Oct. 14 2014 06:51 PM

Damien Chazelle's Sundance winner glamorizes the monster it wishes to critique

J.K. Simmons (right) assaults Miles Teller.

In Whiplash, Damien Chazelle's Sundance winner that proudly glamorizes horrendous teaching methods, educators are either brutal manipulators or spineless bystanders. Professor Terence Fletcher (J.K. Simmons) falls squarely in the first category, dishing out vitriol to his students at a posh New York City conservatory in order to push them closer to greatness. Using tried-and-true educational tools such as homophobia, racism and psychological abuse, Fletcher dominates nearly every scene with a loud vivaciousness, bullying students relentlessly through a series of calculated interruptions. 

Yet his extreme behavior is respected, even admired by Chazelle's adoring camera. Look no further than the near-omniscient opening shot that equates the film's angry point of view with Fletcher's seamless rage. As promising first-year student Andrew Neyman (Miles Teller) practices on a drum kit in a cavernous room, the camera glides down the hallway as if it were a shark swimming toward blood. Seconds later, Fletcher looms over Andrew like the grim reaper, verbally poking him in what will be the first of many lopsided sparring matches. Amazingly, Whiplash never admonishes such troubling power dynamics, lingering on the suffering victim alongside Fletcher, enjoying the moment when a young person's confidence withers away for good.

This motif represents one of Whiplash's most heinous offenses regarding the subject of mentorship. Chazelle gleefully turns the safe confines of a classroom into a battleground, a place as unnerving as the public stage where Fletcher's studio band competes against New York City's other music schools for bragging rights. During one awful extended sequence, Fletcher throws a chair directly at Andrew's head for failing to reach the right tempo during practice. The moment is meant to shock the audience into submission, but it instead reveals Chazelle as a purveyor of cheap emotional tricks.

Complementing these physical threats are verbal barbs sharpened to hit each student's weaknesses without remorse. Fletcher uses public embarrassment as a way to ensure his own relevance, something he passes on to Andrew as the film progresses. A student who quotes Charlie Parker to prove his seriousness, misguided Andrew worries just as much about becoming invisible and forgotten by the world. Andrew's stunted relationship with a young woman (Melissa Benoist) proves how delusional he becomes when confronting his own artistic process. Emotional connections are simply distractions, and instead of attempting to convey this information through subtext, Chazelle's simplistic script spends an entire scene saying it out loud simply to prove Fletcher's impact on the young disciple.

Blunt-force trauma is Chazelle's specialty, and during the film's ludicrous final moments, he goes all in. Literalizing the epic standoff between teacher and student by way of a bloody drum solo, Whiplash takes pleasure in watching one bully compete against another for our attention. Edited to death by a series of jarring cuts, the sequence affirms its characters' arrogance and need to relish in their own musical ability, a situation that successfully wipes away any other perspective. In the end, this trite recital is meant to pummel the audience into a false sense of self-congratulation. Considering how many smart critics and festival audiences have fallen for this con of a movie, it's seemingly worked wonders in doing so.

One could surmise that, on paper, Whiplash—which opens Friday, Oct. 17, at Hillcrest Cinemas—is going for critique: Such raging-bull teaching tactics shatter dreams instead of build them up. Yet every garish moment is played for laughs, rendered to highlight Simmons' evil persona and the shame splattered on his victim's faces. Chazelle capitalizes on the egregious and profound impact that Fletcher's brutality has on Neyman, turning the film into a hollow revenge narrative that ultimately proves that these methods have credence. 

Far worse than your run-of-the-mill incompetent blockbuster, Whiplash knowingly poisons the groundwater and forces its audience to drink from the well.

Write to glennh@sdcitybeat.com and editor@sdcitybeat.com.


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