by Erika Schmidt
Whiplash opens on a black screen with a slightly-too-loud-for-comfort drum roll, starting so slowly we can barely recognize a rhythm. The tempo crescendos, bit by bit, until it sounds like a machine gun. We can barely stand it: when will it break? When will we see an image, see the drummer, understand what it means?
Miles Teller's Andrew is a first-year student at a Juilliard-like music school. He wants to be a great jazz drummer. Early in the film, he catches the attention of Terence Fletcher (J.K. Simmons), the school's most worshiped and feared director. It isn't until Andrew scores a seat in Fletcher's most elite jazz ensemble that we see how scary the director really is. He uses emotional manipulation (cozying up to Miles outside of rehearsal only to use what he finds out to berate Miles in front of his peers), degradation (name calling, slurs of all kinds), and physical abuse (throwing equipment, pitting drummers against each other in panicked hours-long battles while the rest of the band waits outside) to get the results he wants. Presumably, whatever potential he sees in Andrew marks the boy for unrelenting emotional and physical torture. Andrew doesn't give up easily. Though visibly traumatized by Fletcher's methods, he drives himself harder and harder, practicing until he bleeds, shunning his family and friends, and finally becoming unhinged by the angry tunnel vision, the constant battle. Never once does he seem to stop believing that these lengths are necessary. Why would he? In Fletcher's world, this type of suffering is made romantic. And Andrew has lapped up the Kool-Aid.
The tension of the opening scene continues to catch and release throughout the film in an often-torturous way, with an unbearable barrage of action here, a horrifying silence there. Whiplash takes advantage of our inborn tendency to respond physically to music to ratchet up the stress level over and over again and draw us further into Andrew's experience. As moviegoers, when a football coach orders his players to run extra laps, we sympathize. When we see a dancer’s torn feet, we wince. When Harry Potter struggles to learn Occlumency from Professor Snape, we root for him. But what else other than music, a form that naturally moves us, could make us empathize, feeling the exhaustion and anxiety in our own right? You don't have to be a musician to feel your pulse quicken, just as Andrew's does, when the music grows more intense or, even worse, suddenly stops at Fletcher's swiftly clenched fist. In this world, silence means something bad is coming.
Andrew's moments outside of school—with his family or his girlfriend—don't feel relaxed. They feel uneasy, wrong, frustrating, because we share Andrew's ceaseless anxiety about what will happen when he returns to class, the anxiety that renders him alien to any other relationships or scenarios. The rehearsal scenes themselves—well, even if you never been in a class with a frightening teacher, chances are you'll still feel nauseated. No matter whether you’ve spent a second of your life studying tempo, you’ll be frantically asking yourself whether you’re “not quite on” Fletcher’s.
Whiplash left me electrified with memories of my own teachers. There was one, my first year of acting class in college, who nearly put me off of the thing altogether. She dressed in black. She had us warm up in the dark, with her beating a hand drum, yelling dramatic things like, "Is that hard? Well, Hamlet is hard!" and, "If you're as invested in any of your other classes as you are in this one, then you shouldn't be here!" I quit her class and changed majors soon after. I didn't feel liberated; I felt like a coward. Only after years of hearing stories from the friends who remained in her class (one day she badgered a kid into coming out of the closet during an exercise, another day she told someone to quit because their energy was throwing off the room) and encountering better teachers using the same techniques did I realize that she, not I, was the problem.
It is so easy for teachers to build an aura around themselves, especially when their students are young and serious. So easy to proclaim, intimidate, and demand worship without actually cultivating the tools the students need to survive on their own. One of my favorite stories from college was of a young woman whose acting professor slapped her in the face as she worked on a scene, to "get her where she needed to be." Her response after the fact was wonderfully practical: something like, "Well, that's fine, but it's not like in the real world I'm gonna have a big oaf pushing me around every time I have to perform a difficult scene." The point being: what does she need to learn to be able do it herself rather than being driven there by someone else? Achieving hysteria is easier when your teacher has just slapped you in the face. Sure. There is value in knowing how to deal with a maniac every day, or how to tell the difference between a would-be cult leader and a professor. But that's not what acting students are paying to learn.
The question at the heart of Whiplash is whether extreme, abusive methods are worth it if they bring the genius out of a student artist. Fletcher believes they are. He repeatedly refers to the romantic story of Charlie Parker, who, only after having a cymbal thrown at him by Jo Jones, drove himself further than he would have otherwise gone to become the revered "Bird." "I push people beyond what is expected of them. I believe that is an absolute necessity," Fletcher says. "There are no two words in the English language more harmful than Good Job." He deliberately targets his most promising students with his most vicious abuse, believing only that particular crucible will drive them to greatness.
In the final scene of the film, after months of abuse, after a near-permanent break from the art form, Andrew defies Fletcher onstage. He breaks from the performance's planned program and gives a triumphant, star-making performance. As Andrew gets lost in his own drumming, Fletcher goes from outraged to entranced. He approaches his former student slowly, nodding his head in time, effectively dancing with him, rapt. For the first time in their relationship, he hangs back and supports. A fair interpretation of this scene would be that all of the damage Fletcher wrought was worth this one moment, this turning point in Andrew's career, this ultimate earning of his teacher's respect.
But that's not all that's happening.
When Andrew finally triumphs at the end of Whiplash, the experience is between him and his teacher as much as it is between him and his music. While it's beyond satisfying to see him mouth, "Fuck you" to Fletcher as he goes off book, it's a bit of a shame to know that this moment is as much about confronting a charismatic bully as it is about achieving an artistic breakthrough. Andrew’s performance is revelatory, but we're certainly not seeing an adult mastering his craft. It's hard not to wonder what happens next. Where does Andrew go from here, after focusing all of his passion through the lens of a monster?
Let me be clear. I don't believe that pursuing life as an artist should always be easy. It is categorically not so. I understand Andrew's impulses: to focus relentlessly on getting better, even at the cost of other parts of his life, to beat himself up, to shrug off the comfort repeatedly offered by his father (Paul Reiser). It is hard to be an artist of any kind, and you constantly have to make yourself do things that frighten you; it doesn’t help to have a parent hovering with a warm blanket, tempting you to choose a smoother road. That can be as useless as a slap in the face, because it's not helping you learn how to function in the world you've chosen. Discomfort is part of it. Fear is part of it. You have to learn to live with those things. But I know now, over a decade after I let that first teacher scare me out of acting class, that there is a difference between a pursuit being extremely difficult and a teacher making a student's life hell.
The most frightening—and best—acting class of my life was a Meisner class during the School at Steppenwolf, a ten-week, full-time intensive for professional actors.
Like most techniques, Meisner isn't easy to explain quickly, but in short, it teaches actors to take the attention off themselves and put it on their partners, as well as to identify points of strong emotional resonance. The result is more honest, simple, and courageous work.
Of course, like many techniques, Meisner can be bastardized. In the wrong hands, it can be used as a tool to intimidate students and confuse them into viewing acting class as a therapy session, with the teacher serving, as Fletcher does, like an all-powerful bully rather than a guide. (It’s one of the acting methods that my first, “Hamlet is hard” teacher taught, the one she was claiming to teach when she forced a kid to come out of the closet during class.)
At Steppenwolf, our Meisner teacher, Monica Payne, operated with a tireless calm, creating a safe space for giant risks to be taken. Nothing could surprise her. After every exercise, she would jump up and approach the shell-shocked performers as if the work was just beginning. You’ve finished the scene: now let's break it down so you can understand it and move on to your next one. It was never, ever about her. It was not even about the students. It was about the work. It was professional. It was scary as hell. It changed the way I approach art.
People entered Monica's classroom wound just as tightly as they do Fletcher’s rehearsal room in Whiplash. It was just as sacred of a space. None of us was ever able to stomach lunch beforehand. But it wasn't because we were afraid of being degraded, beaten, or manipulated. It was because we had a pact: this work is important, and we are committing to it fully. Those are the sacrifices that are worth making and the fears that are worth facing. Each day, we left determined, not damaged: concerned about our work, not our teacher. Compared to Andrew, we had it easy. When he enters Fletcher's classroom for the first time, he gets a drum thrown at his head and is ridiculed until he cries.
Another scary teacher? Sheldon Patinkin. I mention him by name because he recently passed away, leaving behind a veritable legion of devoted students talking, writing, sharing their love of him with the world, not ready, never ready, to let him go. I’d like to put him down on paper. Old as the hills, bent, gruff, blunt, always demanding, almost always exactly right, Sheldon was terrifying—and he was the most tirelessly caring teacher I’ve ever had. Invested in the School at Steppenwolf being as meaningful as possible, he continually probed us to tell him what connections we were making between our different classes, whether the curriculum made sense, whether anything was missing. In one of our first meetings, he told us to remember as we went through the program that we were not blank slates. We were adults, and we brought into the room with us all of our own training, experience, and humanity. It was up to us to decide what was useful and what wasn’t.
This wasn’t coddling. (The very idea of Sheldon Patinkin coddling is difficult to summon.) Sheldon wasn't invoking Fletcher's loathed "Good Job." He was putting the responsibility on us. There won't always be a magical monster to push you. You decide who's crazy and who isn’t. You decide what to use. You decide what the definition of greatness is, and you drive yourself there.
Erika Schmidt is an award-winning writer living in Berkeley, California. She is the 2013 recipient of the Chicago Tribune's Nelson Algren Award for short fiction. A graduate of Northwestern University's Creative Writing and Theatre Programs, she has trained as a writer at StoryStudio Chicago and Narrative Magazine, and as an actor at the School at Steppenwolf.