Bird, Birdman, Batman, Bateman
A lot has been written about Whiplash, a few pieces in particular infinitely better written than anything I could ever hope to produce. Wesley Morris, of Grantland.com, wrote a particular good take here (I’m not always a fan of Morris’ stuff – he can come on a little strong – but when it’s good, it’s very good; see in particular “Alex Pappademas has called Simmons a walking erection. When Fletcher blasts into a room, the students rise involuntarily, returning the favour”, which captures the weird abuse-desire tension-dynamic that charges the whole film better than 1,000 words of thinkpiece drivel).
So I won’t say much. But seriously, go see this movie. I’ve always stanned for JK Simmons, so I was always going to see it in cinemas, but you’ve probably got reservations. They may feature on this list: but it’s about drumming; but it’s about men; but it’s about Jazz (or even worse, Jazz drumming!); but it’s a small-budget film that doesn’t merit being seen on the big screen; but all the awards buzz is about Birdman / Boyhood / The Theory of Everything. All semi-valid concerns on paper, but buddy, you’re wrong. You’re more wrong than the fat guy that gets sent out of practice early in the movie for being out of tune, even when he wasn’t, because he couldn’t tell the difference. You’re more wrong than Andrew, the film’s protagonist, when he’s being slapped round the face every couple of seconds for failing to keep time. You’re more wrong than a band practice slated to start at 9PM and that starts instead at 2AM because Fletcher is drilling three guys until their hands bleed.
Let me tell you about my day yesterday. I had a nice haircut, which cost more than I wanted to pay, ideally speaking, but – hey, the barber’s is right at the end of the road, so what am I going to do. Lizzy and I wandered around Islington a bit, then ended up going for dim sum on Baker Street, then wandering back, with a quick trip on the tube, before buying a gift card, a broom, and a dustpan and brush. You can probably see where this is heading: we went into the cinema in one frame of mind; we came out electrified. Whiplash is first and foremost a kinetic film, one that reminds you that motion pictures are about energy, pictures that move. The dynamism is extraordinary – it's the edit suite as drum kit, with director Damien Chazelle hammering away at cuts to capture quite how much energy – blood, sweat, tears – is being expended. And then – like Fletcher grabbing at the air as though to suck all of it out of the room – silence, a moment to reflect and contemplate what has just occurred, like this one shot, that probably entails the end of the first act of the movie: a hand slowly, painfully being submerged into a bucket of ice water, slowly and then quickly turning it from glacial blue to blood red.
There is a lot of blood in Whiplash, for a movie – on paper at least – about music college. There is more blood in it than in some war movies, and in most sports movies. These are the two genres thrown at it most readily by other writers – and they stick pretty well. But, given the skill and precision on display, given none of us could ever do one tenth of what Miles Teller’s character can do, given we have a hero trying to vanquish an adversary, isn’t there another genre we can throw into the mix? Isn’t Whiplash actually a twisted take on the superhero movie?
BATMAN: Then why do you want to kill me?
The Joker starts laughing. After a moment he's laughing so hard it sounds like sobbing.
JOKER: Kill you? I don't wanna kill you. What would I do without you? Go back to ripping off mob dealers? No. No. No! No you- you complete me.
BATMAN: You're garbage who kills for money.
JOKER: Don't talk like one of them, you're not. Even if you'd like to be. To them, you're a freak. Like me.
It is a small, in-no-way-relevant-but-still-kind-of-interesting-coincidence that the last film I saw with a bolted-on, in-no-way-will-I-accept-an-alternative Best Supporting Actor Oscar performance in it was The Dark Knight. The lie that the Golden Age of comic books told us was that you can have it all – that you can be Clark Kent and Superman, and never the twain shall meet (in the early Superman movies, this was a bit played for slushy rom-com laughs, like the scene inMrs Doubtfire when Robin Williams has to keep leaving the room to change). It is interesting – even if it is done with all the subtlety of a Hulksmash – to see that the current slate of Marvel and DC films are beginning to complicate this idea: we have a Tony Stark with PTSD, and a Bruce Wayne whose body is breaking down in rebellion. (It is interesting that Birdman, another of the year’s buzzed-about releases, also explores some of this psychologically fertile terrain – although in director Alejandro González Iñárritu’s eyes it is the superhero-movie churning cinema industry more broadly that is sick, which does at least explain why his movie will win those all-important and self-important Academy votes). Simmons is as magnetic in Whiplash as Ledger was in The Dark Knight; the first (and only!) great post-9/11 superhero film, and in both movies you have the same murky relationship and tension between ostensible protagonist and ostensible antagonist. Where Whiplash moves beyond the superhero formula, however, is in suggesting that being great – “winning” in the parlance of sports and war movies; “defeating evil” in the (Tony) starkest DC and Marvel terms – comes at the cost of welcoming the dark side, working – as the films resonant final minutes suggest – in perfect harmony and time with it. People in the audience cheered at the end of the movie, and I was certainly exhilarated – but it didn’t feel like a victory. What comes next for Andrew Nieman? What comes next for any person with that sort of ambition? What comes last?
The 80s was the decade of one sort of banker – the one who made obscene amounts of money, but still had time for a three-martini lunch: we called him the Master of the Universe, implicitly acknowledging his troubling ubermenschstatus; Superman tailored by Valentino. Since then, as our superheroes have become darker and grubbier, bankers have evolved into hollow-eyed vampires – men who make obscene amounts of money, but at the cost of barely ever leaving the office to spend it (truly, the sort of punishment dreamt up by a vengeful god). I’m not saying for a second that public ire against bankers is unmerited; I’m not saying we should pity their horrific working hours (they knew what they were signing up for, and for how much). But as I left Whiplash – elated, exhilarated, energised – Chazelle left me with one of those little extra pauses for contemplation. I am 28 now and there is a lot I want to achieve. I know that to do well, I’m going to need to make sacrifices. To do really well, I’m probably going to have to make more. Whiplashcautions us about ambition. A little of it is essential. A decent chunk of it is great. But for the terminally ambitious – whether the banker or the teen drumming prodigy – it isn’t a good thing at all. It actually looks more like a sickness.