Whiplash and soul crushing (a review)

Whiplash-Movie-Poster-6

Good guys not only finish last, but they also end up in tears, sitting in abandoned hallways, facing a life devoid of love ones.

Or at least that’s the moral of the movie Whiplash, which tells the story of a young jazz drummer (Andrew Neiman, played by Miles Teller) attending a prestigious music school in New York. Neiman’s lone dream is to become the next Buddy Rich.

(Warning: The following contains teasers of spoilers…tried my best.)

While practicing late one night, Neiman finds he is being observed by Terrence Fletcher (played by JK Simmons), the god-like instructor of the school’s top band, which has won both national and international acclaim. The interaction doesn’t go well.

But the erstwhile Svengali sees something in Neiman and eventually invites him to join his class, which is where the student begins to see the master less as a dedicated and willful but nurturing teacher and more as the manipulative, malevolent force striving for an unreachable ideal.

Perfection or death is Fletcher’s creed, and if you’re not willing to kill yourself over your failings, he is willing and eager to do it for you. You are using up valuable oxygen.

The beast will be satisfied (JK Simmons, Miles Teller)

The beast will be satisfied (JK Simmons, Miles Teller)

Even in the face of this unending physical and emotional torture, which includes an airborne chair, however, Neiman is willing to sacrifice everything to become the Charlie Parker of the drums. And that sacrifice extends to his budding romance as well as his family.

Nothing will stand in the way

Nothing will stand in the way

But even that is not enough for Fletcher and we watch Neiman self-immolate while the monster emotionally fiddles with everyone’s lives. Unsatisfied with Neiman’s ashes, however, the master lures the student back with a siren song of greatness in a move that only the audience can see is designed to destroy Neiman yet again.

Perfection is everything (Miles Teller)

Perfection is everything (Miles Teller)

But just when Satan achieves his final triumph, he is surprised to learn that his fallen Angel has learned a few things. And this is the ultimate Fall of Man of which we hear in poetry.

The final moments of the film are like watching Luke Skywalker take Darth Vader’s offered hand on the catwalks of Cloud City and unite to rule the Empire, destroying both the Emperor and the Rebellion in one moment.

Throughout the film, the heart palpitates until threatening to arrest from the crushing weight of the increasingly up-tempo music (think frenzied, not dancing) and Fletcher’s relentless pounding on Neiman’s soul. By the end of the movie, you will be exhausted and sated by the ecstasy of what has been achieved.

It will only be later, in the calm aftermath of normal life, that you will begin to understand the dreadful cost of that achievement, not just for Neiman but also for humanity.

If the documentary Blackfish drove people away from marine parks, it wouldn’t surprise me if Whiplash drove parents away from music schools.

Simmons won Oscar, BAFTA, Golden Globe & SAG

Simmons won Oscar, BAFTA, Golden Globe & SAG

Simmons won the Academy Award for Best Supporting Actor (and Golden Globe, BAFTA and SAG) for his performance as Fletcher, although as crucial to the story as his role was, it could be argued he was a co-lead. And although I admit to not seeing the films of any other performers in this Oscar category, I am surprised the award was given to Simmons.

The man’s performance was quite good—he played Fletcher so malevolently, I would probably take a swing at Simmons if I saw him—but it didn’t feel like the character required a lot of the veteran actor aside from pushing the portrayal beyond anyone’s comfort zone.

Where the film definitely deserved its Oscar and BAFTA wins was for sound. The music was amazing and despite being constantly interrupted, it still managed to deliver its power and its physical toll on mere flesh and blood. Each piece became its own rush toward a climax that never arrived, pushing you until your body screamed for catharsis and was instead met with a cut to the next scene. (Editing was pretty impressive.)

Again, however, despite all of these wonderful facets, it was the moral Fall of Man in the face of all this magnificent music that bothered me. For if nothing else, it made me question the purity of artistic expression and whether it was worth the exorbitant cost of another human soul.

The moment of our greatest achievement, writer/director Damien Chazelle tells us, is also the moment of our greatest loss. I find that sad.

Dara Marks at Toronto Screenwriting Conference 2013

Engaging the Feminine Heroic

Dara Marks

In a follow-up to her very popular Transformational Arc talk of previous years, Dara Marks took us through another aspect of character development, something she calls the feminine heroic. A counterpart to the well known hero’s journey, the feminine heroic completes the hero’s character and thus is not necessarily tied simply to female heroes. Rather, it encapsulates the feminine side of everyone’s natures.

Transformational Arc

She explains, as writers, we are constantly trying to understand the narrative in which we are living, but we experience that narrative from a very personal perspective. Thus, in her canonical transformational arc, there is both an outer realm, where external forces act upon the hero, and an inner realm, the more personal influences. We grow, she says, only in relationship to demands on us to grow, and the external realm stimulates the internal reckoning.

The union of the feminine and masculine brings about wholeness in the character. It is a combination of the masculine spirit, which represents all that we can be, and the feminine soul, the deepness of our authentic self. Marks offers the example of a tree, which may reach toward the sky, but is only as strong as the root system that provides it nutrients.

Everything we are in life is what comes from deep within ourselves.

Marks presented this relatively complicated diagram that illustrated the hero’s external and internal journey (and in many ways, reflects our own journey through counseling or life itself). To the left, we find the Ego Self, where the onus is on my aspirations and beliefs of me. To the right is the True Self, which is understood after reflection and denotes my understanding of myself in the universe.

The union of the masculine and feminine sides of a character creates a wholeness

The union of the masculine and feminine sides of a character creates a wholeness

Ego Self: All early development, even that of a child, relies very heavily on the development of the Ego, a sense of will and determination. We believe that we’re in charge, despite all evidence to the contrary.

So if we start the journey in the Ego Self realm, we can look at the External or Masculine side and the Internal or Feminine side of ourselves.

Masculine Ego: In the top left quadrant, we have the Call to Life, the external mission that demands we strive or ascend to a greater level. We assert the force of our will on the universe. This area therefore is associated with a youthful and energetic quality. We have to move forward. We cannot let fear hold us back. To do this, we must sacrifice our feminine side, pushing those feelings down, or we cannot move forward.

Marks suggests that the tragedy of Hamlet was that he couldn’t get beyond his feminine side when he needed to move forward. She also gives the very literal example of Agamemnon, who was forced to sacrifice his daughter Iphigenia before the Greek ships would be allowed to voyage to Troy.

Feminine Ego: In the lower left quadrant of the diagram, we see the influence the masculine decision has on the feminine ego. We suffer a wound because part of us is no longer valued. We are literally abandoning a key part of our self and this will have a lingering effect. While we appear invincible externally, we are very vulnerable internally.

Thus, the feminine side needs to be rescued by the proverbial knight on a white charger. Marks is quick to point out that this is no time for political correctness as at this stage in our development, we just don’t have the internal skills to rescue ourselves.

She goes back to Greek myth to show how this works, focusing on the story of Demeter and her daughter Persephone, the latter of whom was abducted to the underworld by Hades to become his wife. Demeter was distraught at the loss of her daughter and journeyed to the underworld to bring her back to the surface.

The underworld experience may be difficult, but it is educational and we need to journey through it to come out more whole in the next stage.

Marriage of Death: The combination of the masculine and feminine ego is what Marks calls the Marriage of Death. Anytime we strive to become something new, it means the death to other aspects of our being. We just can’t strive at all things at the same time. But this marriage is not designed to last.

As Marks points out, the problem with striving is that it is doomed to failure. We can’t be rich enough, strong enough, famous enough, whatever enough. And it is at the moment of realization that our dreams are doomed that we have a Crisis of Faith (masculine side), which leads to an Awakening of Potential (feminine side). We move closer to the discovery of our true self, the right hand side of the diagram.

Masculine True Self: As the masculine ego passes through its crisis of faith, it suffers a fall from the unattainable heights, which converts the Call to Life into a Battle for Life. For self-renewal, it is essential that our delusions and illusions are shed during this descent, such as the belief that we are in control of our lives. And thus, at this stage, it is the masculine self that needs rescuing.

Marks offers the example of Odysseus (a popular subject at TSC this year) and the knowledge that his journey home was his great undoing as he loses more and more of his ego self (including his ships, crew, etc). The second half of his journey is literally the journey homeward toward his true self.

Feminine True Self: And who rescues the masculine true self? As the masculine side becomes more vulnerable, the feminine side becomes emboldened. We heal our wounds and reunite, turning pain and suffering into love and creativity.

The way out of our self-imposed purgatory is through compassion. We have to hear the story and then feel and acknowledge the pain. And it is only when the pain is given voice that it can move back from the underworld into life.

Marks exemplifies this aspect with the myth of Inanna and Erishkegal (which I do not know as well and so simply provide a link).

Sacred Marriage/True Self: It is at this point, through the sacred marriage of the masculine and feminine that we finally achieve the true self.

NOTE: All images and illustrations are property and copyright of Dara Marks and are used here without permission.

You might be a writer

(Inspired by a post on The Writing Corp blog and of course, Mr. Jeff Foxworthy)

If you’ve ever freaked out because your partner loaned your pen to someone and neglected to get it back…

If you own 17 notebooks and still have a house littered with random pieces of paper containing ideas…

If your friends won’t tell you anything anymore for fear it’ll end up in your next novel, screenplay or comedy sketch…

If you’ve heard voices in your head and your first thought was grab something to write with…

If you go on a tropical vacation and only the back of your neck gets sunburned…

If you’ve developed the skill to write coherent notes to yourself without removing your eyes from the person sitting across from you…

If every jacket you own and every room in your house contains a writing pad of one size or another…

If you instinctively know what inks will smear and which pens write upside down…

If you’ve ever found yourself looking forward to a long bus or train ride…

If reaching a crisis is as satisfying as achieving a climax…

(Personally, I’m still working on the writing while looking someone in the eye, otherwise, I’m good.)