Whiplash – A study of artistic obsession

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NOTE: The following content contains spoilers.

Whiplash is a 2014 film written and director by Damien Chazelle. The Independent jazz drum drama basically follows the journey of a young ambitious jazz drummer Andrew Neiman who aspires to become one of the greatest musicians of the 21st century.

In 1936 on the stage of Kansas City’s Reno Club one night, so the story goes, Charlie Parker was brought down to earth with a crash. The ambitious young saxophonist, then only 16 years old, lost his way while improvising over I Got Rhythm, and the drummer, Jo Jones, lobbed a cymbal at him in frustration, which landed deafeningly at his feet.

The audience laughed and mocked, and Parker stormed out of the venue, defeated. He took a residency at a country resort and used the time to intensive practice. A year later, Parker returned to the same stage and performed – as a character in Whiplash puts it – “the best mother f—in’ solo anyone in the room ever heard.”

This shining, exhilarating film from the young American writer-director Damien Chazelle isn’t a story about the roles played by hardship and humiliation in forging a great artist. It’s a story about what happens when people believe that’s how great artists must be constructed – both the mentors raining down force and the students who are willing to go to the extreme.

In the opening sequence of the film we see Andrew in Shaffer conservatory in New York he is immersed in his craft. The drum rolls set us up as we are entered into the life of a tireless gritty musician. His drumming catches the ear of Terence Fletcher, the most important teacher at Shaffer and the conductor for its most important jazz band.

Andrew is clearly thrilled when he finds out that Fletcher is listening to drumming. The first introduction scene basically tells us the theme of the whole film- an encounter between a strict, scary teacher and a passionate young student. This will be replayed throughout the entire movie with various variations of the same theme. It’s about a student not living up to what the teacher demands of him and the sense of failing what the student want to achieve.

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That chance encounter with Fletcher in the opening sequence of the film is also the inciting incident of the story, the turning point of the narrative when Andrew can no longer maintain the status quo and embarks on his journey to seek greatness. This creates a potential desire in him which starts to change him as a human being.

As the desire grows deep into Andrew, we as audiences also come to know with his fears. Chazelle used very simple equations to show us Andrew’s fears. The film uses its protagonist’s family life to help establish those inherent fears. Andrew is only attached to his father in the family, who is a moderately successful high school teacher and an unsuccessful writer. Chazelle describes him as “average in every respect and has the eyes of a former dreamer“, in the screenplay.

It is the mediocrity of the person Andrew loves the most in the world, his father would become his fear. With time he would come to despise the average mentality of his father, which eventually fuels his desire.

From a very young age Andrew wanted to become a jazz drummer, he practiced drums every day and even admitted himself in the best music school in the country. He has absolutely no friends or a social life. As a 19-year-old Andrew shows us that he is different from any average teenager.  All he wants in life is to become a great musician.

The path to greatness is not that simple and in order to achieve what Andrew desires something must stand in his way. This is where Fletcher comes in as a mentor. Fletcher is reintroduced in the narrative as a dramatic question. Will Andrew be able to push himself to be the greatest?

Driven by desire and fear, Andrew started working harder and soon takes his first uncharacteristic action. He asks out the girl he had a crush on which singles that he is now ready to change.

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He is excited about the first jamming session with the studio band and Fletcher. It’s when we as audiences first come to know about the violent, abusive nature of Fletcher so do Andrew. He is emotionally drained and starts to question his desire. Fletcher’s harshness pushes Andrew and he sees his desires more clearly. He eventually turns himself into a core member of the band from an alternate.

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This resulted in his first victory and his desires expand. But the real challenges are yet to come. After getting recruited to the studio band Andrew faces various obstacles in his path, just when he thought that he has accomplished something he is reminded of his desire.

After becoming the core drummer of the studio band Andrew finds himself among his family members talking about regular things in life and their mundane ambitions at a family dinner table. All the members of the family are a bit intimidated by his attitude and pursuit, including his father. Again it’s his father who reminds him of failure ignites his desire to become great.

These obstacles forced him to change in a certain way that he wouldn’t otherwise. Andrew is being held back by his former self. In Andrew’s quest to greatness, there are some key motivating factors involved such as the threat of replacement. This threat comes to him as a surprise, Andrew was selected to the studio band ahead of his peer, Ryan. But Fletcher brings Ryan to the studio and makes it very clear that nothing is taken for granted in the music world. If Andrew wants the part he has to earn it.

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He eventually begins to change but takes it too far that we see the path of greatness is one of self-destruction. The threat of replacement adds pressure and drives his descent into madness.

Andrew breaks up with his girlfriend Nichole by telling her that what he wants to achieve needs more of his time and she is standing between him and his dream. This scene highlights his psyche, he is attracted to Nichole but is breaking up with her and it’s about the action it’s about in the manner he does it. Andrew’s desires have got the better of him and he is choosing a path of destruction, not greatness. He becomes obsessed with his dream of becoming a great jazz drummer and goes completely out of control.

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In Andrew’s slow descent into madness, the main force of antagonism is played by Fletcher. The violent and abusive nature of his mentor makes Andrew overwhelmed by pressure and torment. He begins to destroy his old self.

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As Andrew scrambles to get to the studio band’s second performance he is met with his pinnacle of self-destruction. He is met with a fatal accident. The descent to madness shows how the destruction of character’s old self.

The car crash, fortunately, stops Andrew’s self-destruction. He takes a break from drumming and is expelled from Shaffer. He then gives a testimony on Fletcher’s behavior as a teacher to students which resulted in Fletcher’s dismissal from the school. Then he meets Fletcher in a jazz bar and agrees to collaborate with him again. He starts to prepare for the big and climactic performance. But is he ready?

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He tries to get back to Nichole but finds out that she is dating someone else. As Andrew enters the stage, Fletcher tells him that it’s a trap set for him to fail miserably to destroy his dreams. Though tries but he fails to deliver as the first piece ends the pitiful claps of the audiences bring down the horror of defeat in him. He storms out of the stage and meets his father.

Faced with this ultimate failure, Andrew finally makes the most important choice of his journey. He walks back to the stage and launches into “Double time Latin”.

Now Andrew isn’t playing for Fletcher anymore, he is playing for himself and his dreams. He is confident and in control. He has not totally destroyed his old self as the narrative answers it’s dramatic question.

Haider – A Shakespearean disruption of Kashmir

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Haider is 2014 film by Indian director Vishal Bhardwaj is an adaptation of William Shakespeare’s celebrated play Hamlet. The film has often seen as a political film in which it provides a visual commentary on the militant insurgency of 1995 in Kashmir. Haider shifts gears to incorporate the basic plot of Hamlet in the setting of the valley of Kashmir and its violent political turmoil.

It is also the third film of Bhardwaj’s Shakespeare trilogy, he had previously adapted Othello and Macbeth into feature films. Haider is a definitely a different film in terms of how the narrative is structured, the genre, the coloring of the film and the types of visuals it provides mostly counters that of mainstream Bollywood films. Haider consciously disrupts the common troops found within that of mainstream Hindi cinema.

For the last fifty years, mainstream Bollywood films have heavily relied on song and dance sequences as a major plot device. Traditionally these sequences appear dreamlike, break every code of continuity in space and time within the narrative and finally include the hero and heroine dancing together against extravagant backdrops with hundreds of extras. The sole purpose of these sequences is to serve purely as elements of spectacle.

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In Haider, there is three song and dance sequences that appear within the structure of the narrative. The original play within the play becomes a song and dance sequence (in Hamlet it’s a play lead by the title character after he encounters the ghost of his father and learns about his murder). In the film, Haider leads the song and dance at a wedding ceremony without a heroine but along with backup dancers. The sequence is not exactly extravagant in terms of mise-en-scene as compare to Bollywood but what is interesting is how this is shot.

The sequence is highly aware of itself, cutting to important characters as they watch the performance. The point of the sequence is much like its inspiration Hamlet, Haider and the viewing audiences know what Khurrum has done. Inserting reactionary close-up shots integrates not just the on-screen audience but the real viewing audience. The dance is also not the typical Bollywood dance we are used to seeing it is a mixture of martial arts and folk traditions which highlight the sense of anxiety of the sequence. This proves that the play within the play sequence not just serves as a spectacle but as an important segment of the narrative which actually pushes the story even further.

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Haider follows a tighter narrative than the average mainstream Bollywood films. Although it’s a revenge saga, the narrative of the film is driven by the characters and Kashmir. Almost the entire film was shot in real locations in the valley of Kashmir in between all the tension which gives the film a touch of realism. Bollywood films usually appear as a larger than live canvas.

In the last half of the film there is the cemetery sequence, this also becomes the song and dance sequence. It doesn’t even include any main characters. The sequence is led by the gravediggers who are not major characters in the narrative. The title character Haider arrives at the end of the sequence. This is something not that common in Bollywood, a song and dance sequence in absence of any major characters of the ongoing narrative.

There is also a montage between Haider and Arshia that does appear to have similarities to mainstream Bollywood. This montage, not a song and dance sequences however it becomes a non-dietetic entity. What’s interesting in this sequence is the depiction of sex. Sexual ideologies between leading characters in Bollywood films are often censored but Haider has no problem showing this to the audience. This is one of Bhardwaj’s ways of staying true to the Shakespearean text.

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Haider works within the context of Bollywood, Bhardwaj’s aim in the film was to challenge Bollywood’s depiction of the valley of Kashmir either as merely a picturesque Himalayan setting or as a site of anti-India militancy. Thousands of lives have been lost in the Kashmir conflicts since the violent partition of India in 1947, thousands of boys couldn’t come back home and generation after generation growing up in the terror of AFSPA. In an interview, Bhardwaj said that Kashmir is the Hamlet in his film. A Shakespearean tragedy set in Kashmir which tells the tragic tale of the northernmost geographical region of India.