No matter how acclaimed or technically crafted a film may be, one cannot escape the fact that films are an intensely personal experience, which more often than not will elicit a subjective response. I generally liked the heavyweight movies of this year, the likes of Boyhood (2014) and Birdman (2014) and those heaps of awards are definitely deserved for their respective merits.
But the film that I thought was perhaps the best of the year was the overlooked and underrated A Most Wanted Man (2014) with another great and brilliant performance by the late Philip Seymour Hoffman. The film that most moved and inspired me so far (I have not gone through the whole list of best picture nominees as of yet but have been thoroughly impressed by the outstanding Foxcatcher (2014) which, for some odd reason, was not even nominated as best picture) is the little film Whiplash (2014) that has big ideas on its mind.
This movie struck a nerve within me in a way that Birdman's ego crisis of a failing artist failed to do. Somehow the characters in the latter seemed too distant and bizarre for me to take to heart, whereas both Andrew and his sadistic teacher Fletcher hit closer to home. This may be partly because I am in the teaching profession (though I assure you alongside numerous character references and student evaluations that I am not even half or five percent as mean as that guy!) or it may be because I used to have one such teacher in high school myself, or more likely because I can relate to the quest for artistic perfection and integrity in a world that is satisfied with half measures and restrained passion.
Let us recap quickly and try not to spoil the movie for those who have not seen it. Although it is rather difficult to give much away here as not much happens, which might be actually a spoiler for those who believe that much will happen. On the surface this looks like a host of other movies that tackled the subject: a young aspiring musician (artist, writer, athlete) meets a teacher who changes his life (for the better).
However, what makes this movie different and unique from others is the characterization of the mean teacher Fletcher and the questionable impact he has on his protégé. Now Fletcher is a real “bad ass,” the likes of which we have rarely seen on the screen and not even Louise Fletcher (!) as Nurse Ratched is as remotely evil as this guy. To give an example, he seems an affable and caring person when he asks the young student Andrew about his parents (his mother left him when he was a child; his father is a second-rate writer and high school teacher), but only moments later he uses that same information in front of the other musicians to belittle and ridicule the mortified student.
All this is apart from the verbal abuse that would put a satisfied grin on Full Metal Jacket's drill sergeant and the physical abuse (he throws a chair onto Andrew who barely ducks in time). What makes this guy even more despicable is that he does not change his tactics. Fletcher does not become a good person in the end; in fact, once the credits roll, we can see him continue in the same vein without any remorse whatsoever.
And yet, he is not evil personified. Deep inside, he means to do good, or so he thinks. We see him not as a teacher but also as a musician playing jazz in a small bar. And he plays with so much feeling and depth that we are surprised to see that there are any feelings behind his thick skin. (Another instance for those who have seen the film would be when he is teary-eyed and talks about a former student of his who had died young, but most of this pain may have been because he must have realized that he was more than partially responsible for the young man's death.)
It is in that bar scene that he finally reveals himself to the young drummer Andrew. He tells him that all that he wants is to push for artistic greatness in his students. He is not interested in creating interchangeable, uninspired and insipid “Starbucks jazz;” he wants his students to excel and become one of the greats. Hence, he pushes his students by crossing lines and limits so that they not only work as hard as they can (until their fingers bleed and their minds reel), but that they manage to give their all (and more) to achieve their fullest potential.
His concept of the vanquishing artist with no holds barred reminded me of Nietzsche's drive for greatness. The master artist has fulfilled himself and as a rule stands beyond and above the multitude and the mass. He has not only found and realized himself, but he is the artist par excellence. He is the Mozart of classical music, the Charlie Parker of jazz, or the Jimi Hendrix of rock 'n' roll.
These musicians may have been geniuses, but even they must unlock their potential through single-minded and unwavering practice. With great art comes great sacrifice. Incidentally, they all died young because they burnt themselves up like a shooting star. As Andrew himself put it earlier at a dinner table in which football seemed to outweigh music, he would rather die young without friends as one of the greats than live a long and pointless second-rate life (a direct stab at his middling father).
Andrew believes he has the necessary talent to be great, and as a result, he decides to fully focus on his practice. He plays until his hands are sore and literally bleed. He shakes off a serious car accident to play the drums for an important competition, and he “sacrifices” his would-be girlfriend by prematurely ending their budding relationship because his sole focus and occupation, not to say obsession, is his music and his music only.
His desire is almost mystical in its scope and no wonder that he follows his master to the very end. In such a view, Andrew is the monk who shuns earthly life and turns his whole being looking upwards towards the divine and the heavenly realm. Fletcher then becomes the Zen master who is ready to cut his pupils' limbs if that can help them achieve the much sought and highly valued state of satori. The student ready to sacrifice his psychological health and well-being to achieve this state follows blindly the voice of his admired and, in the student's eyes, successful master not unlike the disciples who followed Jesus (though the latter did occasionally succumb to moments of doubt and wavering).
But how far should the master go? Does he not realize that he is causing psychological harm to his students? Does he not have any boundaries of decency and compassion? Does he lack humanity? No, Fletcher responds. If you are a true artist, you will not break under the pressure but rather come out reborn with renewed strength and vigor. The real artists' passion and resourcefulness is never-ending. They will not break, and if they do, that means they were no artists in the first place.
This would be a case of survival of the best and fittest. Only those who got what is worth will survive. These are the Navy SEALs of jazz, and only the very best, the elite can survive. And if they do, it means they have what it takes to be a veritable artist. He is only separating the wheat from the chaff and preparing those who make it for everlasting greatness, which is much more important than a single person's life.
The force and drive that knows no limits and achieves what only few can achieve in the world reminded me of some of Nietzsche's ideas regarding the Übermensch. It is also not unlike the observation of Jesus that only few will walk that straight narrow road. Jesus himself had this single-minded focus and passion. To all of these great people, it is their cause and their persistent and unwavering aim bound with their serious commitment that makes them great.
If we look at those who excel today, it comes at a great price. They have to work and practice hard. No one wakes up a brilliant musician or writer. We may have a knack for it; it may come easier to us than to others, but we need to constantly work on it and if we want true greatness, we must sacrifice anything that is not related to it, anything that distracts us from the path.
Yet also, a part of greatness is not following others. In that sense, the timid and reserved Andrew takes a decisive stand at the end of the film: He willingly defies his master. In fact, all this time, he was worried about proving himself and his worth to his teacher, and now he just does what he knows to be best.
That is the great independence of a true artist. He does not follow the dictates of others, but in fact, he creates the rules which others ought to follow. They set standards. They surpass their masters and teachers. They create something, whether a work of art or a musical composition that will stand the test of time and will live on forever.
Fletcher is indeed a flawed individual, but he is the kind of person that someone like Andrew needs. And he does not need him in the traditional sense of learning, but rather as a necessary obstruction to overcome. What Fletcher has in the end taught him was to overcome his own limits and to unlock and liberate the musical genius that was lying dormant deep within him.
When that moment comes, the never satisfied and always critical Fletcher shows a brief moment of satisfaction, and Andrew has managed to kill the Buddha, to outshine the master on his own path toward salvation, his own and fully merited conviction that he has reached artistic greatness or perfection. Well, at least one such moment that he could from now on continuously build on through steady practice and output.