The 'Whiplash' Effect and the Tortured Artist
In the movie 'Whiplash' a young, promising jazz drummer gets into a prestigious music
school and then proceeds to struggle to get into an elite band lead by an abusive conductor. That, as they say, is the 'log-line' of the film. Nothing controversial on the surface. You may have thought upon hearing about it, 'Well...I don't know much about jazz" or the like and put it in your 'watch list' for HBO or Netflix. As time has wore on, I've been hearing more and more polarized opinions about the piece and what it says about us as artists and professionals.
To somewhat spoil the plot aspect of the movie, the drummer (played by Miles Teller) gets selected to the orchestra after campaigning repeatedly through practice and competition. Once there the band leader (JK Simmons) begins a psychological and physical abuse regimen in the guise of pushing the artist to his maximum potential. So much so the boy is seemingly destroyed by the sadistic manipulation but then rises above until his hands are practically falling off. The divided opinions on the message of the film seem like the artists rendition of 'Does torture work?'
One of the best answers to this question can be found in Sidney Lumet's book, 'Making Movies.' A sort of must-read tome for any aspiring cinema artist. In the chapter aptly titled 'Actors' he goes into a story about directing the film 'That Kind of Woman'. In a specific scene he felt he needed tears in a take to get the desired effect on-screen. The actress just wasn't getting there. So, before the next take he told her no matter what happens to keep going and say her line. After calling 'action!' he hauled off and slapped her.
It worked. She burst into tears and fought through her lines until he called 'cut, print!' Then she rushed up to him with hugs and kisses heralding his brilliance. Lumet recalled feeling sick with self-loathing and resolved, "I will never do anything like that again."
"If we can't get it through craftsmanship, to hell with it."
If you can't tell already, I'm with Sid on this.
Now contrast this scenario with another Lumet movie, 'Dog Day Afternoon'. In a scene where Al Pacino, playing Sonny, close to the end of a grueling botched bank heist has to make two important phone calls. One to his wife and the other to his male lover. Sonny is at the end of his rope and Lumet needed to feel that through the lens. Therefore, shooting on film, he decided to coordinate two cameras simultaneously so that when one rolled out the other kicked in to keep the filming seamless. Pacino performed both calls in one take. Then, without pause, Lumet had him roll into takes as each camera reloaded over and over. Pacino, hitting a wall, felt he had given his all and was outraged to be prompted forward with no break. But he took his cue to start again and pushed through his mental and emotional exhaustion and then practically collapsed with tears streaming down his face.
Notice the stark contrast in approaches. The first is an abusive short-cut and the second is demanding more from the artist than they thought they could give. The line between the two approaches is often muddied or brazenly trampled upon. Yet there is a definitive difference between proverbially "pushing" an artist and actually pushing the artist. If a director feels he/ she needs to resort to sadistic tendencies to get the desired effect from an actor then one has to wonder what they were doing in the casting session in the first place? Is the set designed to be the 'Pit of Despair' from Princess Bride and the director Count Rugan taking notes for posterity as Wesley sobs?
Beyond the moral considerations that 'Whiplash' presents in its portrayal of abuse as teaching tool is the question of its actual practicality. I have been on both sides of these contrasting approaches and what I have noticed often is that the take we all thought would be the winner actually never made it to screen. You see, in the moment of a shooting day that is generally long and often dull there is a contrived desire for the big moment. The actor feels it, the director needs it and the crew wants to go home.
In one instance, my character caught cheating on his girlfriend was pleading for forgiveness and was losing the battle. In a heated moment she throws a picture frame at me to stop my attempts at redemption. After a few good takes the actress was told not to throw the frame at me on my close-up. We rolled again but this time the director, out of my sight-line, threw the frame and hit me clean in the mouth busting my lip open. I knew instantly why it was done, stayed in the scene but mostly what came forth was vitriol and anger. It was a cheap trick and, sure, I was feeling something but it certainly wasn't appropriate for the scene. Not only did the take not make the cut but my cut was seen in footage throughout the day ruining continuity.
Contrast that to when I was a guest star on a legal series as a man who finds his wife's dead body on the day of their wedding. In the scene he learns not only was she sexually abused but that she was pregnant at the time. Whoa. So the emotional volume is way up in my analysis of what that scene needs. My anxiety was tuned to the call sheet in anticipation and when the day came I found myself getting tight. Seated in the scene, surrounded by actors and crew all knowing we needed the moment, I found myself numb and the words were dead to me. Take 1, take 2...I was just playing the scene as written with a reasonable performance but it didn't have that tangible reality that true honesty has and changes your blood. We didn't have all day, I knew, and I didn't want anything thrown at my head.
Stopping the gyrating machine of production briefly I walked out of the scene and up to the director. A nice man who was a pro he simply asked what I needed. I said, "Honestly, just a little patience. I have dead, pregnant and raped wife going through me and it's locking me up cause I feel like I have to nail this. If I know we can take a few in a row and let me fail a bit it'll come. I know me." Surprised by my candor, he agreed. We rolled again and it all came out in the next take. It was ugly, snotty despair and confusion and we rolled into a second one just cause we said we would. Guess what? The juicy, emotional take we all high-fived about didn't make the episode. It was too much. It didn't scan the arc of the episode where we needed that moment closer to the end. So, yes, I had to do another scene like that later but we had already formed a trust and a bond on how to get there and that scene worked too.
The objective lesson here isn't that stories don't need big moments. They do and it's our job to be ready for them. It's to demonstrate that abuse is a bad short-cut with often failed results that deteriorate or shatter the artists trust with their director or coach (also that our own self-torture can be more satisfying internally than it is to a story). Many, if not all, professional actors are willing to do what it takes to get where they need to go. Every one of us has a button and it's our job to discover the ones that work for not only us but the character. If we lose our way in the lights and chaos of a set we may find our directors looking for them for us. But that way is more often revealed with a nudge than a sledgehammer. As a coach or teacher it is a sure-fire way to damage the student long-term for they will cease to discover for themselves and come to depend on "shock and awe" to awaken them.
Great art costs us something. There's no way around that. But the opponent is within ourselves. When the coach or director decides that abuse is what is required then they
leave our side as an ally in that battle and take up a side against us. In 'Whiplash' the maniacal instructor sees himself as the necessary torture device to bring out the excellence in his student. But the second he stops challenging the student to go further and break through his limits and threatens him directly he becomes the obstacle to his journey. He becomes the metaphorical monster on the hero's journey. I loved 'Whiplash', it's an excellent movie that is less interested in advocacy of abuse and more into investigation of what makes great art and what you are prepared to sacrifice for it. But if one's take-away is that to challenge the artist to greatness you must first break them mentally, physically and emotionally then count me out.
Because, "if we can't get it through craftsmanship, to hell with it."