Tag Archives: Whiplash

A Distrust of Heroes

I hadn’t expected Birdman to win best picture. Seriously, I thought American Sniper had a chance, plus the films about Stephen Hawking, Alan Turing, Martin Luther King. I thought Boyhood might win, partly because of its original idea: the filming of a child’s coming of age, shot intermittently over the actual period of growth for the child–12 years. The other reason had to do with heroism, the type of heroism assigned to parents contending with everyday realities, stressors, over time. The film seems to appeal to a mass audience looking for itself on the big screen; a validation of all that’s difficult in life. And this seems to me a prerequisite quality for widely accepted, as in successful popular art.

Not so much, according to the academy voters, much to my surprise. Of the best picture nominees, Birdman wasn’t the only film without a chance of winning as far as I was concerned. The others were Whiplash (my favorite film of the year, actually), and The Grand Budapest Hotel, which should have won all awards were a strict aesthetic criteria being applied. Prior to the ceremony, about which I had only passing interest, I did not fashion a particular reason for my prejudice, but afterwards observed the ground rules I’d summarily applied. Of all the films nominated, it occurred to me that none of my three non-contenders presented with conventional heroic themes. Grand Budapest Hotel is essentially a comedy and thus didn’t stand a chance of winning best picture. The protagonist of Whiplash appears potentially heroic at the outset of the story. Miles Teller’s manic drummer boy seems quiet and sweet, but soon betrays an obsessive, narcissistic edge which ultimately renders him the equal of his brutal teacher. We cheer for the Andrew Neiman character, but the drama is his own and no one else’s. Meaning, what he does he does for himself. The same is more or less true of Riggan Thomson, the protagonist of Birdman, who adapts a play for the Broadway stage, bravely invests all his money in the production; has left the comfy cash-cow of Hollywood, splitting from the gravy train of a bizarre superhero character. It all sounds winning, if eccentric, but as I watched Michael Keaton and director Inarritu collecting their award, I wondered what fans of the other films were thinking. After all, if your favorite film of the year was about America’s most celebrated civil rights leader, or the greatest scientific mind of his generation, or the man who supposedly cracked a Nazi code and won WWII, or if, more topically, your film recognized the plight of the embattled American soldier overseas fighting terrorism, then you might have looked upon Riggan Thomson and thought, so what.

I felt quietly refreshed, for as a film buff, I peruse the history of Oscar winners over the decades and observe that conventional hero figures usually win the day. But they’re often missing from my list of favorites, because I prefer unlikely heroes, or even protagonists who don’t even seem that way, because most of us don’t. This is why Bryan Tecco, my protagonist of The Situation, had to be a drug dealer and a slob. He had to seem self-absorbed, even callous. Because he goes about his life as most do–trying to get by–his gift to society is what the oligarchs of capitalism intend. It is preordained but stumbled upon, like Bryan’s near drowning at the outset of the novel. It is an accident.

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Flight Of Icarus

Woke up feeling light, thought I could fly, went for a jog instead. Stay grounded, I thought. Am I the anti-R Kelly? He’s referenced in the film Birdman, which–it was suggested–I should write about. Therapists, I replied, should write more about films, art in general. So I will.

Riggan Thomson, played by Michael Keaton, sits in his room (levitating, actually), looking like he woke up on the right side, also feeling light, though he is yet to take off. Nor is he grounded exactly. The earth, his world,  seems too constrictive for that. Within moments, his meditation is broken and he is stomping through tight hallways, talking frenetically with anxious producers, a broadway debutante actress, as well as a second actress, his apparently pregnant girlfriend. He is less conversant with his recovering addict daughter Sam, played by cat-eyed Emma Stone, who brings serious chip to her chip-on-the-shoulder role. Thomson is a mess. He is washed up, an ex-superhero star (The Birdman) who now seeks respectability and depth in Hollywood’s darker sibling, the theater. And the culture of theater is less glamorous: it is dirty, claustrophobic, and peopled with either non-entities (the anonymous stage crew), or the impossibly self-absorbed. Thomson at once fits in and doesn’t, but he’s bought in. In fact, he’s invested all he’s got into this play which is an adaptation of a short story by his one-time idol, Raymond Carver. So committed is he that he’s willing to assault, perhaps even kill the mediocre actor who is fucking up rehearsals. In this respect, he is no less driven than the abusive Terrance Fletcher character from Whiplash, though he seems more transparently fragile–insecure, even psychotic.

The Hollywood past doesn’t leave him alone. It stalks him in the form of hallucinations, the Birdman alter-ego whose appearances bring to mind the imaginary friend character of Beautiful Mind, though unlike that film, it’s clear from the outset that Thomson is–what?–at least troubled. But he’s not alone in his craziness, which makes things very interesting. All of the support characters are fucked up also, to more or lesser degrees. One character who seems even crazier than Thomson is Mike Shiner, played by Ed Norton. Shiner is the man Thomson might have been ten years earlier: cocky, gifted, uncontrollable, exhibitionist in all ways, so out there that he disguises his underlying fears, of inadequacy and impotence. His act, both on and off stage, is ingenious, and in an oedipal/electra nod, Sam is of course  drawn to him.

Shiner’s addition to the play brings it to a new level. He is box office potential, but also hip, in with the critics, who seem to despise Thomson, especially a bitter, spinster-like figure who hangs out in a bar across from the theater, awaiting his opening night like a vulture. Meanwhile, the previews, as in that strange, half-price experimental stage of live production, are falling apart. But that’s okay according to Shiner, who schools the outsider Thomson on what is important, what is real. What evolves is a play that dissolves the fourth wall between artist and audience, just as Keaton and director Inarritu flirt with our wall with their Birdman/Batman parallel.  The climax of this path is an accident. In between scenes during the last preview, he heads outside for a smoke break, but locks himself out of the theater. Next, he is wandering through Times Square in his underwear, dodging onlookers and voyeurs in what becomes a serendipitous publicity sensation. This wasn’t what he wanted, however, and afterwards he confronts the hateful critic in the bar, appealing to her sense of fair play, her compassion for the struggling artist. But she’ll have none of it. Convinced he is a charlatan, she pledges to “kill” his play.

At this point everyone–Shiner, Sam, the producer, cast and crew–think he’s delusional, not dealing with reality, though they don’t know the half of it. With opening night upon them, Thomson has one more trick up his sleeve, one more flight of fancy: an on stage suicide that will blow everyone’s mind, even Shiner’s, as well as his brains out. It doesn’t come off (actually, only part of his nose comes off as a result of the on stage gunshot), but the play does, and even the hateful critic can’t resist the uberrealism, ultimately giving Thomson  a rave review. The following day, he is in hospital, recovering from his wounds; meanwhile, the press, the internet public, his producer, are all excited because the play is a triumph. Thomson is not excited, however. Ambiguously disappointed, he removes his bandages, inspects his face in the mirror, and steps out the high rise hospital window. This possibility, of Thomson’s suicide, persists throughout the film and remains until the last shot, wherein we see Sam gazing out the open window, first in frantic abandonment, then in wonder. She believes he can fly.

If you’ve ever felt like a poseur, a madman or woman, a capable person but sometimes a dufus, you should like what Birdman is about. Check it out.

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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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