Saturday, December 20, 2014

Little Drummer Boy

A superhero always doubles down on his value set. You can rely on Peter Parker to put the mask back on even if he's decided to be Spider-Man No More. And the inevitable question is always, is he just doing this for himself? Or is he just trying to sustain a personal brand?

Whiplash, a movie about a shy boy from a broken family, bitten by a radioactive band director and thus imbued with the powers of a great jazz drummer, is no different. The plot builds towards a statement on the relationship between power and responsibility: can you be a superhero and also just be regular teenager? Just how much space can you afford to give your alter ego before your hero work starts to slip? And how's a nice, gifted white kid supposed to cope in a world so full of confusion and mediocrity? The answer to that last question is obvious before we even see our Peter Parker, pretty much from the first audio cue of the movie: you double down on your value set. You become Great. And if you have to drop Gwen Stacy off a bridge yourself, so be it. 

Most of the movie follows Peter Parker, whose pseudonym here is Andrew Neyman, as he works himself toward greatness: dragging his bed into a practice room, offending his friends and relatives (his cousin is on Carleton College's famously mediocre football squad), breaking up with his girlfriend (she hadn't decided on a major yet, so fuck her), and working himself into a spasmodic frenzy in practice sessions. He plays double-time swing at 330 BPM, for example, until drops of blood fly from his blisters and pool poetically on the white snare head. Finally, at the end, through some plot devices, with everybody who ever loved him alienated or forgotten, he finds the recognition he's always wanted onstage at Carnegie Hall and ends the movie on a hard cut to black.

In the interim the movie behaves exactly like every other in the supra-Hollywood edifice of American prestige pictures. Like a conservatory, it's misogynistic, airless, and humorless. Miles Teller's performance is rote naturalism and the only person who seems like he's having any fun is J.K. Simmons. The atmosphere is halfway between the self-importance of Black Swan and the self-importance of The Social Network. Technically the movie is a funhouse of film school tricks: tightening the shot to induce claustrophobia, heating up the lighting a few kelvins so you feel Andrew sweat, switching to handheld after the ridiculous truck accident to induce a feeling of disorientation. Few of these techniques are well-integrated; in particular, the slick editing during rehearsal scenes, which cuts like a music video along with Andrew's drumming, feels like it's grasping at hipness, like a professor of jazz studies doing an arrangement of a Hozier song. Spidey's wisecracks can't conceal the boy beneath the mask.

Whiplash, for all its bluster, is inarticulate, self-conscious, and bound by convention. This is true of every teenage superhero; it's also true of every mediocre elite-sanctioned art form, from Alessandro Algardi's busts to Dave Brubeck's music. The thing that makes Whiplash an exemplary specimen, though, is that unlike most Oscar bait it's essentially a college application essay. 

It isn't just a movie about a young jazz drummer at an elite conservatory, it's a movie written and directed by debutant filmmaker Damien Chazelle, born 1985, who a) played jazz drums in high school and b) went on to graduate from Harvard. Whiplash isn't really a naturalistic look at the world of jazz, nor is it an allegory for the position of the artist in our society. It's a movie about Damien Chazelle's alter ego, who never gave up jazz drumming and went on to become Great. And, ut pictura poesis, it's also about Chazelle himself. The slick cutting I mentioned unites drumming and film technique. The correspondence between Chazelle's Harvard and Whiplash's Shaffer Conservatory unites the drummer with the unseen figure of the filmmaker. And so this movie about jazz drumming also becomes a movie about the history of its own creation.

With every beat Andrew drums the great and magisterial power of Damien Chazelle into existence; every step in his personal growth, every new leap in his confidence and ambition, serves to imbue Chazelle with legitimacy. At the end, when he cuts off both solo and film, uniting the drummer in control of his band and the director in control of his set, he has affirmed his own talent and the talent of an immense and terrible new auteur, and affirmed by the same coin their respective places in history. 

Affirming your own talent is what you do for a living when you share Chazelle's class and values. I mentioned in my article on Lorde that for an ambitious white kid from the suburbs, talent is about being a showoff. High school and early college are where you find the profit motive at its most sublimated and also its most naked. In every college interview and every high school piano recital, talent is not demonstrated by the steady production of excellent work but by projecting Greatness at all times. It's about bombarding people with the evidence of your genius until they finally believe it. In a word, it's about branding.

Both Andrew and Damien Chazelle are essentially marketing themselves throughout the movie. Neither has anything in particular to express with his art, nor does either seem interested in any broader artistic discourse (Andrew has no favorite drummers except for Buddy Rich, a known replicant). In their preening superficiality they resemble nothing more than Spinal Tap. Their aesthetic philosophy is as shapeless as capitalism itself, with the same underlying values: it doesn't matter what you do, as long as you do it more, bigger and louder than anyone else. It could be drumming or it could be film. Chipotle or McDonald's. LucasFilm or Marvel. Spiderman or Batman.

Whiplash is a bad movie, but it's worth an anthropological look if only because it represents some kind of inflection point in this great cultural hyperbola. Every piece of art has to do some work to justify its own existence, but if Whiplash couldn't congratulate itself then it wouldn't exist at all. The whole thing is a tautology, a commercial for itself, a smug ouroboros patting itself on its scaly tail and occasionally licking its own unmentionables. Andrew's apotheotic drum solo is, in the words of the Chicago Reader's J.R. Jones, "one of those horrible, endless jerk-off solos that give jazz a bad name", and the movie is doing very little else but jerking along with it. 

People keep going to Lincoln Center, though, and Damien Chazelle has positioned his brand extremely well with Whiplash. Thousands of shy boys in the suburbs will be bitten by his radioactive movie and become imbued with the powers of great artists. It's their gift, their curse.

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