Film Fest 5: 'Whiplash' (2014) & 'Black Swan' (2010)

 Film still from Black Swan (2010,Darren Aronofsky)

By: Olivia Ash-Ranger

This feature-length debut from Damien Chazelle is one of the best films of last year. Filmed in just 19 days, the intensity of such a tight shoot transfers to the screen and makes Whiplash a gripping thriller. An unusual tone for a film about jazz drumming, but it will be sure to have you gripping the edge of your seat for much of the film.

Miles Teller plays Andrew a jazz drummer aspiring to be ‘the best’, tutored by Fletcher (J.K. Simmons) who seems hell bent on pushing, beating, and terrorising his students into greatness: all stick and no carrot. While such treatment causes other students to suffer mental breakdowns, Andrew is motivated to work harder; spurred on by being knocked down over and over, through mental and physical abuse. For Andrew, this is the necessary process to achieve greatness. Fletcher pushes and pushes him, insisting over and over that his drumming is just “not quite my tempo”. Eventually Andrew surpasses him and there is a mutual understanding that Andrew has achieved Greatness with a capital G, which causes Simmons to finally step back and let him play to his own tempo.

Film stills from 'Whiplash' (2014, Damien Chazelle)

The brutality of creative industries, as shown in Whiplash, brings to mind another film which also subverts the usual perception of the arts; Aranofsky’s 2010 feature Black Swan starring Natalie Portman as ballet dancer Nina Sayers. In both films, the protagonists are pushed, and push themselves above and beyond in order to achieve their potential; in both cases they are successful. J.K. Simmons, during the promotion of Whiplash, questioned whether it was really suitable to push anyone this far, suggesting that while such aggressive tactics might be acceptable for the Navy, they certainly don’t suit the arts industry.

I, however, disagree; the Navy pushes people that far because they need a certain type of personality to be able to cope with what the Navy requires, just as only a certain type of person can achieve perfection in Black Swan, or greatness in Whiplash. In addition, despite these films being about the arts, ballet and jazz drumming respectively, these careers are portrayed more like sports. Black Swan acts as a part two to Aranofsky’s 2008 film The Wrestler (and they were originally conceived of as one film), and in both films there is blood, sweat and tears aplenty. And you only need to take a glance at the sweat pouring off Miles Teller during his nine-minute drum solo to see that drumming in Whiplash is most certainly a sport. When these artistic pursuits are considered from the perspective of sports it makes sense that the characters must be pushed beyond what is ‘normal’ in order to achieve their optimum.

 Film still from Black Swan (2010,Darren Aronofsky) 

The BBC film review program ‘Film 2015’ described neither of the characters in Whiplash as being particularly likeable, using and abusing each other to achieve their own ends in an almost sadistic manner. Perhaps. But they both had their goals and in the end, through working together, they are ultimately fulfilled. J.K. Simmons and director Damien Chazelle said that they wanted audiences to walk away and question whether Andrew’s agonies to achieve greatness was worth it, or was it too much. Does he sacrifice his humanity in pursuit of his goals? I think not. He knows exactly what he wants and he knows what he has to do to get there. This again is similar to Black Swan, just as it is necessary for the completion of her transformation into the Swan Queen she too must die at the end of the ballet, so too will Andrew die “broke, drunk and alone at the age of 34”, but he will die GREAT.

Rather than the pursuit of a long and happy life, a goal generally chased by most cinematic protagonists, I believe these artists strive and suffer for one ultimate ambition, to create performances they will be remembered by. This radical rethinking of arts industries as brutal sports, whereby people almost sacrifice their humanity for the sake of the stage, is why Black Swan and Whiplash are to me the most brilliant and memorable of films.