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Whiplash

April 5, 2019

Thanks to Alissa Simon, HMU Tutor, for today’s post.

Whiplash is a film from 2014 both written and directed by Damien Chazelle. It follows the life of Andrew (played by Miles Teller), a young, brilliant and ambitious drummer, through the trials and errors of college life. Fletcher (played by J.K. Simmons) is a strict, difficult music instructor who asks for as much as his students can give and more. Not only is Fletcher’s rehearsal routine physically demanding, but he often plays mental games with the students as well. Through these two characters, Whiplash deconstructs what it takes to achieve greatness and how ambition is portrayed socially.

This movie is unsettling because it is entirely without a hero. Both student and teacher vie for the heroic roles at times, but both are fantastically flawed, of course. The viewer may connect with Andrew, who wants to be a great musician, but his actions do not warrant our affection. He pushes himself to extremes both physically and mentally and sacrifices everything in order to achieve greatness. The pursuit of art for arts sake often appears noble or heroic, but this film demonstrates the ugly underbelly of ambition. Furthermore, I am not entirely sure that Andrew’s sacrifice was a necessary step in his education.

Early in the movie, Andrew is interested in a girl. After mustering the courage to ask her out, they go on a number of dates which seem successful. In the end, however, he tells her that his career is more important than she is, which upsets her and she stops seeing him. Later in the film, he calls her again only to find out that he has missed his chance. Andrew’s relationship with his own family is even more disturbing. When Andrew returns home for a family meal and tries to explain how well he is doing in school, they do not understand him, and he, likewise, does not understand them.

The dinner scene offers excellent analysis. During the meal, an aunt asks Andrew about school and when he tries to answer he is interrupted by the entrance of one of his cousins. His uncle loudly greets the newcomer by shouting, “Ahhh, Tom Brady!” which completely cuts off Andrew. Andrew tries again to voice his accomplishments, but the others at the table are clearly not familiar with the “best music school in the country” and have no common language with which to ask any questions. To me, this represents the way that art defies classification. Without understanding the history of the field, art can seem arbitrary and luck-driven. Sports, however, offer easy discussion. They are less intimidating and more casual, as demonstrated in this scene. The cousin notes, “Well, in the music competition, isn’t it subjective?” Andrew simply replies, “No,” because, of course, an art form (and therefore an artist) is not arbitrarily great. Rather, they have studied, practiced, performed and contemplated the history of their field. Andrew’s uncle then inquires about a job and Andrew must explain that currently his musical pursuit is unpaid which reinforces the family’s opinion of Andrew’s music.

The family then turns to celebrating his cousin’s football awards. At the end of this exchange, Andrew is clearly frustrated, so, he voices the irony of celebrating a football career which will not go beyond Division III college. While belittling everyone else at the table, Andrew proclaims that he would rather die as great musician at the age of thirty four rather than live a life like anyone else at the table. Throughout the movie, Andrew’s father walks the fine line of supporting him, but also trying to keep him from falling off the edge into madness. In this scene too, he begins by supporting Andrew, but when Andrew tells his cousin that he will “never hear from the NFL,” Andrew’s father replies, “Have you heard from Lincoln Center?” Of course, he has not, which pulls the wind from his sails, and, mid-dinner, Andrew gets up and leaves the table.


J.K. Simmons plays Fletcher and is the opposite of the nurturing father. Fletcher utilizes incredibly harsh techniques in order to inspire greatness from his musicians. The relationship that develops between Fletcher and Andrew is complicated. In this scene, Fletcher has just given Andrew a great compliment, only to belittle him, throw a chair at him, and humiliate him in front of the rest of the band. Andrew’s fall from grace is quick and extremely painful.

I struggle with this movie on so many levels, which is a great testament to the authenticity of emotions that the film presents. I wonder, why does Andrew really leave the dinner table, shame or disgust? Does a great artist always and necessarily feel superior to those around them, and therefore lonely? Does this superiority inform their work in a positive or negative way? What level of ambition strengthens achievement, and what amount spirals into misery or madness? On a side note, I wonder if the lack of women in the film reflects actual ratios of men to women in music schools. While I thoroughly enjoyed the minimalism of Whiplash and its adherence to only a handful of characters, but I would have also liked to see more women in the band or as additional characters.

Whiplash is compellingly carried by Fletcher and Andrew. It raises tough, uncomfortable questions that society has yet to answer.

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Manifesto

November 9, 2018

Thanks to Alissa Simon, HMU Tutor, for today’s post.

Manifesto, directed by Julian Rosefeldt, disorients the viewer. Locations change without warning, as do characters. The speaker is a sometimes character and sometimes narrator. So many things happen simultaneously that it would be difficult to express them all. I will wander through a few of the things that caught my attention, though I am, unhappily, missing the majority.

The precision of this movie astounds me. As an introduction to the puppeteer, for example, the camera begins with an aerial view of the puppeteer working on a puppet that we soon come to meet quite closely. The viewer is yet unaware of this puppet’s meaning. It is only as the puppeteer rises from the desk and leaves the scene that the viewer is introduced to the the rest of the room. As the camera slowly pans across a small, brick room filled with puppets, we begin to recognize famous or historical figures. Some wear shocked expressions, some bored, some guilty, some blank. Sirens and street noise sound in the background. The collection includes figures such as Mother Teresa, Gandhi, Hitler, and the Planet of the Apes. My favorite is Marilyn Monroe, who lies face-up on a dingy, toy sofa with a man’s hand suggestively patting her exposed knee. The expressions on these two linked figures do not correspond to each other. Marilyn Monroe looks pained, while the man smiles joyfully. This quick snippet implies significant action. Small details such as this connect the viewer to the image in a way that creates life. Furthermore, the room contains such a dense amount of history, that the viewer is bound to connect with the overwhelming feeling of the passage of time. As with all the other scenes in Manifesto, Rosefeldt overloads the scene with sensory information. Therefore, by the time the camera returns to the puppeteer, the viewer has formed an emotional attachment to the puppets. (Emotional regard in any sense forms an attachment.)

Rosefeldt excels at a minimalism that forms some emotional bond between viewer and screen. This perplexes me, particularly in this scene with the puppeteer, whose hands we see and whose voice we hear, and yet we have no real knowledge of this figure outside of the hundreds of dolls placed about the room. The things I know about the puppeteer: the person is intense, passionate, exacting, precise, and interested in history or characters. The viewer is reasonably startled, then, to find the puppeteer pinning a wig onto their very own puppet. This most startling event astonishes us because, in my mind, the puppets have become hyper-real. They express emotion, and therefore, they must themselves convey some sort of “real” emotion. They are the placeholders of our emotion, and to see (and hear!) their creation is grotesque and surreal. Moreover, this particular puppet enters creation only once hair has been added. This grants an identity. Now the viewer connects with the puppet by labeling it. Therefore, the viewers themselves restrict the doll’s freedom. This is, of course, the intended effect. These hyper-real puppets exist in this box-style room, piled on top of each other in some sort of eternal limbo for the voyeurs’ eyes. They represent an act of creation, but the viewer agonizes over their apparent lifelessness coupled with their inability to die.

This reinforces the larger narrative in Rosefeldt’s film: that a manifesto is born out of a particular moment. It explosively responds to specific cultural content. What, then, is the next generation to do with it? What is the viewer, who likely feels no connection to the particular character of a movement, to do with the incongruities and absurdities presented by a manifesto’s anger? Is the manifesto to be shelved among others, dismissed from its specific argument, but unable to die? Should it be removed from view altogether? However, if we dismiss the manifesto as completely irrelevant, then perhaps we overlook some important cultural revelations.

Rosefeldt masterfully incorporates incongruous images. Cate Blanchett brilliantly plays all of the characters and delivers all of the manifestos. In each scene, she also slips into a monologue, delivered in a different pitch from the character’s voice. She plays both men and women, young and old. She plays rebellious, ridiculous, hallucinating, strict, poor, wealthy and conservative characters. She incorporates accents and body language. Meanwhile, Rosefeldt pays particular attention to sound and image. Each scene offers some startling revelation, such as we saw and heard with the pinning of the puppet’s hair.

Irony rules this movie. I offer a few examples of scenes which struck me, though there are many to speak of. First, I found the CEO at a fancy party particularly ridiculous. We meet them at a beautiful house, located along a gorgeous body of water, during a cocktail party. The horizon dominates the viewer’s gaze. While the viewer contemplates the horizon and natural beauty, however, the party-goers never even glance in the direction of the water. Furthermore, they discuss beauty in such abstracted, idealistic and theoretical terms as to make it unobservable. They literally miss the point. In another scene, a woman rises to a podium above a gravesite to give a speech of mourning. Instead, she desecrates the body and offends emotion. Standing over the corpse, she claims that “to sit still is to risk one’s life” and that “one dies as an idiot or a hero, it’s all the same.” The movie ends with a teacher instructing her students to steal and plagiarize. She claims that “nothing is original.” She does warn to steal only the things that speak directly to the student and that connection validly makes it their own. She then walks the room indoctrinating the children while erasing their ideas.

Part of Rosefeldt’s point is that manifestos become absurd when taken out of context. They burn brightly for a moment, but cannot last in an ever-changing world. Rather, if they do last, they become ridiculous. He achieves this through a balance of image, sound and speech. Rosefeldt compiled the script from actual manifestos written from the early 1900s through the early 2000s. During the span of 100 years, we see a variety of ideas demonstrated through art, architecture, drama and impersonation. I have only mentioned a few of the scenes in Manifesto. I encourage you to watch the scenes (or the whole movie) and post your thoughts. What does it say about art? About history? About characters or artists? Prepare for a disorienting experience, which is well worth your while. Visit Julian Rosefeldt’s website to view the film scene by scene.

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I Speak Because I Can't

September 7, 2018

Thanks to Ben Peterson, a 2018 Harrison Middleton University Fellow in Ideas, for today’s post.

Once upon two years ago, I met a gentleman who was raised selling illegal whiskey in the dry counties of Arkansas. I asked this man umpteen thousand questions, and he seemed genuinely pleased to answer them for his umpteen-thousandth audience. His recollections—of shootouts and stings and hideaway stills—were electrifying. As an adult, he’d made an honest career as the owner of an auto shop in Orange County, but he had also dabbled in the creative arts since leaving behind his ‘shining youth. When I leafed through a 350-page memoir of those danger-quenched days, my heart sagged. I found this account, after the oral regalia I had been treated to over calamari and vodka, comparatively sleepy. Of course, the narrative was the same: only the narration was different.

At every bookstore there’s a table dedicated to books like this: inexpensively printed paperbacks wherein first-time authors unfurl their triumphs in business or give the nail-biting blow-by-blow of an experience of miraculous survival. Some of these books sell a zillion copies and get movie deals and become megapopular Oscarbait. Others scratch in a couple thousand, and then stagnate within a certain radius of personal acquaintanceship with the author. These might be the last pages the author ever writes; if so, it’s probably because the author is not a “writer.” They were not spurred to the pen by an ineluctable need to express themselves with its black blood, but by a more basic desire to share with others the passages from their life that appear to be the most interesting.

Unless YouTube suddenly becomes pay-per-view, I suppose books are still the most feasible commercial medium for autobiography. They are the traditional medium, anyway, and most people looking to cash in on their best dinner party stories are not also looking to spark a stylistic revolution. This leads to a lot of books written by people who don’t know how to write. (Professional writers don’t necessarily “know” how to write either—there is no one way to do writing correctly. But career writers seem by some admixture of luck and labor to stumble on a so-called “artistic” style, or at least an above-average ability to make stories readable.) At worst, these tenderfoots aspire clumsily to an imaginary muster they believe all writing is supposed to pass. They think too much about the peculiar shape of writing. At best, they eschew any unlikeness between writing and talking, and transcribe the same words they might use aloud when telling their tale between mouthfuls of calamari. They hardly think about what’s peculiar to writing at all. Rarely does a singular literary “voice” emerge from a first-timer; most of the books on the memoir table read as if they were ghostwritten by a single, unstoppable eighth-grader.

This is not necessarily a bad thing. Sometimes, artistic success is equated with scholarly laud. The artists who achieve it are typically exemplars of the singular voice. They revel in the particular, the symbolic, the idiosyncratic. They are allegorists and poets. They can be found on many a “Best What-Have-You” list, but might not be widely identified with their actual work. They are recognized for their recognition. Elsewhere, success is defined by consistent efforts that are consumed and enjoyed by large numbers of people. (“Regular employment” is another definition of success in the creative dimension, but it may be synonymous with this one.) These artists are entertainers. They revel in the relatable and the emotional. They care about their audience sometimes with a saintly intensity. They might not be widely recognized at all, but their work certainly is. Obviously, there is tremendous crossover between these two camps, but it is fortunate when that eighth-grader madly typing all of our biographies leans more toward obsession with the story than toward the details of delivery.

The reformed moonshiner I met was at the time making his second sally into the written word. He hoped to refashion his memoir into a screenplay, which he figured would make a snappier sell to production companies than the unadapted book. If prose had been unfamiliar territory, scriptwriting was the surface of Neptune. (Professional screenwriters do know how to write: there is a correct, saleable way to write an industry-grade script. Paradoxically, virtually every script written exactly in this mold is terrible and never gets produced.) For guidance he had lately been “attending” the online MasterClass in screenwriting helmed by Aaron Sorkin. He complained at length about Professor Sorkin’s fumbling diction and awkward performance at the virtual lectern. I smiled: the idea of today’s Ben Hecht being anything but the most sure-footed of orators struck me as unexpected and funny. After all, this is a guy known foremost for his ability to speak well.

Except, that isn’t what Aaron Sorkin does. Aaron Sorkin makes other people speak well. He cannot be less intelligent than his famously gabby mental offspring, but that doesn’t necessarily make him as quick or as cogent. It’s Allison Janney’s job to make it look easy. Maybe to the writer the words don’t come so easily. Maybe they instead come through a long, careful, painstaking distillation of cerebral fluid. Isn’t writing a stone-squeezing sort of vocation? What is the point of cultivating a distinctive textual timbre and time signature if not to be able to conduct a communicative tunefulness that eludes one’s internal wind section? Joan Didion described herself as “neurotically inarticulate,” yet she’s produced some of the most praised language of at least five separate decades. This effort required a remove—a private buffer during the transubstantiation of thoughts out of the cognitive ether. (In my case, this means enough time to remember smart words.) Such a concession is seldom granted in face-to-face, real-time rapport, which affects the shy like quicksand. When words fail, you start to feel misunderstood, and to be misunderstood is to sink into disconnection from your fellow human beings. A unique voice, in another medium, well-whipped and surely braided, can be the rope to pull yourself free.

These thoughts began to congeal after I watched the movie Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas. The story is culled from Hunter S. Thompson’s freewheeling “failed experiment” in Gonzo journalism, a Frankenstein style of reportage that pursues the Truth (big T) through a self-aware refraction of events. The reporter steps into things and allows the mud on their boots to become part of the story. Thompson is the protagonist in this fact-tinged travelogue, playing the dual roles of boy-who-cried and wolf: he raises alarm over the meth-addled mange of Western society, and he does it by wearing that decay, almost proudly, on his own hide. Of course, he lathers on a lot of makeup and fiction (and, I hope, embellishes the amount of drugs involved).

The movie version has its fun visualizing this haywire carnival cruise, but loses some ineffable element that holds the book together. After the film I snooped through some of the DVD special features. A couple of these comprise Thompson riding around Vegas during production and grumbling like an ox on a motorcycle. I recognized that husky, clipped voice: for the last two hours I’d heard Johnny Depp mimic it precisely. I realized suddenly that his performance had been based on Thompson himself. Not the figurative Hunter S. who appears in the pill-popping Iliad, but the literal Hunter S. who merely inspired it (and wrote it).

Philosophically—in the name of gonzo science—this makes sense. Peeling away some of the disguise makes the underlying tension between fact and fancy all the more aggravating. But, aesthetically (which I guess means it’s a matter of taste) it just doesn’t feel right. The book’s narration has a perverse clarity that becomes garbled by Thompson’s intonation, which sounds like a sewing machine firing into a pillow. Depp lived in Dr. T’s basement for four months to absorb his mannerisms, and before this they were garrulous pen pals. One’d think this would give Depp a clement appreciation of the variables between written and spoken Thompsonese. Maybe it did. But when camera came to action, he opted to mix the dialects all up together, and that decision throws a monkey wrench in the gears of Fear. In trying to be faithful to his friend the good doctor, to teleport him intact into a story where he has already, in his own way, inserted himself, Depp denudes Thompson of the very trait that ever gave the story life: his real voice.

Now take someone like Chuck Wirschem, who wrote a book called HitchHiking 45,000 Miles to Alaska. His writing is casual and familiar, unaffected with obtuse adjectives and mindfully uncoiling syntax. It’s conversational, if not especially memorable. Excusing some extra tightness in the grammatical discipline, Wirschem’s style of writing probably does not fall far from his style of speaking, because he probably never pushed his writing to any extraordinary lengths, because he’s probably able to make himself understood with the first or second phrasing that he puts together. For other writers, there are astronomical units between their vocal loadouts. When one tongue is brought in to do the work of the other, things can bottleneck, and become a barrier to one’s ideas. Microsoft Word is then a necessary detour. But it can also be the scenic route, where even on the dourest, dampest, drizzliest of days, you might chance upon something beautiful, something one of a kind.

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