Full Metal Self

Had a few ideas recently, after watching the film Whiplash; made a few links, reignited certain determinations, sighed and resigned to my fate on a few other matters. The film stirred hope and–dare I say, inspiration–on many levels: firstly, I learned that the film had been out for nearly a year already, though it was only recently making a splash in theaters. I am reminded that promoting a film, like promoting a book, takes time, hard work, and no little amount of salesmanship. This parallels the story of Whiplash somewhat. Miles Teller plays Andrew Neyman, a young would-be jazz prodige, a drummer in a prestigious music conservatory band. Scouted and then selected by the school’s jazz maestro, Terence Fletcher, he joins a band that is further elite, and is initiated into rehearsals in a manner that is at once predictably brutal, yet also fascinating and entirely gripping. Actually, more so than any thriller or action flick I can think of, this film had me gripping my seat for almost its entire length, such was the tension created between the quietly narcissistic hero and his near sociopathic mentor. In scene after scene, I watched with mounting angst as Fletcher alternately seduces and then terrorizes the naive yet ambitious Neyman. He flatters him, telling the class he’s found his Buddy Rich; then, minutes later, he is tossing cymbals at Neyman’s head, mocking him for not keeping tempo, threatening to “rape him like a pig” if he fucks up his band. For my part, as non-musician, I had no idea drummers were this important.  Meanwhile, the Fletcher character brought to mind a few teachers from my past, sort of morphed with that terrifying drill sergeant character from Kubrick’s Full Metal Jacket.

About two thirds into the story, we get Fletcher’s rationale for being the way he is: modern jazz, like modern society, is in a sorry state, he says. The words “Good job” constitute the most harmful phrase in the English language (I’m paraphrasing). He’s an advocate of tough love, obviously; of the belief that teachers must push people beyond expectations in order to get the best out of them. The ends, as in the preservation (or growth) of standards, justifies the brutal means. The film’s counterpoint is to indicate casualties: a former prodige whom Fletcher had allegedly driven to suicide; the girlfriend whom Neyman dumps so as to focus on his drumming. Neyman’s father, a loving but feckless man, voices opposing values, decrying Fletcher’s abuse, challenging his son’s obsession, imploring him to slow down lest he (literally) die on the drumstool. Ultimately, the story seems a celebration of going for it; of not compromising standards. It’s just that it doesn’t ignore the costs.

Again, the film brought up a lot for me. I wonder how much of Neyman and Fletcher’s drama is transferrable to the world I inhabit. If you’re a would-be client of mine reading this, don’t worry. I have no plans to emulate Fletcher or the drill sergeant from Full Metal Jacket. However, I reflect on the opinions I expressed in Working Through Rehab, my book about adolescent drug treatment; sympathetic views about the dinosaur-like, similarly tough-love ethos of the much maligned Therapeutic Community Model. This week, I shall be teaching a short-term class on the Masterson Model at a community service agency in Marin, and espousing the value of, among other things, therapeutic confrontation, the importance of having boundaries, a therapeutic frame in which consistency, self focus–striving beyond expectations–are at least analogously observed. The dialectic I anticipate will mirror the drama of Whiplash, and maybe FMJ: principled agreement about driving people to their best, tempered with compassion for those who, for a variety of reasons, fall short.

As for myself, I go for it in my own way. Inspired by Andrew Neyman and the indelible image of his blood-stained drumkit, I might stay up late tonight, working on my latest manuscript: tightening the prose, adding pieces of subtext, changing a character or a plot point, correcting sundry mistakes in punctuation and spelling. I am well read with respect to my own books. I read them over and over again. It’s like combing the text, looking for tiny bugs. Sometimes I am satisfied; more often, I am not. Figuratively, I bleed. I have expectations.

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