we never fully acknowledged; as awful as Fletcher is, no one can accuse him of forcing Andrew to stay. Moreover, a great deal of the pain that Andrew suffered was self-inflicted.
He, not Fletcher, was the one who started an argument with his uncle, insulted his cousins, and claimed that he doesn’t see the “use” in having friends over what was supposed to be a nice family dinner. He was the one who left his father hanging on the weekends in order to practice his solos until his hands grew blisters that oozed blood and pus. And it was he who decided to break-up with Nicole, claiming that she’d only leech away time better spent studying music. If anything, Andrew is just as much a culprit in his own self-destruction as Fletcher is, and while it could certainly be argued that Fletcher was the catalyst, Andrew was ultimately the one who chose to give up everything that really mattered in his life in exchange for the prestige that he so desired. The truly heartbreaking moment of the movie, however, does not come until the last fifteen minutes.
At the end of their chat, Fletcher invites Andrew to a jazz competition in the hopes of fully reconciling their differences. Andrew agrees, but once there, finds that Fletcher is sticking it to him again by conducting a piece that Andrew had never practiced. After the end of the song, Andrew gets up and heads for the exit where his father is waiting for him. They embrace, and for a moment we think that’s it; Andrew has had enough of Fletcher’s crap and is finally throwing in the towel. But he doesn’t. He turns around, retakes his seat, and starts playing a song without Fletcher’s guidance. He plays it flawlessly, and much to our surprise, Fletcher is actually smiling. We see the unity of talent and pedagogy, and because of this union, there is no more hierarchy; Andrew has reached the plane of talent that Fletcher wanted him to, and Fletcher, in turn, gives Andrew the respect he wants. By all accounts this should be a happy moment, but it’s tainted by Andrew’s father, who doesn’t see a student reaching his potential, but an indoctrinated servant who has followed his master’s orders all the way to the end. And so our emotions are ultimately split, because while we may share in Andrew’s elation at having become one of the greats, we also feel his father’s revulsion at having to witness the cost of becoming one of the greats.
This is where we reach the movie’s uncomfortable moral; to pursue one’s dreams so heedlessly, so ruthlessly, is one of the most selfish, ignoble things that a person can do. Bear in mind, this isn’t meant to suggest that Whiplash is a “be careful what you wish for because you might get it” narrative. Those kind of stories are either about 1.) Characters who desire something that’ll inevitably be inferior to their preconceived notions or 2.) Characters who desire something that’ll harm themselves or others. This film does address elements of the latter, but it’s mature enough to completely disregard the former. If anything, there is an ecstasy that comes in getting what you want, and at least some of the time, people do get what they want.
What is necessary to realize is that pursuing dreams invites a sort of relational segregation, which is to say a separation occurs between people who help us achieve our goals (good) and people who get in the way (bad). Both Andrew and Fletcher have a symbiotic relationship that revolves solely around their passions, and ultimately those passions don’t require the presence of family or friends. In fact, to people like Andrew and Fletcher, family and friends would simply obstruct their path to achievement. It is interesting, then, to note that in spite of all their quarreling, Andrew and Fletcher are actually quite alike, and in some ways, they need one another. Without Fletcher, Andrew would’ve never learned what it took to be one of the greats, and without Andrew, Fletcher would’ve never had someone to make great. Of course, the question that the audience is left with is was it worth it? Was the cost of their dreams too high, or was it just enough?
In his novel Man’s Search for Meaning, the Viennese psychiatrist Dr. Viktor Frankl makes the following suggestion to his readers:
Don’t aim at success. The more you aim at it and make it a target, the more you are going to miss it. For success, like happiness, cannot be pursued; it must ensue, and it only does so as the unintended side effect of one’s personal dedication to a cause greater than oneself or as the by-product of one’s personal surrender to a person other than oneself… Then you will live to see that in the long run -in the long run, I say!- success will follow you precisely because you had forgotten to think about it.
This is a lovely idea, and it’s a shame that some people disregard it on the grounds that success must always be the goal, no matter what. I imagine such people would probably claim that Whiplash is ultimately a story of triumph in the face of adversity, to which I would ask that they take the following into consideration. Andrew and Fletcher both pursued and attained the success they wanted, there’s no debating that. And many other film characters that came before them have done the same. Nina Sayers got the lead part in Black Swan. Riggan Thomson became a Broadway star in Birdman. Lou Bloom began his own video production company in Nightcrawler. And Antonio Salieri outlived his rival, Mozart, in Amadeus. Every single one of them saw their dreams come true. But it’s vital to remember that they did so by driving themselves irreparably insane.
What do you think? Leave a comment.