Friday, November 21, 2014

Fall Movie Diary: Whiplash

Date: November 20, 2014
Time: 1:10 pm
Place: Regal Arbor
Food:  Small Sprite, Small popcorn

Company: no one
Runtime: 1 hours, 47 minutes
Rating:  R
Director: Damien Chazelle

Quick Impressions:
I’ve been dying to see Whiplash for months.  In some ways, it’s the antithesis of Interstellar, a giant, sprawling, universe-spanning mystery.  Whiplash is short, intense, and less about plot than execution.  Mystery is not the selling point of its theatrical trailer, which pretty much flat out gives you all relevant information about the plot and characters.  There’s no twist, no secret at the heart of this film.  Instead, it’s all about the intensity of the performances. 

Back when I was a teenager, the final act of Titanic held me absolutely transfixed, and obviously, suspense is not the motivating factor there.  We all know the Titanic is going to hit an ice berg.  There’s just something viscerally electrifying (and chilling) about watching it sink.  (There may be something wrong with me, come to think of it.  Whether Rose let go or not did not matter to me at all.  I just wanted to watch the boat sink.)  (I liked James Cameron’s follow-up documentary Ghosts of the Abyss even better, actually. At the moment the ship sinks, he makes photos of and letters from the passengers aboard jump out at the audience in the most effective use of 3D I’d seen to that point.)

Whiplash is like that.  The plot is not the draw.  All that happens is that some guy plays the drums while another guy psychologically abuses him.  What’s exciting is watching it happen.

(The film did manage to deliver one big shock, though.  When the end credits rolled, I saw the name, “Paul Reiser,” and almost fell out of my seat in shock.  There are only a handful of characters in the movie, so it takes all of two seconds to realize that Reiser must play the protagonist’s father, but I sure didn’t recognize him during the film.  I guess it’s been longer than I realized since Mad About You.  Paul Reiser looks like a completely different person.)  (He doesn’t look bad, but he looks so much older.  That seems strange when Helen Hunt was fully nude in The Sessions just two years ago and looked exactly the same as she always has, just more naked.)

Besides featuring riveting performances from J.K. Simmons (who will surely be nominated) and Miles Teller (who does his own drumming), Whiplash has a highly compelling score and the most riveting final scene I’ve encountered in years.  That last scene alone makes the film more than worthy of an Oscar nomination for Best Picture.  I wish I could write an ending like that.  On the other hand, though, how could anyone write an ending like that?  An ending like that has to be performed!

The Good:
For a movie that has absolutely no sex scenes and not even any passionate moments that would suggest the need for off-camera sexual release, there sure is a hell of a lot of tension.

I was trying to explain this to my husband right after I saw the movie, and I don’t think I put it particularly well as I tried to articulate the thought while it was occurring to me.

I was saying, “There’s so much tension, palpable tension.  It’s almost like sexual tension that builds between J.K. Simmons and Miles Teller, and then—he’s a drummer, you know—so the performance is the only release.  So there’s all this sweat and blood, and bloody drumsticks, and his face is like…so intense!”

Now let me be clear.  I’m not saying that there’s actually sexual tension between Fletcher and Andrew.  There’s tension between them, for sure, but it’s not because they secretly want to fall into bed with each other.  I mean, yes, Andrew totally jumps on top of Fletcher one time and tries to kill him, but while in other movies (J. EdgarThe Master) similar scenes have seemed blatantly homoerotic, on a literal level, the relationship between Fletcher and Andrew is about the farthest thing from sexual.  In fact, in general, Andrew is not a very sexual guy.  His sex drive—like every other aspect of his being—has been of necessity sublimated into his over-arching drive to achieve fame as one of the world’s greatest drummers.  His motivation is really clear and consistent, and he knows what it is.  He wants to be a great drummer.  So when he jumps on top of Fletcher, it’s because Fletcher is preventing him from getting what he wants (to be a great drummer), not because he’s secretly in love with him or something.

So I’m not implying that there’s a subtext of forbidden carnal desire going on between Fletcher and Andrew.  They are not secretly in love (or in lust, either).

But still, there is tension.  And what other kind of tension do we ever see in movies?  Usually, tension this extreme conveyed to us on screen is sexual in nature.  The only other thing that even comes close is bloodlust for revenge, or—I suppose, occasionally—the desire for the elusive approval of a withholding parent (which obviously could be a factor here).

I’m sure there’s some kind of Freudian argument to be made by someone, somewhere, that there’s really only one kind of tension, after all.  (I keep thinking of the line from The Seven Year Itch.  “You pushed the tomato plant over because you wanted to kill me.  And why did you want to kill me?  Could it be, could it possibly be, because you…love me?”)  (People legitimately interested in Freud and psychoanalytic theory will rightly point out that I am being very flippant, but I’m serious in a way.)

Andrew has this primal urge for greatness.  His drive to achieve deserved fame eventually becomes so great that it swallows up everything else about him.  He lets go of human relationships.  He rarely rests.  He plays through intense pain.  He stops savoring pizza.

So I think the reason the late scenes of the movie become charged with such palpable intensity is that all of the energies and passions most people expend on a variety of things—food, comfort, companionship, sex, pleasure, the desire for approval—Andrew has funneled into only one thing—his overwhelming drive to achieve greatness in his field.

So the spark between Fletcher and Andrew isn’t sexual—but it is where all of Andrew’s sexual energies have gone because all of Andrew (his sex drive, his hunger, his thirst, his sense of self, his intellect, his fears, his hopes, all of Andrew) has been given over to drumming.

That’s what makes the final performance so captivating, so transporting, and ending on such a high note (one that leaves the audience exhilarated and perhaps a bit bewildered) is what makes the movie so great.

Everybody knows that when it comes to making an impression on an audience, a big finish goes a long way.  So often, I’m disappointed with the endings of otherwise compelling works of fiction.  And as a writer, endings are extremely tricky for me.  I’m practically unable to write a short story simply because the form essentially requires a perfect ending.  My stuff always seems to go on and on becoming more complex and intricate as it grows.  That can work in a novel, but I think that when a short story ends, the reader should immediately have a sense of closure so powerful that it validates the process of having read the story.

The ending of Whiplash is so marvelous and intense that it makes the movie.  You walk out of the theater on kind of a high, with the music stuck in your head, thinking, Wow, I have really seen something!

Whiplash is a very powerful little piece of fiction because it immediately elicits that strong, almost visceral response.  (At least, that was my experience.)  This is not the kind of movie you have to think about for a week in order to appreciate.  (I’m not saying you couldn’t find more to appreciate if you thought about it.)  My point is, the feeling of appreciation is immediate.  It came upon me before I could even explain it.

The movie wins more points from me because it’s so neat and compact.  There are only a few characters.  The plot is simple.  The story starts immediately.  Major events are already underway in the very first scene.

I also found Whiplash highly believable.  It feels quite real to me, and even poses a very real dilemma at the end. 

People want different things.  If you go to a good music school for the ego boost of being able to brag that you’re in a great school, then you’re probably going to insist on a nurturing, reasonable instructor who makes going to class a positive experience.  But if, like Andrew, you want to be a great drummer because you know you have greatness in you, then of course you will want the instructor who can make you great. 

I totally get the character of Andrew.  He doesn’t want just to tell people that one day he could be great.  (That’s a strange, goal, right, but I promise, some people do want that.)  Andrew actually wants to be great.  And if you want something badly enough, you are willing to do anything.

Would I put up with a teacher as abusive as J.K. Simmons’s character?  Fletcher is so fascinating because he’s not abusive just to be a jerk.  He’s not simply one of those guys who couldn’t cut it himself, so he enjoys abusing others.  I think he really believes what he says to Andrew.  His methodology may be unorthodox (and dangerous), but from everything I’ve seen in the film, he’s actually committed to it.  I think most people with Andrew’s drive for greatness who believe they can legitimately grow because of the influence of a mentor will put up with almost anything.

If you don’t believe me, think back to when you were in high school.  (We don’t all go away to college at prestigious music academies, but we’ve all been to high school.)  Think about the first time an adult mentor praised you for exhibiting a nascent talent and coaxed you to pursue it further, maybe helped you to get better at it.  If that person suddenly turned abusive, how quickly would you end the relationship?

Granted, there seems to be something a little bit sinister at work in these relationships, but if you achieve greatness because of it, so what?  Look back through history at the “great men” and see how many of them led completely normal lives that were not screwed up by any unhealthy relationships.

When I was in graduate school, I was very fortunate to work with professors who were extremely kind, professional, supportive, and respectful.  But not everyone was that lucky.  I have definitely seen some mentor/mentee relationships that seemed at least borderline abusive (and that’s from the outside).  But people don’t choose professional mentors based on how nice and sweet they are.  That’s simply not the point, and I think for many, many people (more people than would probably admit it), a certain amount of emotional abuse is basically worth it to achieve your professional goals.

One of the best things about Whiplash, honestly, is the ambiguity of the ending.  Are we witnessing a triumph or a tragedy?  I think it’s not an accident that the increasingly strange relationship between Fletcher and Andrew kept reminding me of Anakin and Senator Palpatine in Revenge of the Sith (by far the best of those prequels, and mostly because of Ian McDiarmid’s performance in such scenes).

Best Scene:
The best scene by far is the concert at the end.  The entire movie feverishly builds to the emotive release of Andrew’s performance.  His intensity on the drums, the ongoing, subtle shifts in the dynamic between him and Fletcher, and the power of the music make this final scene a moment that should have a long life in the memory of film historians and cinema buffs.

Best Action Sequence:
Certainly the scene with the most action happens when Andrew misplaces his drumsticks while running late.  So much happens that it almost seems surreal.  And I think that’s good filmmaking because at this point, let’s face it, life has become a bit of a nightmare for Andrew.

Best Scene Visually:
There are about thirty bazillion shots in this movie of Andrew practicing the drums that feature his face in one corner of the screen, and the drum kit filling the remainder of the frame.  The expression on his face as he plays lets us see that his tormented practicing brings him both agony and ecstasy.  Clearly playing the drums gives him purpose.

Most Oscar Worthy Moment, J.K. Simmons: 
Simmons may win Best Supporting Actor for this.  On the surface, the character is not so different from the type he usually plays, so he’s not really going against type here.  He’s just doing what he usually does particularly well and with much more intensity than usual. 

The part is perfect for him, and he really makes the most of it.  The scene when he takes time out from rehearsal to play a recording for the class definitely lets him show some nice emotional range.  But my favorite work from Simmons comes in the end, in that amazing final scene when his responses to Teller’s character continually shift to the point that they do allow some element of surprise to creep into the final moments of the film.

Most Oscar Worthy Moment, Miles Teller:
Best Actor is always so highly competitive, so that might make a nomination pretty tricky for young Miles Teller.  (I emphasize that he’s young because although he has several fine films under his belt already, he’s still a bit of a whippersnapper for this category.) 

He also will have a tough time getting nominated because J.K. Simmons is such a strong force in this film that we’re thinking about him even when he’s not onscreen.  Andrew is equally important, but he’s not as charismatic.

That said, Teller is playing the drums himself, and that is really something.  Watching him transition from the shy, sort of sweet boy in the theater who has a crush on the girl selling the popcorn to the relentless, borderline-insane, drum-obsessed maniac he eventually becomes is quite a journey.  He’s particularly fantastic in the bizarre scene that unfolds after he goes back to get his drumsticks.

The Negatives:
Why does Andrew care so much about Fletcher’s opinion in the first place?  I like that the movie just jumps right in and gets started so quickly, but I do wish we knew more about Andrew’s background and motivations.  I know that he wants to be a great drummer, but why?  Why is that so important to him?  And what makes Fletcher’s opinion so valuable (not just to Andrew, but in general)?  We don’t see enough of him actually helping and instructing his students.  One could easily get the idea that he just rounds up people who are already talented in the first place, and then just screams at them a lot and takes credit for their work.  But I actually think he does more for them than that.  He must, or he wouldn’t have lasted this long in such a plum position at a prestigious school.

I also worry that this movie might seriously disturb anyone with a history of abusive relationships.  It seems like it should come with some kind of trigger warning or something because by the end of the film, the relationship between Andrew and Fletcher is almost perversely abusive and yet tremendously compelling.  This may be disturbing to people who have previously suffered through emotionally abusive relationships and managed to disentangle themselves from them.

I think Whiplash is fantastic.  If I were the Academy, I’d give it several Oscar nominations.  J.K. Simmons for Supporting Actor seems so obvious I shouldn’t even have to say it, but I think this is also a serious contender for a Best Picture nomination.

The movie starts fast and strong and builds and builds and builds, like a drum solo.  (Perhaps the like there is misleading since in essence, by the end, Whiplash becomes a drum solo.)

This is probably one of my favorite films of the year, and I hope it goes on to get all kinds of recognition and awards.

Sunday, November 16, 2014

Last Weekend at Nanny and Papa's

Penelope Says

November 2nd

I just discovered this in Penelope's home folder.

5:46 pm

November 5th

Our umbrella is coming in handy today, Aunt Merry!

7:45 am

November 7th

Penelope's new class shirt makes her look like a super hero!

3:10 pm

November 8th

Penelope: (dragging the wheel barrow) I don't want Bubby to run over me with that lawn mower car, so I'm parking back here behind the barn in the back yard. Ugh!! I'm your daughter, so I'm like you. 
Me: Like me how?
Penelope: I don't know how to park very well!

4:31 pm

Gray: Sarah! Look! I made Mickey Mouse!

4:46 pm

You know the country wants to claim you when a leaf sticks to you and won't let go!

5:05 pm

The battle rages on between Edward Stick and Grandma Lila...

Penelope: (as he hits her) Why Grandma! (as she hits him) I know you're a grandma, but that just makes it easier for you to die.
8:46 pm

November 9th

Grandma and Penelope are working a Thanksgiving crossword puzzle...
Grandma: Something we use to serve coffee to guests on Thanksgiving. It's three letters. It starts with a "u." You won't know this one, so I'll tell you. It's urn.
Penelope: Oh I didn't know that.
Me: We saw urns in the museum, remember? In the museum in Chicago...
Penelope (brightly) Oh, remember? I didn't like my hot dog!
Me: It looked like such a good hot dog, too.
Penelope: But I didn't like it. I didn't like any of the food in Chicago.
Me: That's true. You didn't eat anything the entire time we were there--except rootbeer.
Penelope: I like rootbeer.
So glad we took Penelope to the Art Institute of she can have the wonderful memory of not liking the hot dogs in the museum cafe!
10:56 am

Someone is very pleased because Grandma gave her lipstick!

3:55 pm

November 10th

Penelope: There. Turkey is silent. But in the background someone is screaming. "AHHHHHHH!"
Me: What is he some kind of ninja turkey?
Penelope: No, he's just not paying attention, and he's missing the obvious signs that he's going to be killed!

8:32 am

Penelope has to decorate a turkey feather for a class project. After meeting a soldier in class on Friday, she was very excited to make a camo feather.

11:49 am

Penelope and I are sitting on the love seat together writing Thanksgiving stories. I had planned to have her dictate a story to me, but she insisted on writing it herself (but she is asking me how to spell most of the words). I'm beyond delighted with this arrangement.
6:09 pm

November 13th

Me: Penelope, you've been falling asleep so early. You'd better come and read me your homework book now. (I hand her the tiny little book her teacher sent home) Here now read Roz.
Penelope: (takes my book) No, I think I'll read this book. The Name of the Rose.
Me: That book is pretty long.
Penelope: No, it's just like War and Peace. I will finish it in no time.
Me: You will not. It's too long. 
Penelope: I'll just turn to this bookmark and read the page you are on.
Me: Well, you won't like that page. There might be a dead guy upside down in pig blood on that page. So be careful.
Penelope: I can read it.
Me: Do you see anything you can read?
Penelope: (reading) "What do you say about it?"
Me: Now let's read your book.
Penelope: (flipping a bunch of pages) Well, okay. Just a minute. I've almost finished The Name of the Rose. I'm just about done.
Me: Oh you are?
Penelope: Yes.
Me: So tell me, what is the name of the rose?
Penelope: The name of the
Me: That's a surprise.
Penelope: Yes, it's a big surprise. (cagily) Actually the book never tells us for sure. When you get done, you just have to figure it out for yourself. It just leaves you with that mystery to figure out for yourself.
5:59 pm

November 14th

All bundled up and ready for school!

7:32 am

November 14th

Penelope (eating an apple): Oww! Mom, my tooth hurts. Daddy, this apple hurts my tooth. (crying) It hurts! It hurts!
Me: It will come out soon.
Penelope: It never will! I can't eat my apple! Daddy, I want to go to the dentist. 
Me: He won't pull the tooth, Penelope. 
Penelope: I can't even eat my apple, though!
Derrick: Would you like me to cut the apple into slices for you?
Penelope: No, I want a new apple with some peel on the slices.
(Later, as she is eating apple slices)
Penelope: Oh! Dad! I just ate my tooth!
Although both of Penelope's permanent front teeth have been in quite a while, she had only lost one of the baby front teeth until tonight. Is this the second or third tooth she has "eaten"? Why is she always swallowing her teeth????
10:48 pm

November 15th

Me: Wouldn't it be cool to all go back in time?
Penelope: I can help with that. Let me see your pen. Now let me see your notebook. Here we go. See all the buttons? This is my time machine. Now let's get this thing ripped out of here and get started pushing those buttons.
Me: Well, I thought that was just the design. I thought first we could make a list of places we want to travel.
Penelope: Great. I will just need a new page here. Places we want to travel...Dad, how do you spell "places"?
Derrick: P...
Me: I want to travel back to before I agreed to give you my notebook!

9:01 pm

November 16th

Balloon Fight!!

4:51 pm