Tuesday, December 23, 2014

whiplash - romantic comedy

(A note: I have deliberately neglected this blog of mine on behalf of a much more regular one—The Groundhog Day Project. If you have not been following that blog and somehow still follow this one that I haven’t updated in a long ol’ time, well for a year, I watched Groundhog Day every day and blogged about it. Then, after that year was up, I continued the blog, switching movies every week—i.e. generally, I’ve been watching each movie seven times, blogging about that a well. There was an exception—in October, I watched a different slasher film every day. This past month—December, in case you’re reading this sometime in the future—I’ve been watching Christmas movies (Home Alone, Black Christmas, National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation and, starting tonight, A Christmas Story). It’s been a useful exercise in structure for my life and there’s been a therapeutic aspect to it as well—I’m working on a Master’s Thesis on that very subject, actually, using my own blog as one of my primary examples. The thing is, since I’ve been writing about first Groundhog Day every day and then other movies every day, I have neglected newer movies, when I have previously written reviews here and writeups about Oscar nominees. I’ve squeezed other movies into my Groundhog Day Project blog, even new ones—obvious ones like About Time or Edge of Tomorrow and less obvious ones like The Fault in Our Stars and her. I’ve squeezed older movies in, TV shows, books, and a whole lot of articles from periodicals and scholarly journals.

I would like to change all that. I don’t want to stop the other blog, but I would like to write in this one from time to time, write about new movies as well as older ones.)

Starting with Whiplash.

(Another note: I spent a month watching romantic comedies (When Harry Met Sally..., Moonstruck, The Mirror Has Two Faces and Pretty Woman). You’ll see why this matters in a moment.)

Whiplash is not a film for everyone. J.K. Simmons’ band leader is a complex mix of violence (mostly boiling just under the surface but occasionally coming up for air) and caring. Miles Teller’s drummer is a guy willing to give up just about every aspect of his life to be great—his ambition pushing him to the edge of unlikable. Both performances are amazing. Aside from the material—music and obsession—not being for everyone, there really isn’t anything wrong with the movie. Or there doesn’t seem to be. Someone who knows music better might see some discrepancies here or there between what is seen and what is heard, but I couldn’t tell if there was a problem there.

There are two things worth noting specifically in regards to Whiplash: visuals and structure.

Regarding visuals, during band performances there are the expected cuts to closeups of instruments playing, back and forth from player to player to band leader. The usual stuff. But, it is remarkable how the camera movements outside of those scenes also follow musical cues. During an early montage of shots of the city, for example, the camera pans down a building and as the music speeds up the camera speeds up, as the music slows, the camera slows. The cuts from cityscape shot to cityscape shot match the beats.

Structurally—and keep in mind that Whiplash is about an emotionally (and sometimes physically) abusive band leader and a college student who wants to be one of the great drummers—the film is like a romantic comedy. Fletcher (the band leader) and Andrew (drummer) meet when the former happens upon the latter playing drums. Andrew quits drumming abruptly and Fletcher asks why he quit and he starts up again. Stops and Fletcher asks if he told him to start again. The dynamic is established quickly with the mismatch of power, but it also works just like the “meet-cute” in any modern romantic comedy. We can see, not just because we’ve probably seen the trailer for the film or read about it if we’re bothering to watch it but also because the scene makes it clear, that these two men are supposed to work together. They are meant for each other.

Fletcher pushes Andrew and pushes Andrew, throws a chair at his head at one point. SPOILERS ahead. Andrew practices intensively, his hands bleeding, because he wants to reach the levels Fletcher is pushing him toward. Meanwhile, a couple other things are happening. Andrew’s father worries about him putting too much energy into his music and some other relatives don’t seem to value Andrew’s field—there’s an amusing (and, I think, insightful) dinner scene involving Andrew’s cousin who plays college football and what success is.

(The basic point Andrew makes it that he’d rather die young and be remembered than grow old and have no one know who he is. Charlie Parker died in 1955, only 34 years old, but they’re still talking about him (and he comes up throughout the film). Andrew sees that as success and argues that anyone would.)

Andrew has also asked out a girl who works at the movie theater he goes to sometimes with his father. When it seems she is attending a college she happened to have gotten into and doesn’t really know what she wants to do with her life, it becomes clear (even before Andrew tells her outright that they cannot be together) that Andrew looks down on her. He’s too ambitious for his own good. Plus, he just can’t be with Nicole because, per the film’s structure, he has to be with Fletcher.

In blogging about romantic comedies back in September, I often cited Hinnant’s (2006) “Jane Austen’s ‘Wild Imagination’: Romance and the Courtship Plot in the Six Canonical Novels.” Hinnant details seven romantic setups from Austen that we see in various romances (dramatic or comedic) then and since. One of those is one that begins with “an atmosphere of bitter animosity.” The first day Andrew plays for Fletcher’s band, he gets slapped repeatedly to make a point about tempo and he gets a chair thrown at his head. Yet, we know he has got to eventually play to Fletcher’s liking. That is the kind of story Hollywood sells. Another one of Hinnant’s scenarios involves “close friends... where one is older... a mentor-pupil relationship [and] the pair is unaware of the depth of their feelings for one another. The film also comes close to the usual “Cinderella” story, which Hinnant also covers.

Another often cited piece when blogging about romantic comedies was Dowd and Fallotta’s (2000) “The End of Romance: The Demystification of Love in the Postmodern Age.” Dowd and Fallotta write about “the presence of a serious obstacle” in the classic romance—and of course, the same extends into modern romantic comedies. In the case of Whiplash, Fletcher’s demands as well as Andrew’s father’s worries get in the way. And, just when Andrew seems to be pushing back, events outside either his or Fletcher’s control get in the way (in the form of a truck). This is the breakup, the inevitable second act breakup that necessitates a third act struggle to get back together.

But, in comparing this drama to a romantic comedy, I’ve got to wonder if maybe every film just has the same structure, the same story. So often lately, I’ve found various movies (not slasher films, much, but so many other movies) that end with some semblance of the theme of togetherness or belonging. Characters don’t quite fit the roles they have in the beginning, and in the end, they come closer with the help of another character. The final band performance of this film is like that last ditch effort to rekindle the flame of romance in any romantic comedy. Imagine the guy running to catch up to the girl, to profess his love for her, to beg for forgiveness for his transgressions, to repair everything at all costs. But, here in Whiplash it is Andrew drumming, first trying to keep up with Fletcher’s abrupt change of music, then getting ahead of Fletcher’s lead to prove he’s got the stuff Fletcher is looking for. Leftover anger turns gradually into something like respect, this film’s version of the love you see in a romantic comedy, as Andrew does indeed prove he’s got what Fletcher wants.

(Now, I must return to The Groundhog Day Project to get to the usual blog. I will try to return. There are plenty of movies to write about.)

And, for the record, Simmons deserves his Golden Globe nomination and his SAG nomination and his Spirit Award nomination—he also won Best Supporting Actor from the New York Film Critics and the Boston Society of Film Critics—and I’m glad Whiplash was nominated for Best Feature and Best Editing (as I mentioned the editing above) at the Spirit Awards. Whether he or it wins or not, that ain’t up to me, but he and it should definitely be on the list.

Works Cited

Dowd, J.J. & Fallotta, N.R. (2000). The end of romance: The demystification of love in the postmodern age. Sociological Perspectives 43(4), 549-580.

Hinnant, C.H. (2006). Jane Austen’s “wild imagination”: Romance and the courtship plot in the six canonical novels. Narrative 14(3), 294-310.

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