The dual-review film criticism site: first a spoiler-free review, then an in-depth Alternate Take.
Whiplash

Written by Anna Reynolds Cooper.

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I’m just going to go right out and say that the ending of Whiplash is outrageous. After the young drummer, Andrew Neiman, has spent the first 2/3 of the movie suffering under the sadistic thumb of bandleader Terence Fletcher, after he has buckled under the pressure and been expelled from the conservatory, after he has spent many months struggling in a difficult and measured return to normal life after a traumatic mental breakdown at Fletcher’s hands - after all this, we are meant to be happy for Andrew when he finally regains Fletcher’s esteem in a triumphant solo at Carnegie Hall? It’s the return of the prodigal son, except that the father is a violent abuser and the son would be better off staying as far away as possible.

This ending is set up for us in advance, when Andrew and Fletcher catch up over a drink a few months after Andrew’s expulsion. It turns out that Fletcher was fired too. Yet he will never apologize for his brutal tactics, he explains, because the ‘cult of niceness’ at work in jazz culture is ‘depriving the world of the next Louis Armstrong’. Fletcher pushed people to the edge and beyond because it brought out perfection in his students, as a way of separating the wheat from the chaff: after all, ‘the next Charlie Parker would never be discouraged’. Later, at Carnegie Hall, when Andrew bursts back onstage after his final humiliating downfall at Fletcher’s hands, you can see the cogs in the drummer’s brain turning: through this final, rebellious blaze of glory, he is proving that he is Fletcher’s coveted new jazz great.

What is up in the air is whether we are meant to agree. On the surface, the final scene reads like a happy ending: all Andrew’s work has finally paid off as his talent comes to public recognition. He triumphs in the face of adversity, and all his self-punishing work is vindicated in the name of genius.


Yet there are major cracks in this surface. It is, after all, the dream of exactly this sort of recognition that has harmed Andrew so utterly in the course of the film, making him submit over and over to Fletcher’s mistreatment, practising until his hands bled. Anyone aware of the psychology of abuse - of the way a victim will keep returning to the abuser in a belief that this time it will be different, that this time I will finally succeed in pleasing him - will be appalled by the ending. The film sets up the pair’s relationship as horrifically barbaric, only to apparently justify this barbarism because it has brought forth Andrew’s genius.

Are we supposed to forget about all this and just be happy for Andrew that he is successfully pursuing his dreams? Are we supposed to see his struggle with Fletcher in a new, more positive light? Are we supposed to be converted to Fletcher’s method, valuing the notion of genius above the mental and physical health of the individuals within the institution that is intended to produce it? And indeed, are we to recast Fletcher as a gruff-but-effective leader within this institution, rather than as a ‘bad apple’ abuser? Accepting the ending as a happy one requires us to summarily re-interpret the story that has come before it, or at least to acknowledge its incoherence.


There is some evidence that the film intentionally sabotages this surface reading: that it wants us to call its ending into question. Consider how Andrew relates to virtually everyone in the film outside of the conservatory: he has little time for his loving but mediocre father (Paul Reiser), who wanted to be a writer but ended up teaching high school; he feels only cold superiority towards his athlete cousins. Most of all, there is Nicole (Melissa Benoist), a freshman at Fordham and sometime love interest. Although Andrew ultimately scorns her for her lack of purpose - pronouncing that her normality will hold him back - what seems to bond them together are their masochistic relationships with authority and their competitive attitudes towards their peers. On their first date, Nicole talks about how her mother, a former actress, is always criticising her looks, and how she doesn’t get along with any of her classmates at Fordham. On a second viewing it seems telling that when, near the beginning of the film, Andrew works up the guts to ask Nicole on a date, she stiffly tells him to go away before taking it back and revealing that the rejection was a joke. She does not know how to relate to others except through cruelty and judgement, and he connects with her in this.

To millennials, this culture of competition, high achievement, and the feeling that one is never measuring up to expectations are all too familiar. Some say that they are our zeitgeist. Scholars call this zeitgeist ‘neoliberalism’: the contemporary regime of self-promoting, self-disciplining creative economy in which work is seamlessly integrated into all aspects of life. Feeding off of the mantra to ‘do what you love, love what you do’, we are encouraged to think of ourselves as failures if we are not working literally all the time; freelancing and entrepreneurship are seen as the highest forms of self expression. Andrew and Nicole’s perfectionism and masochism are so omnipresent as to be almost invisible to a millennial audience: of course he works that hard, because he loves his work. If he has a mental breakdown, that just shows he didn’t love it enough to take the heat.

Also unsettlingly familiar to a millennial audience is the way access to success and power in the creative economy is guarded by baby-boomer gatekeepers. Ask any PhD student or aspiring filmmaker whether Andrew’s relationship with Fletcher is familiar, and you will get knowing looks. Neoliberalism is supposed to be a meritocracy; everyone wants to believe that it is about individual talent and drive. Yet more often than not, it is all about who you know and whom you manage to impress. This is what happens when social systems designed to help people break down - systems like free college tuition, low-cost childcare and unemployment benefits: not only does it become the responsibility of the individual to stay ahead of the game, but power becomes concentrated in the hands of a very few. Andrew’s mental and physical torture is entirely in the service of impressing one guy. All this energy is expended just knocking on the door of the kingdom.


The other powerful thing about neoliberalism is that it has a self-confirming logic. Individual success is taken as an affirmation of the success of the system itself, since its goal is to produce talented individuals who will be successful entrepreneurs and creatives. Rebellion, on the other hand, is indistinguishable from failure. A refusal to work at all hours, to live under the constant pressure of the neoliberal system, just makes you a slacker or a working stiff, not a revolutionary. Andrew’s trajectory illustrates this bind: he lives on a continuum between success and failure and he, like so many millennials, sees no way out other than up.

I have watched the film three times now and yet for the life of me, I can’t decide whether Whiplash is a neoliberalist film par excellence or whether it mounts a subtle insurrection against this system, exposing its central lies by delving into it so thoroughly. The ending marks a rupture, a moment of incoherence that leads us into a deeper reading of the film, but it is impossible to tell whether this rupture is intentional or is simply a product of the incoherences of neoliberalism itself.

This Alternate Take was published on January 26, 2015.