One of the last nominees, Whiplash, is such an interesting pick. Coming from a background in theatre and art, I have mixed feelings about the film and have a hard time deciding who is the hero and who's the villain. I think that's part of the point, of course.
This is the kind of movie you randomly see and then the Oscars come and spend all their nominations on a Lord of the Rings movie and you wonder what is happening. It's intense, engaging, and driven by nothing more than a great story and intriguing characters. It's really the story of two men and the film was shot in 19 days, because it's simple in many ways. On the other hand, there is so much happening that would go missing if you weren't paying attention.
If you're not familiar with the story, it's about a young man, Andrew, who is accepted into the country's best music conservatory for jazz drumming. His dream is to be taught and trained by Terence Fletcher, a renowned instructor whose methods are, shall we say, unconventional.
The movie really pushes the training and evolution of Charlie Parker for a reason (two Birdmen make their way into this year's Oscars!). Fletcher is likely seen as abusive by most viewers, because he literally makes his musicians bleed in order to get it right. However, Andrew claims he wants to be great. He doesn't want to be remembered only by his friends, but remembered at dinner tables by strangers 100 years after his death. He wants to be the next Charlie Parker.
Andrew is, at times, arrogant and self-righteous. He is also extremely entitled, and it's hard not to want to see Fletcher push him harder. This isn't a high school band or a random General Education elective he needs to graduate; this is the entire purpose of Andrew's existence and this is the best school in the country. Successful students under Fletcher have the possibility of playing Lincoln Center, of being remembered.
At times, though, Fletcher does start to cross the line, moving from emotionally demanding to physical abuse. There's an awesome conversation towards the end of the film when Andrew asks outright if there's a line, if this kind of demand pushes potential Charlie Parkers away, if it could discourage them. Fletcher responds, "The next Charlie Parker wouldn't get discouraged." That's a big theme of this movie - how bad do you really want to be great?
We live in an age of entitlement. Everyone wants to be important, to be famous, but very few want to truly work for it. And why should they, when we praise reality stars and people with YouTube channels who have never actually done anything? Kim Kardashian is famous. Tell me, what is her talent? How will she be remembered? (I don't want to attack anyone, but I'm trying to make a point. We aren't living in an age of the next Charlie Parker; we're living in the age of the next "Charlie bit my finger.") Sports coaches are threatened for pushing their athletes too hard, and everyone gets a trophy because no one should be sad. But, as Fletcher says at one point, the "worst two words in the English language are 'good job.'" He's referencing a dramatized version of a story about Charlie Parker he tells, whose band mate threw a cymbal at him during practice (Fletcher says it was at Parker's head, but it was only at his feet). Parker then went and practiced more and more until he got it right. Fletcher argues that if he'd been told it was good, that his performance was acceptable, he would have been just another mediocre musician.
It's hard to hear that, sure, but I know personally that the directors I've worked with and teachers I've had who pushed and pushed until I thought I'd reached my limit - and then kept pushing - are the ones who helped me the most. I don't excuse Fletcher's physical violence, but it's an interesting debate for sure. Without giving too much away, Andrew probably has more of a negative impact on Fletcher's life than vice versa through his actions, and in the end, I wonder if we can say that Fletcher really was exactly what Andrew needed to reach the potential for greatness he desired. It's a really interesting look at where pressure becomes abuse, and where desire for success becomes anxiety and neurosis.
Again, Fletcher goes too far, but if he was only kind and supportive, what would happen when Andrew went up against a music exec? Does he expect to walk in and get a recording contract? What about the first harsh critical review published? In reality, growing through a teacher like Fletcher (without the abuse ideally) cushions the blow of the criticism you inevitably will have to face. In our culture today, everyone is on Twitter, and everyone will be quick to let you know just how mediocre you really are.
Whiplash is another easy contender for Best Picture and one I would not mind seeing win. It's a movie everyone who strives to be great at something should see, too, because it's a reminder that adversity is what shapes the best.