Not long ago, a question was posed to me: which current filmmaker has yet to reach their magnum opus, their masterpiece, their finest, a title indicative of all their cinematic talents? This question was applied under the, apparent, logic wherein a filmmaker begins his or her career weaker than they eventually wind up, at least throughout their prime years.
Now, this isn’t always the case. Citizen Kane, Orson Welles’ debut, is, of course, widely known (these days, perhaps not considered so quite as much) as the supposed ‘greatest film of all time’, a work of immeasurable, iconic artistic genius.
See, by this logic, a talented enough creative being can craft his best work early on if his being wills it, without a need for strict, utter concise ‘practice’. This can happen within all fields of art. Harper Lee’s first novel comes to mind, surely, and most consider The Doors to have peaked with their debut release.
In 2014’s cinema it certainly occurred, two of them being amongst the year’s very finest.
But Tony Gilroy, whilst undoubtedly undertaking a grand accomplishment with Nightcrawler, had had experience in cinema screenwriting many years ahead of this electrifying directorial origin, feasibly learning a good extent of the filmmaking practice.
Where about did Damien Chazelle hide from us? And how funny ought it be that his debut film’s thematic content partially stems from the strong notion of practicing, perfecting therefore enabling precise expressive performing. In Whiplash, Chazelle has gifted to cinephiles a work most veteran directors could seemingly take great pride in naming their proudest achievement, let alone their initial foray into the coveted chair.
What is the point of these initial passages then, these questions? The point, ultimately, and perhaps anticlimactically, is the mere stating toward Whiplash, presuming it winds up being the absolute career highlight of Chazelle’s cinematic career, has left this one utterly indifferent to whether he pleases more in future, whether Whiplash is to be rendered inferior toward something finer, or contrarily.
Rather, Chazelle has done far more interesting things with the cinematic art in Whiplash than most filmmakers can ever dream of, and so if he has reached a point of no return, who can truly complain? We might be considered spoilt brats for demanding this career to peak much higher than it can.
Some of 2014’s most critically acclaimed American films made one thing clear about their purpose; Inarritu, Fincher and Gilroy have all very evidently crafted films specifically for 2014. Chazelle has very much pitched his tent in the same forest, although perhaps without the same blatant intention (predominantly brought about through the prior filmmakers choice of narratives being highly appropriate for the 2010’s).
Most critical summaries of Whiplash will devote their time to analysing the journey of Andrew Neiman, played by Miles Teller, notably how his dreams and aspirations tease and wait behind a barrage of abuse and psychological detriment.
But who wants to hear that same, presumably mandatory, re-telling?
Who would claim themselves open-minded enough to denote savage Terence Fletcher’s story as among the elements which make Whiplash a supposed striking study of its zeitgeist?
In case a viewing of Birdman had not already alerted you, talent in the 2010’s is a coveted, romantic thing: there is only one thing an aspiring artist desires more than originality and talent, and that is proof that they are not a fraudulent hack or, worse, forgotten and passed by (thank the internet, perhaps, for the greatest exposure to the fact that very few of us will ever be truly artistically unique).
Andrew Neiman is no different. He desires to not just be “great”, but to be “one of the greats”, a ‘la Charlie Parker, or alternatively, more in tune with his line of playing, legendary drummer Buddy Guy. Luckily for him, Terence Fletcher similarly desires this, especially in a world wherein he considers jazz mostly dead and dying.
Unfortunately, Fletcher’s methods for bringing out the coveted greatness within a jazz musician is very much more out of place in this day and age than the genre itself.
In the era of Charlie Bird, as Fletcher prides, a cymbal could be hurled at one’s head in an act of amusing abuse and patronisation. In 2014, one would be on the nearest phone to the nearest lawyer and lawsuit, and perhaps even a psychologist to soothe the damaged egocentric self.
Again, this brings me to the potency of Chazelle’s aforementioned future career. Could a man like Terence Fletcher accuse a keyboard cretin like me of pampering Damien Chazelle to the depths of a lack of trying or improvement, as he would he claim in attempts to justify his own brutal treatment toward his students?
Better a question yet, is Chazelle on a mission to prove his own character’s philosophy wrong? (Cinema will be in for a great treat if he is!)
Odd, how some take years to attain the level of control and precision over their field, whereas others like Chazelle merely summon it. One of these supposed former individuals has the honour of being also very topical regarding Whiplash. And it isn’t Andrew Neiman, nor Charlie Parker, but rather J. K. Simmons the actor.
A veteran for character roles within this century, appearing regularly on television hit Oz, beloved for his translation of Spiderman’s J. Jonah Jameson, and revered for the audible insanity he presented in video game Portal 2, J.K. Simmons has finally stabbed his flag into revered acting soil for Whiplash.
Just as Terrence Fletcher raptures the existence of Andrew in order to strangle forth pristine, he imposes a strict, yet intricate persona in order to challenge his muse, Simmons to stand out as a zenith of dramatic ability, lauded far and wide.
All these prior elements of amazement are decidedly tied together through the renderings of technical maestros, people whom understand the power of film, the power of music, and the power of their revered relationship.
Many of Whiplash’s scenes are permeated by sound, jazz or otherwise, to bless or counteract the motions on screen, fuelling the narrative along with a wealth of tonal vibrancy. Be it the gradual rough-and-tumble brass numbers of Schaffer’s top jazz outfit, screeching halt more and more it becomes evident Andrew’s first session with Fletcher’s studio will not be a smooth one, or the abundance of cluttered, upright background diner conversation reflecting the world Andrew deems to his potential girlfriend Nicole he must abandon in order to devote sufficient enough time to perfect drumming proficiency, noise of any kind demands value, be it virtuoso-mastered or otherwise.
Similar perfect understanding to fellow departments of film production is indicated heavily through this team’s ability to edit a film that in both its whole, and in sequences, encapsulates a journey so vividly and at such a pace of spontaneity so as to completely transfix.
Whiplash might have cursed upon me the punch line of some dreadful pun, but without the pain or inconvenience. We have within this title a piece of terrific filmmaking, that inspires any answer to querying Damien Chazelle upon his intentions to surpass Whiplash being, “if you must”.
Author Bio: Charles Barnes graduated highschool determined to leave the world of faux-intellectuals behind him, absorbing himself into an excessive gorging of cinema, determined to develop an individual, distinctive, voice in the world of film analysis and criticism. Working at a video shop, watching and writing about film in his spare time, the Australian teen is determined to put his name firmly in the history of Australian film criticism and theory.