A cursory glance at this year’s Oscar nominations reveals a surprising cluster (The Theory of Everything, The Imitation Game, Birdman, Whiplash) around the idea of the genius haunted by inner demons and/or ostracized by different social norms. While the Imitation Game and The Theory of Everything are biographical movies cum messages of tolerance, Birdman represents more of a consumerist critique (in my viewing) with a quasi-Marxist alienation message. Whiplash shares with Birdman a concern for relativization of artistic value (and morals) as the protagonist abruptly argues that a music competition is not subjective, but delves more deeply into an unresolved right-of-passage-type story centered around an outwardly average protagonist and a mentor who straddles the insanity of an art-for-the-sake-of-art type genius and mundane (job-related concerns). What is thorny is that he is a teacher at the most prestigious music school in the state and it is exactly here that the discussion starts.
Andrew Neyman, 19 years, is a regular student at Shafer Conservatory practicing his double-time swing on the drums. He gets spotted by the school’s highly respected Prof. Fletcher and so a winding right-of-passage seems to being with a gentle nudge as Fletcher hints to Neyman what and when to practice. The nudge soon turns into a whirlwind as we witness Fletcher’s top band being lead with an iron fist that by regular standards can be easily considered mental abuse. We see an intriguing combination of fast-paced tempo, unintended consequences (as Neyman simply loses the lead drummer’s sheet music in perfect timing so that his blood-stained practice sessions come to fruition) and Fletcher as something in between a teacher aware of market hardships (he does not intend to lose his high standing among music schools) and a protector of artistic perfection. Fletcher lies about a former student committing suicide and his mental hazing seems undaunted, yet the effect is eerie – in the guise of an average student, Neyman seems to silently share some of Fletcher deep love for “purist” art hence he drops the chance of love (“This is not that kind of movie!” as the recent brilliant Kingsman parody tells us), but continues to paddles through the psychological hazings as he sees a sort of a father-figure in Fletcher.
The climax – Neyman nearly dies in a car accident but races to prove Fletcher his worth and for the first time makes the teacher fail in his precious competitions. The illusion is shattered and the school prosecutes and fires Fletcher as Neyman unwillingly accepts to just “say what you’ll tell me to say”. Although the movie tries to steer clear of it, fate seems to intervene as Neyman stumbles into Fletcher once more. The conversation is most illuminating – Fletcher believes that greatness must be unlocked at any cost, that teachers can see deep into their students, but ultimately he has to contend that he has never really found one of those singular musical talents he strives for. Hence he sets Neyman up again – the concert is staged so that Andrew is seen failing by the most prestigious audience in their business. But be it revenge, be it the final unlocking of his talent Neyman comes back from his father’s embrace and “faces the music” with a blinding performance that none of the other band members can keep up with – “I’ll queue you in!”. Even Fletcher is taken aback and barely keeps up, but the final stare down reveals how underneath the dramatic tension the two characters were deeply in sync.
Education – singular talent vs mass-produced efficiency
Unlike the regular camaraderie that we see in movies about college, Shafer seems to run on competition. The smiles that tell Neyman “don’t touch my sheets!” are not friendly banter, they are deeply acid. The lingering sense would be to attribute this to Fletcher (as Neyman’s initial band seems to be more jovial), but there is more to it – Neyman is the youngest member hence is still somewhat sheltered from “entering the real world of jobs and markets”. The typical comparisons are made as the family members are fantastically proud of a third-division football result and a model UN acceptance, but ask Neyman whether any band guarantees a job.
The picture is murky, which makes the movie more life-like than most, as Fletcher dismisses a student that is not out of tune, but thought so, keeping the real culprit in the picture. Beyond the “special” relationship with Neyman (against whom any kind of test is legitimate according to Fletcher), the band seems to be submit to an iron fist, but not one that is beyond limits – those who Fletcher does not see as singular talents must be pushed hard because the life of average musicians is hard. The band is extremely successful by itself (we only see it fail with Neyman) and seems capable of living with an iron-fist type teacher. The regular standards of democratic teaching can be bent because the liberal-democratic market is not “fair” and students must be able to cope with it. Artistic perfection for the market is measurable in competitions and technique. Without Neyman this seems to be a well oiled machine and there seems to be nothing different from a regular non-arts school.
What sets this movie apart is that Neyman unbalances this equation without necessarily being a type of meteoric talent. Even more intriguingly the movie ends with Neyman’s personal realization – he lives up to Fletcher, but the hint is that out of school he will ultimately not be “one of the greats” like he wishes. The obvious message would be that mass-produced education does not cope with high talents, but perhaps the more nuanced idea is that mass-produced education can perhaps give false impressions about efficiency and success. The sense we are given is that Fletcher is wrong – he correctly identifies above average students yet not the singular talents he thinks they are, and his tests are too much (disproving his idea that huge talents never quit), which given the fact that he is atop his profession raises serious questions about the system itself.
This is not to diminish perhaps the own personal demons of Fletcher as we are not given any glimpse into his past. But we are shown that he thrives off teaching and he is less passionate about his own piano bar concert than first imaginable. The more general hazing directed at other drummers does not however have the personal tunes it has against Neyman (comments on his mother leaving clearly show that), which strengthens the previous idea – mass-produced education is not tailored for singular talents, so much so that it misidentifies and/or stifles them through over-expectation.
Fletcher’s artistic crusade costs almost two lives and almost certainly two careers. The reverse of the coin is that we are not told what happens to the rest of the “mediocre” (by Fletcher’s standard) band. The subtle hint is however that there are deep mismatches between the education system and the market – Fletcher clings to jazz music that even in his case with an established career and implied above-average talent generates bar concerts, yet this is not due to “musical quality lowering” as he implies but simply because times change. Democracy breed openness which fosters this change, the subtle hint being that the education system has a hard time coping.
Picture Source: NewYorker