First off, Whiplash is an awesome movie. I loved how different the story was, and I thought the casting was very apt (Paul Reiser as the dad is just perfect). I actually liked JK Simmons more in ‘Burn After Reading‘… but he’s still – perfect for this role. Miles Teller held down the role as the main character and made it believable and honest.
It wasn’t all that enjoyable (for reasons that might become clearer below) except for the last few scenes… but it was a great movie and I highly recommend it – whether you like drums and drumming / music-related films in general or not.
I came away thinking that there are basically 4 categories of human aptitude/ability:
4- the hypothetical exceptional.
If you were to plot some kind of histogram for the above categories, in my extremely lazy, textual, one-dimensional viz, it would be roughly like this:
And, whatever the sphere of human activity, it shades through a divergent scale running from connectedness with physical reality and lived experience (a sort of relateable-ness) at the left… through to more abstract, highly esoteric forms of expression at the right.
If we take the movie far more literally than could ever have been intended, the transition from g to e (good to exceptional) is where you would expect blood, sweat and tears. It’s round about where you would expect to weather some kind of physical trauma (or is it? Need there be blood at all, if there is the simple steady application of practise, instead of some mad rush to out-compete oneself? Genuinely don’t know the answer to this).
Then there is the transition from e to h (from exceptional to what I’m calling “the hypothetical exceptional”, in which the feats accomplished were mere hypotheticals just seconds earlier: Things that people would think near-impossible to do, until they witness the feat). This e-to-h transition is what the shamanically-inclined would recognize as an opportune moment for spiritual trauma. In more pedestrian terms, this is where your sanity or psyche probably gets put through the wringer.
So then I get to thinking, hmmm: “far out” exceptionalness – realms in which the accomplishments are purely hypothetical or almost hypothetical (perhaps achieved only a few times by a few members of the species) … this could demand a risk of both physical and finally mental injury – and not necessarily to the self, either: it can demand physical and mental/emotional injury to random others. Maybe even hordes of others. (Here I am thinking of a despotic tyrant driving slaves to build the Nth wonder of the world).
And so you get to thinking, hey: perhaps it requires a certain kind of mental instability or psychological deviance (or in the case of placing others in physical/mental harm’s way, outright psychopathy)… to achieve such extremes of exceptional-ness. Maybe, you have to be a little bit nuts to be exceptional.
You pays your money and you takes your choice
Mind you, we live in a culture that celebrates precisely such forms of psychoses-for-exceptionality rationales. It is no surprise to me that, at moments in the film when we should’ve been disappointed in certain aspects of human nature, there are instead chuckles around mouthfuls of popcorn because, once you have drunk the koolaid I just told you about, Whiplash really IS darkly funny.
To be fair, our achievements as a species did not come about by people balking at steep inclines or lofty goals. It did not come about by people being scared of a little blood sweat or tears or refraining from driving people to the very brink of utter degradation of mind, body and soul (and then giving them a good hard shove).
On the other hand, in many corners of the full spectrum of human existence, there are many people in the “good” range of talent in some sphere of activity who would kick all kinds of ass if they would only undergo the transmogrification needed to become exceptional, and then further tread uncharted waters to make once-hypothetical feats real. But then, I ask you to now consider, they may think it quite ‘insane’ (LITERALLY) to do so. Perhaps too, they look at that other continuum from concrete to abstract and decide that, to push the boundaries of an activity further is to render it more and more meaningless/pointless in some sense, however profound the technical mastery that underlies such extensions. Probably more often though, there is simply not the energy nor the endless spools of RAW TIME and resources to be spent honing one’s proficiency at a thing. (Which, come to think of it, means that apart from being a wee bit psychologically deviant, it might also help to have oodles of time to oneself… or be utterly devoid of dependents – or be just plain irresponsible even if you do have them).
And, were it not for the current penchant to digitally catalog both the most mundane and exceptional of human feats (YouTube, I’m looking at you!), I’m pretty sure History herself wasn’t going to be kind to any also-rans: they were going to be forgotten, and their works (and derivatives of these) were simply going to have to be remembered through those whom Nature found more willing to bleed a little. That’s a fair price to pay, don’t you think? For wanting to luxuriate in rooted, concrete connections to lived experience while enjoying the preservation of life and limb (and sanity)? What isn’t quite so fair though, is the collective amnesia that there is a tradeoff/choice, with both outcomes (stay good, vs become exceptional) having equal validity.
(Equal validity?! Some would beg to differ. If you can go from good to exceptional and beyond, some might argue that you should, and to not do so is to rob the world of the gifts God wants to give them, through you.
Are there ever times when being good (or even mediocre) is ‘good enough’? With our mediascape so peppered with pinnacles of achievement and the psychotic performance of reaching pinnacles, you gotta wonder.
If you’ve seen Whiplash, you might be saying to yourself after reading all this, ‘So… is she saying that the lead character is mentally unstable/irresponsible and that even their redeeming drum solo at the end is too technically abstract to be meaningful?’
Woah! Absolutely not. Mind you; it could easily have been: The producers of this film weren’t going to you know, NOT pick jazz/swing as the delivery mechanism. No: I found the performances beautiful, musical, and utterly connected to what provides ‘meaning’ in this particular realm of music. And all this was delivered because of the character’s incredible technical achievement. Yes, they could just as easily had him take all that technical mastery and deliver something utterly abstract, unintelligible to those not clutching a 4-year Masters degree in Jazz with a minor in Orchestral Influences on Death Metal. That was their right all along and they could have freely exercised it.
What I am saying though, is that like most (creative) pursuits, the drumkit is to be enjoyed: if slaving over it is your personal prerequisite for enjoyment, that’s great; do you. But, almost implicit by omission in the movie, there are sides of drumming that are NOT about technical mastery. You don’t need insane levels of technique (not to mention physical stamina) for music therapy, for self expression, for acquiring a basic sense of rhythm, for discovering your baseline levels of coordination/limb isolation, discovering how you learn, discovering how you hear and process music, for bonding with other musicians, as a vehicle for forays into different cultures and their musical traditions and dances… you get the general idea.
Having said all that, this film will cause any rhythmically-inclined person to leave the movie-theatre going OH MY GOD WHERE ARE MY DRUMSTICKS GIVE ME MY FKN DRUMSTICKS GOD DAMMIT WHERE ARE MY DRUMS I CAN’T WAIT TO GET ON THEM MAN LIKE RIGHT NOW MAN I REALLY GOT START FKN PRACTICING SHIT!!!!