Friday, October 10, 2014

Whip It Good

"The brain is hard-wired to distrust creativity," Derek Thompson informs us in his Atlantic article, "Why Experts Reject Creativity."  Psychologists know that any kind of change, anything new, involves a degree of uncertainty, which gives rise to anxiety.  Which is why dysfunctional relationships, especially families, often remain in what we call homeostasis.  Be ever so awful, there's no place like home.  

Thompson cites research that shows that the way to introduce something new in any field is to couch it in something familiar.  "In Hollywood, the 'high-concept' pitch offers a useful example....To grab their attention, writers often frame original ideas as a fresh combination of existing ideas.  'It's Groundhog Day meets War of the Worlds!'  Or 'It's Transformers on the ocean!'"

So, writer-director Damien Chazelle's film Whiplash (named after a song rehearsed in the film--the music by Justin Hurwitz is terrific) might be described as Rocky in the arena of jazz drumming, or Rocky meets The Great Santini or Full Metal Jacket, with Miles Teller playing an Iowa Bob inspired get-obsessed-and-stay-obsessed drummer who aspires to be the next Buddy Rich, and who meets his mentor and tormentor in the form of a music school teacher played with ferocious intensity by J. K. Simmons (below right).  

The movie has the dark, greenish palette of a David Fincher film, (kudos to cinematographer Sharone Meir). It was shot in just 19 days and edited in 10 weeks (with razor-sharp cutting by Tom Cross). Considering that this is only the second feature from 29-year-old Chazelle (he made a jazz musical in 2009 called Guy and Madeline on a Park Bench), it's a truly impressive piece of work, directed with exceptional craft, style, and passion.

Whiplash has a familiar frame with  common tropes, but Chazelle manages not only to subvert (or perhaps exceed) outcomes when the expected plot points occur, but he relentlessly amps up the intensity, so much so that we think the film can't possibly continue to top itself.  But then we get to the climax and, well, it is orgasmic.  At the screening I attended, the film got a standing ovation, and everyone seemed wrung out and flushed...and thrilled.

Chazelle (above) revealed post screening that the film was based on his own high school experience as a drummer (although the movie is set in what can only be a stand in for Julliard).  He recalled that every day that he went to music class he would feel a "mounting dread," and that rehearsal was like "going to war."  Hence his decision to make a "music movie as if it had been a war movie."  He wanted to show how lonely being a musician can be, and also how drumming is "abstract, like mathematics." He said that, in high school, he would practice 6 hours a day until his hands bled.  And you can bet that Miles Teller's character's hands bleed a lot in the film.

Aside from the fact that drumming involves hitting and banging, Chazelle views jazz itself as having an "undercurrent of hostility"; he also said he feels that "conflict is a big part of jazz."   In Whiplash, that conflict is in our faces in the sparring between Teller and Simmons. These are, respectively, career-making and career-capping performances from the actors.

Just go see it.  As reviewer Brad Brevet put it, auteur Chazelle turns the volume up not just to eleven, "but he breaks the damned thing off."

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