Whiplash. R. 107 minutes. Directed by Damien Chazelle. Starring Miles Teller, J.K. Simmons, Melissa Benoist. Drama/Music. Released January 16, 2014.
I was thinking for a few days the best way to start this review and I couldn’t think of it. I was trying to think of clever lines to say and metaphors. But the problem with trying to pretend to be clever is that it never works out. Most nights I can be found at the gym, not the “lift-things-up-put-them-down” gym. But a fighter’s gym of grappling and boxing. I walk in to the gym and into the locker room, which is normally full of all sorts of talk and banter one would expect from a bunch of fighters—this night, however, I walked in and there was one kid standing around who is training to be a fighter, lingering until there was a lull in the busyness of the locker-room where he could be almost alone with one of the coaches. I heard him ask:
“Am…am I in trouble from earlier?” I watched as the coach had to stop and think a minute.
“Oh, why? Because I yelled at you?”
“Yeah? You seemed upset.”
“It’s my job as your coach to prepare you for your fight, and if you talk back to me acting as if you’re going to teach me something I don’t know, then I’ll yell at you. You go in there with my name as your coach and the name of this gym. I have to make sure you’re set for it. So if you tell me you don’t need to work a specific move because you never plan to be in that position in the fight, then I will put you in that position every time. Until you can defend it. You’re not in trouble, but if you don’t work I’m going to yell at you.”
And the kid walked out with his shoulders hunched and his head down. And some of the older coaches and fighters were saying how some of the students just don’t understand it. And as I finished putting on my gear I said,
“The two most dangerous words in the English language are ‘Good job.’” Everyone agreed and wanted to remember the quote as if I’m some sort of poet, when really all I did was quote the movie Whiplash at them.
Whiplash is about an exclusive music conservatory in New York City and the students there. The movie centers around Andrew Neiman as he aspires to be a great jazz drummer. One of the best there ever was. A dream, we learn, that people around him don’t quite understand, including his dad and his new girlfriend. They struggle to understand his drive and just how much he is willing to sacrifice in literal blood, sweat, and tears to become what he wants to be: Great. We see him practice to keep time like a Swiss watch and do so while playing so fast his hands blister and bleed. And then he bandages them up and goes again until he bleeds through the bandages. He alienates the people closest to him, with little remorse. And the man driving this train wreck of obsession is the conservatory’s most grueling and challenging conductor, Terence Fletcher. A teacher who walks the line between leader and monster. Genius and sociopath. Early in the film we see him make students cry, and we see him kick a member out of the band, not for playing out of tune—but simply because the kid couldn’t tell that he wasn’t the one playing out of tune. Is it better to be feared or respected? Fletcher does not care, as long as he gets the music exactly as it should be. His rehearsals start so on time, down to the second, with such promptness that the Swiss watch Andrew strives to be would be jealous. Foul-mouthed, disrespectful, insulting, and horrible. Yet every student would kill a family member just to be a backup in his band. He doesn’t tolerate anything short of perfection. We see him throw chairs at students, slap them in the face time after time just to keep better time.
I don’t want to give away anymore plot points than that or the turn of events—these things shouldn’t be given away in a review. It is the little movie that could, being, to my understanding, the lowest grossing movie ever to be nominated for an Oscar. J.K. Simmons easily, easily won his Best Supporting Actor Oscar for his performance of Terence Fletcher. Playing the roll in such a way that he is horrible, and you don’t sympathize with him at all. And you don’t like him at all. You’re scared of him. But you, as the viewer, respect him. You see this genius in him. And you don’t hate him. Even though it is clear that he has no heart. And like all great movies, the story is simple. Simple as can be. But the characters are complex.
So what drives Fletcher? He wants to inspire greatness. He wants to push an ordinary student to be great, because that’s how Charlie Parker became great. No praise, no encouragement. Just fire and challenge. And his philosophy that the two most dangerous words in the English language are “good job.” The thinking is that if you can’t take the pressure, push past it…if you need encouragement, then you’re not one of the greats and you were never meant to be.
This is where I struggle, because I don’t feel that I fall too far from thinking like Fletcher. And I am not saying that is a good thing and I am not saying I am right in thinking this—I’m conflicted by this. I heard a great quote the other day that said the same boiling water that softens a potato also hardens an egg. It’s not the circumstances but what you are made of. I love that quote. And that is one of the reasons I relate to the character of Fletcher.
I have no problem at all saying an encouraging word. But it is true that compliments and “good jobs” don’t come easily from me. Probably because whereas the Bible talks a countless number of times about encouraging our brothers, I tend to focus on the passage of iron sharpening iron. I think of this and I don’t see a nice, encouraging process. To my understanding it is a harsh process. Heating to a breaking point, and hammering it with a harder object, then slamming it repeatedly with a harder object. It doesn’t get sharper with good jobs, just as you can’t encourage an egg to get harder.
So in that respect I am a tough coach. Because I like tough coaching. Yes, if I am at the gym and I am training with a coach and after the match they go, “You feel good man, you’re getting good. Keep it up.” Yes, that feels good. I admit that fully. But that doesn’t inspire me as much as when the roll is done and I am trying to get blood flowing back to my brain or I am shaking out my arm because I got shoulder locked and the coach goes, “What is wrong with you? You’re rolling like a sack of crap. You’re not a white belt anymore, start acting like it.” And it slams my pride, but I accept it. I see they are right. And I know I have to try harder. So in turn I find myself in the same place. The guy that lazy fighters avoid because I will get mad at them for being lazy, “be lazy on your own time”—when people tell me they need a break to rest—”Does your chest hurt? Do you feel faint? No? Then keep going. Feeling like you are going to throw up is no excuse, just keep moving.” I don’t know if I am right in this matter. I know it helps me the most, but I also know that it makes people avoid telling me things. But if you care, you want to sharpen, right? Even in writing people know that for someone to just say, “Yes, I liked your story, it’s good,” means far less to me than, “It’s okay—but your characters flip flop and the story line isn’t anything new—you need to edit.” Or as my friend Bill put it to me, “Fail again, fail better.” I love comments like that. Because I want to be better than good at all the things I am passionate about. And I can’t wrap my mind around thinking outside of that.
Fail again. Fail better.
Man what a great quote. Maybe those are the four most useful words in the English language.
Is there such thing as too far? According to Fletcher, no there is not. Because no matter how far he was pushed, how rough the teacher, how mean the words, how many chairs were thrown at him, Charlie Parker would never quit, and that’s what made him great. And so to be as great as the next Charlie Parker and everyone after him, you would never quit either. So you could never push someone too far.
I don’t know if I share that same view on things. I think we live in a day and age with social networking that everyone seems to get softer like a potato when the water gets hot. Each selfie and achievement is full of validation and praise. No one is failing again or better because everyone is a winner now. Is all the iron getting rusty? What makes a great a great? Does Andrew just need a hug from his father, or does he need Fletcher pushing him till he breaks, until he fails again and fails better? Was Fletcher right or wrong? That is for the viewer to decide. The only thing I can say for certainty is that you don’t make a movie like Whiplash without first failing. And failing better.
If he could get paid to do nothing but train jiu-jitsu, yo-yo, read, and talk about baseball all day he would do it gladly. Because it is all he wants to do. All day long. Every day. But sadly he needs to stay employed. So to meet that requirement he works doing graphics and design in the marketing department of an engineering firm. He graduated with a degree in communications and a minor in Biblical Studies, all of which he wastes by collecting more books than he'll ever read. He is a writer who doesn't write as often as he should. Maybe he will. He's probably best described as a cross between a believer and some sort of mystic weirdo ever since someone taught him to look for God in everything he sees. Which as it turns out is always a blessing, but sometimes a curse. And his life hasn't been the same since. He still hates riding trains.