Whiplash

Whiplash

Director: Damien Chazelle
Actors: Miles Teller, J.K. Simmons
Genre: Music Drama   Year: 2014
Grade: A-

Background:

What types of trait a person must possess in order to evolve into one of the greatest, immortal-in-the-minds-of-posterity artists? Who can yearn for it and take the less traveled road to the apogee in the realm of art? This prodigy-in-the-making has been the topic for quite a few movies in the past. (On top of my head, I can think of “Black Swan” and “Pollack.”) A person can be a prodigy of many different sorts. In this movie, it’s become a greatest jazz drummer.

 

 

 

 

 

As obvious as it is, the drum as a musical instrument stands out against other instruments. First, it involves much more physical movement, hence more conspicuous and dynamic. Second, drumming is often thought to be a background support for the harmony of other instruments. Third, you can actually get hurt playing drums, as will be obvious in the movie. All these in mind, the movie about a drum prodigy has many potentials for the medium, and they are well employed in this movie.

Whiplash has won the Grand Jury Prize at Sundance Film Festival this year. This reviewer watched the movie during the pre-screening session here at UCLA, with Q&A session followed after with the main actors.

Q&A session with Miles Teller and J.K. Simmons

Summary:

The movie opens as the camera closes on Andrew Neyman (Miles Teller) practicing jazz drumming in a tiny room. With the crude beats and pounds of the drums, the scene is more claustrophobic than the view suggests, and what’s worse, there stands Terrence Fletcher (J.K. Simmons), the conductor of the best jazz team at the school, criticizing every aspect of the new student’s drumming. Andrew has just enrolled in the music school (the best in U.S.), and dreams of becoming a main drummer in Fletcher’s jazz team. The conductor, Fletcher, is a devil-fearing character, not sparing violence when disciplining his students.

There are no two-words in an English Language more harmful than ‘good-job.’

As it is the best school, and Fletcher’s band being the top, there is fierce competition among musicians to become the main player in the team. Andrew, shy and taciturn he may be, would give anything to take the position. It’s the story of his upward climb, then a sudden downfall, and the redemption.

Some of previous movies, such as “Black Swan” may be more extreme in self-sacrifice and psychological price for becoming the greatest. Sure, Andrew suffers much in the movie too, but it is the relationship between a prodigy and a teacher that ought to gain more attention in this movie. Terrence Fletcher is relentless, and Andrew’s former obsequious attitude changes to resentment, then to hatred, and to revenge. All those progress of his emotion toward the teacher is depicted with his drumming, and in the end, he might not have achieve the status of the greatest, but the feeling of satisfaction that he has attained what he wanted is nonetheless dramatic.

Allegorical Viewing:  What it means to become great at something?

During the movie, Fletcher tells Andrew that “there are no two-words in English language more harmful than ‘Good Job.'” Hence, the Fletcher’s way of discipline was to push his students with whatever means until they themselves push beyond the limit.

Throughout the movie, we see that Andrew has dreamt of becoming the greatest since he was young. He indulges himself in the art. In his room, on the bus ride, deep into the night, he listens to nothing but drum cds, scrutinizes every measure and every marks on the drum sheets, and practices until his hands bleeds and blisters. He even shuns his girlfriend because he thinks their time together is mere impediment to his drumming progress. His sanity and his bodily well-being are peripheral concerns when it comes to the drumming.

We viewers wish that he achieves what he desires, yet we are conflicted and doubtful in our admiration. Would he really be happy when he achieves what he desires? During the family dinner, his uncle mentions that Andrew’s idol, (Buddy Rich) was, yes, the greatest drummer but he was lonely, depressed, drug-addicted and died at the age of 35. Andrew, to his father’s disappointment, lauds such fame and life. He thinks it is better to be remembered than to live happily for a long, forgettable life. In this fierce, competitive society, we often have to make many choices as we play zero-sum games. In order to attain something, we need to sacrifice something that might be equally important.

 

Recommended for:

Music Lovers, Dreamers, Jazz-maniacs, and person who likes to imagine the limits of human wills.

Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki and His Years of Pilgrimage

Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki and His Years of Pilgrimage

By Haruki Murakami
Length: 386 pg.  Publication Year: 2013 (in Japan), 2014 (in U.S.A.)
Genre: Literary, Bildungsroman,
Grade: A

Please play this video while reading the review below as this music is central to the themes and motifs of the novel.

Background:

Murakami surely knows his high standing in the publishing world; no author nowadays can publish a novel with such a long title: Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki and His Years of Pilgrimage. In Japan, his status as a lionized writer has been confirmed once again when this novel was published; it sold more than a million copy within a week during the era of ‘books are dying’ sensibility. What’s his appeal? Why does he command such a strong readership and favorable reviews both from young and old?

When I was 21 (that’s 11 years ago!), I met my current wife (then-girlfriend) and my academic pursuit necessitated a temporary long distance relationship. Of course, I was lonely, and the solace came in the form of Murakami’s stories. At the time, I read most, if not all, of his books published until then in English. Although I never have granted him ‘my favorite author’ status, he resides tenderly in my heart. His appeal? He understands human loneliness better than other writers. In this technology fueled 21st century, despite all those social medias that supposedly are panacea for loneliness, we are lonelier than ever. Human connection has become artificial.

We can argue that loneliness is an innate nature, and no gadget can eradicate it completely. However, his novels bring an immense solace, often by delving into others who are also lonely and are fighting to overcome it. A quixotic hope it might be to ameliorate one’s loneliness through reading a fictional story, but Murakami makes it worthwhile.

Many male fiction readers (very few nowadays) can identify themselves in Murakami’s protagonists. They are usually forlorn, confused about the logics of the world, and infinitely curious about the opposite sex and also in sex itself. They fight loneliness boldly, although not always successful. And they dream, indeed dream with such intensity that it creeps over and threatens to mingle with reality. In the end, they learn to accept, both what has happened and what is to come. Although the past reminds a scar, it has fostered them to become stronger.

His unique application of dream logic in his stories tend to repeat in a number of his novels, but this newest one is more akin to Norwegian Wood, which is geared toward realism rather than his signature magical realism.

Synopsis:

The sheer narrative momentum in this novel has a huge entertainment value. Tsukuru Tazaki, a 36-year old railroad station engineer, has to revisit his past in order to take his current love-life to the next step. During his college years, he was ousted from a tight-knit group of friends he had hung out for several years. The shock at the time, and of course the sadness, had prevented him from ascertaining what had caused the expulsion, but this event made such a huge impact in his life afterward. Goaded by his current girlfriend, he decides to visit his friends and inquire about the event.

The suffering after the rejection is unbearable that he often speculates death. He tries to reason with himself, accounting the facts that all his four friends’ last names have a meaning of a color in them, but his hasn’t. “Their last names all contained a color. The two boys’ last names were Akamatsu–which means “red pine”–and Oumi–“blue sea”; the girls family names were Shirane–“white root”–and Kurono–“black field.” Tazaki was the only last name that did not have a color in its meaning.” He concludes that he is “an empty vessel. A colorless background. With no special defects, nothing outstanding. Maybe that sort of person was necessary to the group.” Even the college friend whom he is acquainted with – who brings something close to salvation for Tsukuru – has a word ‘gray’ in his last name.

Why was he kicked out from the group? It surely wasn’t because his name didn’t contain a color in its meaning. They were inseparable all the time, and without any warning, his friends uniformly tells him to detach himself from the group. This mystery is the main force that drives the narration. The novel is a bildunsroman in a sense that he grows up and enters adulthood despite all those sufferings and confusion. “I survived the crisis. Swam through the night sea on my own. Each of us did what we had to do, in order to survive. I get the feeling that, even if we had made different decisions then, even if we had chosen to do things differently, we might have still ended up pretty much where we are now.”

Allegorical Reading:  Colorful vs. Colorless

His name literally means: Tsukuru = “to make or build,” and Tazaki = “many peninsulas.” Though his name might be colorless, his inner feelings and his pilgrimage toward truth are anything but. Is someone is already imbued with color, then he might not have a room anymore to absorb other colors. Since Tsukuru is colorless, he feels more intensely, he experiences purer.

The music (youtube above) is Franz Liszt’s ‘Le Mal Du Pays,’ literally meaning homesickness, or to explain further, “a groundless sadness called forth in a person’s heart by a pastoral landscape.” It’s from his Years of Pilgrimage Suite Year 1. Murakami is a well known as a music lover, and music has a huge role as a motif in many of his novels.

The story is full of subtle significances: 1) the overlap between dreams and realities 2) his love interests always being older than he is 3) Finland used as a setting at one point, the place where sun never sets. The experience of reading his novels calls forth a psychoanalytic approach to interpreting the text. Many of his texts are narration of the unconsciousness, that ineffable and unreachable abyss of human nature elaborated into text that insidiously grasps the reader’s mind.

Worthy Quotes:

Originality is nothing but judicious imitation. So said Voltaire, the realist.

The more he thought about the boundary between the conscious and the unconscious, the less certain he became of his own identity.

It was reality, but a reality imbued with all the qualities of a dream. A different sphere of reality, where–at a special time and place–imagination had been set free.