Sunday, February 26, 2017

What's the Safe Word?

When I look back at what I've written here, I wonder how I did it, especially the long discursive posts.  It feels like it takes me longer to write than it used to.  I hope I'm wrong.  At any rate, I'm writing this post partly because I'm stalled in the middle of a post I began while stalled in the middle of yet another.  I've also been busy with some non-writing tasks that kept me from simply sitting down and pushing on through.

Yesterday I saw most of a 2014 movie called Whiplash, which I seem to remember some of my musician friends mentioning and liking.  I hated it, perhaps even more than I might have before I wrote the previous two posts about talent, achievement, and status.  I may get some details wrong here, because I don't intend to watch it again, though if readers point out anything important I'll try to correct it.  Also, bear in mind that there will be spoilers in what follows.

Whiplash is about Andrew, a young guy who wants to be a great jazz drummer.  His father is a failed novelist, and is presented as ineffectual but loving.  The kid, played by Miles Teller, wins admission to an elite conservatory, where he becomes the student of Fletcher, a famous musician, composer and bandleader, played by J. K. Simmons.  Fletcher is what I'd call an old-school kind of teacher and conductor, who bullies his students maniacally, playing them off against one another, screaming obscene and homophobic/misogynistic abuse at them.  The character has been compared to the drill sergeant in Full Metal Jacket, and it's a fair comparison except that Fletcher never actually hits them.  (He does throw a folding chair at Andrew at one point, but Andrew ducks.  Shades of another abusive prick of a teacher.)  Why that should be I don't know -- is it to make him less unsympathetic in some strange way?

There are numerous segments where Andrew practices maniacally at home until his hands bleed; now I know why I see drummers with bandages on their hands.  Some of this is reminiscent of the training sequence in Rocky, except that there's no exultation in it.  It's just pain, more pain; abuse, more abuse.  The class rehearsal scenes are excruciatingly long, intense, and infuriating, culminating in one where Fletcher makes three drummers switch off, screaming at them, until one of them shows that he can play a passage the way Fletcher wants him to; it takes them hours, though not, blessedly, in screen time.  Andrew wins out, and gets to play at an upcoming competition, though Fletcher warns him that if he is a millisecond late, if he makes an infinitesimal mistake, he'll be out.  So, of course, Andrew's bus gets a flat tire; he manages to rent a car, and arrives at the competition with a few minutes to spare, but without his drum sticks, which he forgot at the rental place.  Fletcher screams that he has to have his own drumsticks, so Andrew drives back, gets his sticks, speeds back, is hit by another car as he runs a stop sign, crawls out and runs bleeding to the competition, arriving just in time.  But one of his hands is hurt so that he can barely hold the stick, and Fletcher kicks him out with contempt.  (In another context this could read as slapstick comedy, but not here.)  Andrew finally breaks and attacks Fletcher, for which he's expelled from the conservatory.  But then he's called back in for a meeting because other parents have complained about Fletcher; one of his former students hanged himself, and they need someone living who can testify -- anonymously -- about Fletcher's mistreatment of his students.  Andrew agrees, but he also gives up music.

Now, we've already been informed about the dead student.  In one of the rehearsals, a subdued, tearful Fletcher plays the class a CD featuring the dead boy, who he says had just died in a car accident.  (Andrew's accident is surely meant to echo this.)  The boy had won a spot playing with Wynton Marsalis, and Fletcher saw him as one of his great successes.  But the parents tell Andrew that the boy had been anxious and miserable for a long time.

This is important, because the film isn't over yet.  Andrew passes a jazz club and sees that Fletcher will be featured that night.  He goes to hear him play, Fletcher sees him, they have a drink together.  Fletcher says that he resigned from the conservatory.  He invites Andrew to join an orchestra he's putting together for a jazz festival at Carnegie Hall; he hasn't been able to find a drummer who knows the charts, and he knows that Andrew memorized them long before.  Andrew gets his drums out of the closet, and goes to the festival to play.  Fletcher tells the assembled musicians that this is their big chance, there are people in the audience who will notice if they do well, and who will never forget if they make even a tiny mistake.  They go on stage, Andrew at the drum kit, and Fletcher announces to the audience that they will begin with a new piece, his composition, never played before.  Panicked but controlled, Andrew looks at the chart before him.  No one told him about this, no one gave him the chart.  The other musicians have the music in front of them; they look unruffled.  Andrew miserably tries to fake his way through the piece, without success.  I wondered if this scene was supposed to be Andrew's nightmare, and if he would wake up from it.  As far as I could tell, it's not.  (The reviews I've looked at don't mention it.)  At this point there was some distraction and I couldn't follow the film closely, but I could tell that Fletcher didn't eject Andrew from the band, the show went on, and Andrew triumphed as Fletcher beamed at him proudly.  Finis. Credits.

As I watched Whiplash I felt regret that Band of Thebes is no longer blogging, because I'd love to read what he'd have written about it, likely something in the vein of his mocking review of the historical Romans-in-Britain The Eagle, which cast it as an S&M romance between the two gorgeous young male leads.  Whiplash went much farther than The Eagle, stopping short only of overt beatings of the bottom by the abusive top daddy Fletcher.  I thought too of Anne Rice's Sleeping Beauty trilogy, an extended S&M fantasy, which struck me when I first read it by the role that "normal" schooling echoes standard S&M practice.  If you've read any S&M porn, from Rice to John Preston, the parallels are impossible to miss.  The use of homophobic epithets made it even harder to ignore the sadomasochistic text, though the critics I read managed to do so.  I gathered from the reviews that the writer-director has a background in jazz before he switched to film, and that Whiplash is in some degree his manifesto about Excellence.  I'm not sure, if so, what I'm supposed to make of the fact that he shows Fletcher lying to his students about the dead student, the student he effectively drove to suicide.  There's no hint that he feels any remorse, or doubt about his methods of producing what he considers excellence.  It's as if Andrew's triumph at Carnegie Hall also vindicates Fletcher.

None of the critics I read questioned his methods either; rather there was a certain amount of Whoa, dude, awesome, radical in their reactions.  As far as I could tell, Fletcher was maybe a bit extreme, but not excessive.  Several mentioned a story Fletcher tells to justify himself, involving a cymbal thrown at the head of a teenaged Charlie Parker by drummer Jo Jones on stage in 1937.  (According to this account, the cymbal was thrown at Parker's feet, not his head, and didn't connect as Fletcher claimed it did.  This writer dissects the claim further.)  As far as I'm concerned, Fletcher is a vicious sociopath.  His students aren't remotely consenting to the mistreatment he metes out, though they endure it: partly perhaps because they already were to some extent driven, prepped and self-selected by the time they entered conservatory, but mostly because he's the teacher, the authority figure, and everything they know encourages them to see him as their path to success as musicians.

I also thought of Starship Troopers -- the book, not the movie, which I haven't seen -- which Robert Heinlein wrote for what would now be called the Young Adult market.  It glamorizes military service, and includes a long account of Marine boot camp, which Fletcher's classroom resembles in its methods, though admittedly it isn't the same kind of total environment.  Heinlein had to tone things down a bit, since he couldn't include the screaming of obscenities and homophobic abuse in a romance written for teenagers, not in the 1950s anyhow.  And perhaps he chose to, to make his story more appealing or at least less off-putting to his readers.  (Similarly, one segment of War, the military historian Gwynne Dyer's miniseries which aired on PBS in the 1980s, depicts Marine boot camp at Parris Island.  I was amused to watch the drill instructors visibly biting back the fucks they obviously wanted to spit out.)  Prurient accounts of flogging, which Heinlein did include, could be included in an SF novel in the 1950s; verbal obscenities could not.  Heinlein also showed his drill sergeants as consciously, deliberately planning and calibrating the abuse of their trainees, making them older, sadder wiser fellows just doing a job; perhaps they were, just like Nazi SS goons.  Even so Scribner, his usual publisher for the "juveniles," turned Starship Troopers down and it was published by the nominally adult publisher Putnam.  That's the thing, though: Fletcher might be an outlier, though I'm not sure even of that.  He's certainly not an aberration.  As I said, he's old-school, if you studied with De Sade.

But, as I indicated before, I mainly connected Whiplash to Freddie deBoer's discussion of the scarcity of academic talent in the population, and to other discussions of elitism and meritocracy.  I'm not saying that either deBoer nor Christopher Hayes would approve of Fletcher's methods -- I don't know one way or the other -- but it seems to me that they both make the same general mistake Whiplash makes, namely that "creativity [is[ just a matter of tallying up practice hours, musicianship [is] just athleticism, and it [takes] flinging deadly objects at someone to motivate them."  (I'm reversing what the writer at Slate, previously mentioned, said in denial of Fletcher's philosophy.)

Whiplash inadvertently raises questions that go beyond the acceptability of abuse and humiliation of students by their teachers, into areas where Chris Hayes, for one, screwed up.  The viewer has to take it on faith that Andrew is all that good, let alone that he'll become the "great" musician he wants to be.  The world is big, much bigger than the hermetically sealed conservatory classroom he and his rivals are trying to claw their way to the top of.  Even a major jazz festival is a microcosm.  The standards of excellence in jazz are different from those in other arts, even if we stay within the bounds of European art music.  What would, say, an Indian classical tabla player think of Andrew, or of Fletcher?  And, as always, even if you could claim to be the fastest drummer in the West, you would have to go on defending your title against upstart newcomers.  Is "greatness" in the arts (or anywhere else) solely a matter of technical proficiency, playing more beats per minute than anyone has ever played before until someone else comes along and plays a tiny fraction faster than you did?  I recall reading that the composer Maurice Ravel lacked the chops to play the piano concerto he wrote for someone else; was he therefore a total loser, a mediocrity, a fuckup who should have had a grand piano thrown at his head?  To return to deBoer, is academic ability a matter of scoring a wee bit higher on a multiple-choice test than the next kid?  Of course not, and deBoer knows it; so why does he write as if he didn't know it?

If a consenting adult chooses to work with a maniacally demanding, abusive teacher in the belief that he can achieve greatness or merely better-ness thereby, that's up to him.  (I forgot to mention before that the musicians in Fletcher's classroom are all male.  No doubt in Fletcher's mind, and in his creator Damien Chazelle's mind, greatness can't be cultivated in women.)  Maybe they can both get off on it.  There are stories of famous, possibly great conductors who browbeat performers, bringing them to tears.  Toscanini comes to mind.  But Toscanini wasn't the only great conductor, just as Bob Knight wasn't the only great coach.  Both of them, and other authoritarian scum like them, might have achieved their results without debasing and humiliating their charges -- who knows?  It's certain that others achieved great results by other methods.  And students can't really consent, especially outside of elite institutions; or even inside them.  Do the students attending Whiplash's conservatory know in advance what they were signing up for?  Were they given a safe word?  Responsible sadomasochistic practice demands one.

Chazelle has said: "There is a moral question in the movie that I wanted to pose which is: 'If we accept that sometimes terrible means lead to good ends, do we accept that the ends justify the means?'" It would seem that he thinks that the answer is "Yes."  I don't.  Even the way he poses the question is fallacious, since in order to say that the ends justify the means, one would have to be able to show that the terrible means led to the good end.  In general, they obviously don't, or they would always (or mostly) lead to good ends.  If all of Fletcher's students became great muscians, he could argue that his methods produce greatness; most likely, as in the real world, most do not.  So his means can't be justified by their ends.  It appears to be purely accidental that some of the survivors become great.  In much the same way, some people have tried to connect substance abuse and other problems causally with artistic achievement; but even if all great artists were junkies, not all junkies are great artists.

There's an old fable about a young violinist who plays for a famous older violinist to get his advice whether to coninue with music.  The Maestro says, "You lack the fire," so Junior gives up music and becomes a bank clerk or a life coach or something.  Years later, they happen to meet again, and the Maestro says that he tells everybody they lack the fire; if they give up, that proves him right.  Those who stick with it prove him wrong, though, and he can't take credit for their success since he did nothing to help it or bring it about.  In fact, it can be argued that neither he nor anyone else can tell in advance whether someone will be great.  The same is true of Fletcher.  Do those of his students who succeed do so because of his abuse, or despite it?  The burden of proof lies on him.

Even if one could establish a causal link between Fletcher's methods and the few students who achieve greatness, it could and should be questioned whether the means are justified.  Does the success of a few balance the misery he inflicted on them, or on the many who fail?  Is becoming a great jazz musician even that important an end?  There are clearly people who believe so, but are they right, and how do we decide?  Since we don't know, I think I may reasonably suspect that Fletcher's means are for him, and perhaps for the few who seek him out, the end in themselves.  Making a great musician, which rarely is the result anyway, is at best an accident.

That so many reviewers praised Whiplash so lavishly is to me a symptom of what Adrienne Rich called the deadly masochism of normative masculinity.  Apparently a good many men secretly long for an abusive daddy who'll whip them into line.  Something like that longing draws many into the military, for example.  Which is fine -- everyone has a right to their kinks -- but we should not confuse ourselves about what is really going on.