Been Busy – Watching Movies!

No one asked me, but I figured it’s a dirty job and someone’s got to do it, so I’ve been making my way through the list of Oscar nominees, at least in the major categories. Strangely, it started with the brouhaha over whether or not Selma was “snubbed” for a nomination because the actors, director and producers are black. (I originally typed African-American and then switched it because I remembered that David Oyelowo is not American.) I realized that I couldn’t have much of an opinion as long as I hadn’t seen the other nominees. Eventually, it bloomed into just wanting to watch as many nominees as possible before the Oscars.

Last night I watched Whiplash and I have to say that it utterly blew me away. I can’t say enough good things about this movie. First of all, if anyone was snubbed for a best Oscar nod, it was Miles Teller, who puts in a tremendous performance as Andrew, a music student. It seems that gender expectations make precocious little girls and very young women unexceptional as Oscar nominees in the acting category, but not so for young men. It’s a trend that may have to do with factors other than just the sexism of the people handing out awards, according to this interesting research, “Gendered Age Differences Expected among Oscar Nominees.” Teller certainly did a better job that that dreadful Benedict Cumberbatch, about whom no one would care if it wasn’t for brain-dead anglophilia – and the same can be said of his skeletal co-star.

Teller plays an ambitious young drummer, determined to do whatever it takes to be great, who encounters a teacher determined to do anything to make his students great, and anything includes viscous emotional abuse. It is a fabulous meditation about what it takes to rise above the common herd.

Besides the wonderful performance by Miles Teller, there is a great performance by J.K. Simmons, as the teacher. The role of the teacher exemplifies what makes this movie so great. The character is described in many reviews as a sadist. Yet, his sadism is not done for his own pleasure, but to get better performances out of his students. It asks us what are the acceptable lengths to which one can go in pursuit of excellence. To the movie’s credit, it does not answer that question.

This is a wonderfully relevant story in our current society, one that does not satisfy itself with the reassuring myths we are usually fed. Every time I hear someone saying that they’re insisting on “excellence”, I wince a little bit. One of the important myths needed to keep up the charade that we live in a meritocracy is that this arrangement is somehow universally beneficial. The people of merit are all healthy, fit, well-groomed, socially adept, friendly, poised as well as being academically and professionally successful, emotionally balanced, with a fulfilling family life and friends. Whiplash shows us the frustrating reality that we don’t want to see. Excellence, greatness comes at the expense of those other things. We see Andrew practicing until his hands bleed. The movie’s director, Damien Chazelle, told Teller to not exercise and to stay out of the sun. We are told in the movie that he has no friends. His one relationship falls apart. Excellence comes only at a high price.

A little over a decade ago, I lived with a man who had been a mathematical prodigy when he was young. At the age of eight, he taught himself calculus from a book. Starting in middle school, he would leave his regular public school after lunch and go to a nearby college where he would take math and science classes. He started Harvard at nineteen. Everyone expected great things from him, great things that never materialized. He used to tell me about a longitudinal study which followed gifted children over many decades. I believe it was the Terman Study of the Gifted. While some of the children who were followed in the study, which is still ongoing, went on to have notable careers, many followed more mundane paths. The point that my ex-boyfriend was always trying to make was that it was not ability, or even interest, alone that accounted for success. He always liked to point out that people who achieved great things made sacrifices in other areas of their lives that he was not willing to make. They have, in the words he preferred to use, unbalanced lives. His father, a medical researcher who had made some important discoveries, was one of his prime examples. His father, as far as he could see, was not a happy person. He would verbally berate his wife at home, who would put up with it because he was a genius. She saw her role as to nurture and take care of her driven husband. But my boyfriend didn’t want the kind of life his father had. He preferred to be more mundane, yet enjoy a life that was more balanced.

Whiplash was made on a small budget. It’s the director’s second movie, which he wrote himself. It’s partly autobiographical. Chazelle made a shorter film which he used to raise money for the full version. For this reason, the screenplay is nominated for the Academy Award for Writing in the Adapted Screenplay category. The budget for this film was only 3.3 million dollars, a pittance compared to the fifteen to sixty million dollars that it took to make the other nominees for best film. As a small, independent movie, Whiplash opened in few theaters. I wanted to see it anyway because of the subject. The first review I saw said essentially, “Finally, a movie about a drummer, and thank goodness it’s good.” The Oscar nomination has secured its release in many more theaters. Unless it wins in a big way at the Oscars, it probably won’t stick around long after the awards, so I really recommend you try to see it.

It has its flaws. I don’t want to give away the ending, so let me say that I wish Chazelle could have found a way to get the same emotional dynamics that we find at the end in a more realistic scenario. It stretched credulity, but it didn’t ruin it. The emotional intensity between the characters, not the setting, is the interesting part of the scene. The music is fabulous. I’m no jazz critic, but I really enjoyed the music. I understand that Teller can really play drums. Although it is not Teller that we hear in the soundtrack, it is apparently mostly Teller that we see on-screen. He could not have entirely faked it. If anyone finds themselves easily annoyed when actors obviously can’t play the instrument they supposedly are playing in a movie, they will be able to suspend disbelief watching Teller. As far as the other musicians in the movie go, apparently there is no need to suspend disbelief because they hired musicians, not actors, for those roles.

I’ve been trying to see all the movies in certain categories so I can write about the awards with a reasonable level of knowledge. I thought it might be more interesting to compare and contrast the movies than to just offer up reviews. However, I thought Whiplash was so good, that I wanted to alert everyone to it while it’s still lingering in theaters.

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