Saturday 7 March 2015

Whiplash - the good is the enemy of the great?

…or is it the other way round?   I can see what all the fuss is about.  Whiplash (shot in an incredible 19 days) is a mesmerising film about what it takes to be truly great, rather than merely brilliant.   We’re talking Mozart and Charlie Parker rather than Vaughan Williams or Jamie Cullum.   Miles Teller as the young drummer is extraordinary.  You can fake a guitar solo or use camera tricks with the piano, but there appears to be little trickery here, just blood, sweat, tears and a lot of drum solos.   Teller comes from a musical family and owns a drum kit.  He’s probably a ‘good’ drummer, and of course through the magic of cinema we believe him to be a great one.

The real core of the film is the performance of J K Simmons as the scariest teacher on the planet.  A friend of mine studied the Japanese flute under a Japanese master, and each time he made a mistake was beaten with a stick.  A Mary Poppins compared with Simmons who uses anger, violence and humiliation to push his students to (and sometimes over) the edge.  As he says, the two worst words in America are ‘good job’.  Ironically, Simmons was something of a Mary Poppins on set.   Actors eh!

Simmons’ methods reminded me so much of my old grammar school headmaster, who didn’t actually throw things but was a master of fear and humiliation.  I suppose I’m grateful in a way that he gave me a valuable lesson in how not to teach.  My own efforts in education didn’t create a Charlie Parker, but did produce lots of people capable of a doing a ‘good job’.  And unlike Charlie Parker they didn’t die of a heroin overdose at 34.

So, film A +,  teaching methods C -.  And as Confucius said ‘Better a diamond with a flaw than a pebble without’.

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