Transcending Self for the American Dream in Whiplash

Vonnegut’s eighth and final rule of writing goes as follows: “Give your readers as much information as possible as soon as possible. To heck with suspense. Readers should have such complete understanding of what is going on, where and why, that they could finish the story themselves, should cockroaches eat the last few pages.”  It is through that quote that I’d like to discuss the masterful final sequence of Whiplash.

A few quick notes on Whiplash before we jump into the ending.  Whiplash was, in my opinion, the best film of 2014 (though wow what a year… Nightcrawler took my breath away, and I’m sure there are a number of other films that I’m forgetting that really drew me in – apparently Inherent Vice is also from that year, as well as Calvary and the very different but equally enjoyable X-Men: Days of Future Past and Captain America: The Winter Soldier).  But for all that Whiplash was the film that most took me by surprise and didn’t let me go.  Watching it at a friend’s house New Year’s Day (with Sam!) I felt like I wanted to watch it again as soon as it was over.

The title is apt.  The movie feels like it goes and goes and never stops, and if it did it’d certainly knock you for a loop.  The premise is simple: Andrew Neiman wants to be great.  He wants to be the best.  He wants to be a name.  He wants, essentially, the American Dream.  Fletcher (a superb J.K. Simmons, who is one of my favorite living actors) is a teacher who has wanted to produce someone great for years.  He is the older version of the American Dream, more interested in the ideal than the personal achievement.  He doesn’t care if he himself is recognized.  He is interested in pushing music itself to the next level.  While Fletcher hasn’t let go of his own ego he has recognized the need to actually give up ego to succeed.  This makes individuals (his students) dispensable.  If they can’t survive, they weren’t good enough.  On to the next, all in service of something more massive.

The film suggests that greatness requires a stripping down, an abandonment of person (just as Fletcher suggests) and the movie plays it masterfully, letting storylines fade into the background as Andrew outpaces them.  Things that should have been big events are left on the wayside.  Even Andrew’s car crash is swift.  It hits, and then is over.  Andrew doesn’t have time for it.  The boy meets girl story is the same.  He gives it up, and there is no going back.

I don’t know if I fully agree with that message and I’d argue that it is more Fletcher’s methodology and philosophy rather than writer/director Damien Chazelle, who never makes the sacrifice look healthy or good.  Cutting away at yourself and your life will have side-effects, and the definition of success as fame and recognition is a narrow one.  Health and balance are not cast in a villainous light, but neither is commitment.  They are both obviously choices, and both have rewards and consequences.  But since the film resides mostly within Fletcher’s realm, his belief system rules: to succeed (with him) you must give up yourself.

So we race into a tense showdown that is inevitable.  Here is where Vonnegut’s rule comes in: do we really believe that Fletcher, who has lost his job due to Andrew’s actions, doesn’t know that it was Andrew who ruined him?  No.  Even if the cockroaches ate the pages, we’d know that Fletcher was going to push Andrew once more.  That is who he is.

Fletcher reveals to Andrew that he is going to screw him over right before they step onto stage, and he makes good on his threat.  Andrew flounders on stage and nearly runs away, but do we really believe that he is going to?  No.  Even if the cockroaches ate the pages, there is no way that Andrew would give up.  That’s not who he is.

So he returns and the movie ends in the only way that it can, in the way that we imagine it will.  We see Andrew keep going, keep going, and the rest of the ensemble fades out of focus, the audience remains in darkness, and the camera focuses only on Andrew with Fletcher hovering in and out of frame.  The drum solo is insane, and Andrew disappears into it.  The music fades for a short while and it’s just him and his body before his music surges back up and swallows him.  Fletcher is enraptured.  This is far and beyond anything that either of them could achieve on their own – it is exactly what Fletcher’s nutso philosophy calls for, an abandonment of individuality, somehow turning yourself over to the music.  Andrew has overridden Fletcher’s ego, but Fletcher transcends this and gives way to Andrew, assisting when need be – he is not a passive member of the scene but rather coaches Andrew through the action once he accepts it (and hilariously rights a cymbal that falls over).

Which leads us to the most powerful three shots of the entire film.  My favorite three shots of the entire year of film.  Andrew’s solo ends.  We cut to just Fletcher’s eyes.  They’re watching, probing.  There is no emotion there.  The unity of the two men is shattered for that moment – Fletcher holds all the cards.  This is the student who defied him, who cost him his job.  Fletcher can ruin him in this moment.

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We cut to Andrew, and we know that he knows exactly how much he has given up.  Andrew gave up his self just like Fletcher required, transcended it and became something prenatural extra-human.  But now his fate lies with Fletcher.  In this moment we think that we know what will happen, but it is still thrilling to see if the two will be able to unite and give up themselves.  We believe they can, we hope that they can, and feel it would be the right ending, but that doesn’t make it less tense waiting… waiting…

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We cut back to Fletcher.  Just eyes and nose.  The lines of his face draw upwards (nearly impossible even to see without movement).  We never see the smile because we don’t have to.

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If cockroaches ate the pages after that Fletcher shot, we’d know the ending.  We’d know that he cued the band, that he gave up his personal vendetta, his ego/self, for something bigger and better, something he extolled and was finally able to witness.

But just because we know what happens doesn’t mean we don’t deserve to see it.  So he drops his hand, and the band plays a final note, and Andrew wails on the drums before we cut to black.

NOTE: This piece is part of our series on American Dream movies from 2014 including Nightcrawler, Whiplash, Birdman, and Foxcatcher, as well as a final piece.  Stay tuned!

NOTE: This piece is also part of our Damien Chazelle week.  Return Saturday for our review of La La Land.

Recommended Readings:

Book – A Breakfast of Champions is probably not Vonnegut’s best book (and probably not the one that has the most narrative cohesion) but it is a truly fascinating and bizarre book, and it deals partially with the American Dream and what it takes to be a success.  And really, nearly anything by Vonnegut is worth a read.

TV – Okay, this has a tangential relationship at best, but for another powerhouse J. K. Simmons performance – one that involves a notably different character – you should really check out Legend of Korra.  His work as Korra’s mentor Tenzin is complex and full.  Tenzin is an incredibly supportive man with a beautiful heart, though he has his share of faults as well.

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