By William Repass.
In Damien Chazelle’s new film Whiplash (2014), aspiring jazz drummer and conservatory freshman Andrew (Miles Teller) and his father (Paul Reiser) meet at the cinema to enact their moviegoing father-son ritual. Both characters are white. Andrew buys a bucket of popcorn and a box of Raisinets from concessions and joins his father in the audience. When his father mixes in the Raisinets with the popcorn (part of the ritual), Andrew admits to always having eaten around them. His confession, in the intimate self-reflexive space of the cinema, feels like a respite from the intensity that marks the film as a whole. We might read Andrew’s distaste for raisins as a vestigial childish innocence, soon to be excised, but his selectivity is bound to take on racial undertones in the context of a jazz film which, paradoxically, relegates blackness to the periphery. Films depend on visual metaphor, and it’s difficult to not see the Raisinet-popcorn—white puffs mixed in with black shrivels—as a racial metaphor: a metaphor for the racial context of jazz in particular, with its mixing of African and European musical elements.
Should we characterize this moment as a confession on the part of the film—the diagetic white audience admitting to its non-diagetic counterpart a shared willingness to disengage with race-politics, even in a jazz context? Or is the film indicting its own protagonists and the whitewashing of jazz music? Andrew’s idol, after all, is Buddy Rich as opposed to say, Kenny Clarke. Just as he picks out the popcorn from the Raisinet-popcorn mix, he picks out a white jazz legend from among black contemporaries. Likewise for Fletcher (J.K. Simmons), Andrew’s abusive mentor, jazz is a formula rehearsed and played off a score. Fletcher is more football-coach or drill-instructor than musician. And his band is less jazz band than drill-team, performing feats of discipline to win panel-judged competitions held in near empty concert halls (as opposed to cutting-sessions held in clubs and bars) to inflate Fletcher’s academic reputation. Fletcher doesn’t so much train Andrew as groom him into an automaton, a stunted reflection of himself, forcing Andrew to perpetuate the cycle of abuse by trickling it down to his competitors in the band. The band is not a community of individual musicians, as a jazz band should be, but a a cult of personality, a hierarchy of Fletcherites. Fletcher’s jazz is an anti-jazz with no room for improvisation or individual expression, reverting to the martial properties of its instrumentation.
The only on-screen display recognizable as authentic, living jazz occurs during the last 20 minutes in a frenetic improvisation, rendered in equally frenetic montage (the only significant rupture from continuity-editing). In direct defiance of Fletcher’s conducting, Andrew launches into a drum-solo that bridges two songs on the program, “Caravan” and “Whiplash,” riffing off their respective scores and time-signatures and melding them together in a moment of spontaneous composition. As a series of rapid close-ups fragment Andrew’s body and welds him to his drumset, Fletcher, still pointlessly conducting with the veins standing out in a zigzag down his forehead, extends a vibrating hand that slowly closes into a fist, as if to absorb the life-force pounding from Andrew’s solo. The low camera-angle and Nosferatu-style lighting make clear the unchanged power-dynamic between them, rendering Fletcher as a hideous monument: the conductor-as-commander-in-chief.
If authentic jazz constitutes a form of resistance to oppression, Chazelle seems to imply that the only oppression available for white musicians to resist, identified as they are with the racial oppressor, comes from within the music, as a cycle of abuse arising between the musicians themselves: physical and mental, white-on-white. By curtailing its narrative at the moment of climax, Whiplash traps Andrew’s improvisation in the space between Fletcher and himself. As far as the film is concerned, nobody else exists—neither the audience (where Andrew’s father sits), nor the other musicians, whose performances background Andrew’s solo. Even this solitary flash of authenticity, then, is arrested within the privileged, hermetic space of white jazz, instantly appropriated by the oppressor.
Whiplash offers a cynical outlook on the state of contemporary jazz. But at the same time, Andrew and Fletcher’s world is so circumscribed that the possibility of a more authentic jazz remains open at the margins of that world. If Fletcher’s whitewashed, privileged form of jazz stagnates between The Academy and Lincoln Center, appropriating what ruptures it fitfully coughs up, where should we look to find living jazz? In the film’s periphery, populated with black faces and encroaching shadows? Does a living jazz still exist, or does jazz endure only in this zombified form—played-out in elevator music, Jazz-Christmas CDs, and jazz conservatories that systematically filter-out the underclass responsible for jazz music in the first place? Has white-controlled high culture so completely appropriated and diluted jazz that the form as we understand it no longer retains any relevance to those it once gave voice?
Whiplash compounds these questions into the image of the Raisinet-popcorn, an image which recalls Douglas Sirk’s Imitation of Life (1959) with its first establishing shot of a beach packed with white bodies and interspersed with pockets of blackness, later graphically matched in the mise en scene by white floor tiles set off with black ones and, in the final scene, black characters in black suits set off by white cufflinks. In both films, black backgrounds define the white foreground—even as they threaten to rupture into focus and change places. Whiplash gestures at living expression obliquely, by starkly illuminating the deathliness of co-opted jazz. Andrew can play real jazz only by sharing artificially in the oppression experienced by the black musicians he doesn’t listen to, but whose work he unconsciously emulates in idolizing Buddy Rich. His jazz is a mimed mimicry, twice deferred, and for this reason, Fletcher can instantly claim responsibility for it as Andrew’s “mentor.” As his very name implies, he directs Andrew’s talent, his “arrow.” Andrew’s coming into himself is mediated: he is reanimated by Fletcher, not reborn through jazz. His endurance and technical skill impress us, not his innovation.
Chazelle can’t show what happens next after Andrew’s solo. From our vantage-point inside the cinema (outside the concert hall looking in), only we can take on the role of his father in the audience and say no, that wasn’t jazz, it looked something like jazz but didn’t sound like it. Perhaps this is a function of Chazelle’s medium which, in showing a live performance, arrests it forever. No improvisation, however life-affirming in the moment, can withstand a recording. The earliest jazz musicians knew this. They feared other musicians would listen over and over and over to their outpourings and reduce them to flyspecks on a score, mimicking their techniques and stealing their voice. Perhaps Whiplash avoids living jazz out of respect for life, shows everything it can of the deathliness instead—so painstakingly that we intuit a rupture outside of the film, in our own lives. Chazelle’s camera renders the film’s concert halls and rehearsal chambers as claustrophobic as a catacomb, so that we long for fresh air. Fletcher and Andrew’s world of jazz cannot remain hermetically “post-racial” for long. It is dead already: very soon we shall cease to mourn it and move on. The socioeconomic pressures at the graveside grow too urgent to ignore.
William Repass is a Film International ‘In the Field’ writer.
For more on Whiplash, see what our ‘In the Field’ writer Sam Littman had to say here.